Frothing Urbanisms

Discussing Some Urban Conditions in Contemporary India

Rupali Gupte, Rahul Mehrotra and Prasad Shetty, October 2007

Urban Landscapes in India are today emerging as a set of disparate conditions spreading across the country irrespective of city boundaries. These conditions, which form the basis of Contemporary Indian Urbanism, seem like numerous bubbles frothing in new emergent patterns, transcending conventional notions of city and metropolitan areas. They are emerging all over the country – within the city, outside it, in the countryside, in deserts, deltas, forests, hills, and every other unforeseeable location. They appear in various scales, intensities and forms – as large road and rehabilitation projects, as temporary spaces formed during their construction, as residues created by those resisting the development process, as large townships and special economic zones, as large and small mall spaces packed with aspirations and desires, as small farmhouses outside city limits, or as smaller enterprises within miniscule houses in a slum. These convoluted formations, rearrangements and erasures form bizarre new patterns of work, living and leisure create even more bizarre metropolitan psychologies. They operate with multiple logics involving large number of actors in complex arrangements – for example it is now easy to find traditionally rival groups like government agencies and NGOs concerned with the urban poor working in partnership with each other. Trying to grasp the emergent urbanism in contemporary India is like trying to grasp the froth, which slides between the fingers as you tighten your fist around it.

The metaphor of “froth” is useful and seems apt to discuss the architecture of this Urbanism. The overall form of the froth is deceptive – it changes constantly without any seemingly predictable pattern. The macro view of this froth makes evident its dynamic nature. While this view is capable of discussing geographical and territorial issues, it remains inadequate to discuss any thing else. Theoretical attempts to force a structured pattern into this form of urbanism ends up in formulating conspiracies of global capital and squabbles over grand plots of globalisation, new imperialism etc.

On the other hand, a fine-grained scrutiny reveals that the froth is composed of smaller cellular bubbles, which become the very basis for the formulation and existence of the froth! While each bubble has its own system and reality – it also shares common walls with other bubbles indicating an overall correlation – changes in any of the bubbles affects other bubbles. The bubbles simultaneously have autonomy as well as behave in a collective manner. For example if we look at a condition of a shopping mall – which could be considered as an autonomous bubble – it is able to manufacture its own reality of high consumption, which brings with it multiple aspirations, desires, freedoms and identity formations not only for consumers directly but often also for passive observers in different ways as borrowed pleasures. Simultaneously the mall causes innumerable changes around it: gentrification of land, changes in real estate values, changes in economic networks etc.

Thousands of bubbles burst and thousands get created every moment in the fizz of froth. This bizarre bursting and creation of new bubbles creates absurd momentary realities sometimes seemingly unconnected. Their life spans are so short that it is impossible to step back and examine them. Newer realities emerge with increasing frequency.

The metaphor of froth helps bring about the complexities and messiness of this urbanism, which have many shades and many contradictions – where formal agencies use highly informal methods, farmers make large profits, experts become agents, state uses informal tactics, civil society organisations segregate communities, rival groups form newer coalitions, the rich fight corruption, religious organisations start health movements, public spaces become private and private spaces become public, NGOs join hands with the government and the world bank, and communities are not innocent. The metaphor of froth also illustrates the dynamic character of the urbanism, its formlessness, its intensities, its absurdities and its ability to create several realities, which inflict an overdose of stimulus on urban dwellers, putting them in a constant state of awe, insecurity and anxiety.

Singular ways of seeing the froth fall short because of the complexities in its structure – the frothing urban realities cannot be seen through a macro view because of its distance; and is only perceived partially with fine-grained scrutiny because of the rapidity of the change. Perhaps multiple ways need to be employed to see this urbanism, which would produce multiple perspectives – all valid.

Bubbles of Glitz and Desire

Most prominent in the urban froth are the bubbles of glitz and desire – formed out of wealth of extraordinary proportions.  They seem to be appearing in unprecedented scales and speeds, spreading across the city – in places of old industries, over older neighbourhoods, over protected environmental zones, over slums; and outside the city – on untouched farmlands, on reserved forest zones, on barren lands, over old villages and all other kinds of hinterlands. We refer here to the malls, call centres, gated townships, special economic zones, international schools and hospitals, service apartments, farm houses etc. that allude to new urban desires through their glitz. Discussions on these bubbles undertake a critique that views them as a function of high consumption and volatile global capital. Concepts like “Privatopias” (creation of gated elite communities or private utopias) have become the benchmark representations of these bubbles. In India, the changes in the structure and nature of the economy of the city since the adoption of liberalised policies in the early 90s have been the trigger for the development of these landscapes.

While planning cities in the past, the state took the initiative and ideas of equity and master planning were the primary drivers of the decision making process. Today with the public sector virtually having devolved its responsibilities to private enterprise, ideas of efficiency and quality services are the prevalent drivers in city planning process. The former agenda of the state of creating equal opportunities and services seem to have shifted towards responding to a new class of professionals who demand high services and are ready to pay for it. The instances of utopias sought in Gurgaon and Ambi-Valley with high end luxury services through Public Private Partnerships, or the cleanliness drive of Bangalore through action plans, and the case of e-governance in Hyderabad all respond to the aspirations of this new breed of young professionals who live through easy loans as against their earlier counterparts who were dependent on provident funds and saving schemes to invest in their physical habitat. Clearly the unit of concern has shifted from the urban poor to the young urban professional. Architecture is seen as a market product luring the voracious aspirations of the new middle class that has emerged after the liberalisation and globalisation of the economy.

This liberal economy has also seen another flow manifest itself on the physical landscape – the imagination that the super rich and Indian Diaspora. Government polices since the 1990s aimed at luring the superrich and the Diaspora – these included allowing foreign direct investments in real estate and building of large townships outside cities. This spurred building of townships offering luxury lifestyles. Equipped with the most expensive facilities these have been advertised as examples for good living. The development of the Sea Woods NRI Complex in New Bombay and Sahara Ambi Valley Township are perhaps the best examples to describe these developments. While these are elaborately advertised all over the world, entry to them is highly restricted for any average Indian as they are well guarded with the most advanced security and surveillance systems. Ironically this flow brings with it conservatism unlike the young professional. Here along with high-end consumer lifestyles with flashy aluminium / glass clad shopping malls and multiplexes, this imagination is submerged in a variety of traditional Indian superstitions and beliefs. Grand film-star weddings, which meticulously observe Indian rituals; matrimonial advertisements that seek brides with ‘family values’; and super luxurious penthouses built using the wisdom of the ancient Vastu Shastra are common occurrences. An increasing demand for such ancient techniques of in the designing of buildings and interiors is a clear indication towards the resurfacing of the ancient. In fact, the resurfacing of the past is a growing phenomenon with buildings being built by practitioners, who claim ability to decipher ancient texts and scriptures. Besides religion-driven fundamentalism, the quest for greater economic mobility has triggered an enormous interest in ancient treatise with the industrialist and business community in India seeking refuge in the security of ancient props – where pre-industrial, even primitive images are confidently labelled as being integral to the regional identity. These trends are clearly symbolic of the collision course religious chauvinism has taken with the integrative mechanisms of globalisation; a situation in which communities are concerned about the threat to their identities as well as their autonomy and freedom to dissent.

The New Crusaders

In contrast to the activists’ groups of the 70s and 80s, which fought for the rights of the labour and the urban poor, the new civil society groups are groups of professionals, resident communities, industrialists and retired bureaucrats fiercely advocating environmental protection and good governance. Today, when one interacts with an NGO, it is not clear whether this body is an NGO, or the Government, or a corporate, or an academy, or the International Development Agency – there seems to be a grand coalition that is slowly emerging amongst the organisations of the civil society. This new organisation today works exactly like a private agency – bids for projects, hires professionals with corporate salaries, delivers products and talks the development language – and does all this with the declared intention of public good. Along with this new avatar of the NGO, there are numerous new organisations that are established everyday. They specialise in physically upgrading neighbourhoods that often results in the displacement of the poor; gating public spaces; filing Public Interest Litigations against hawker encroachments, destruction of mangroves, destruction of chimneys in the old industrial lands, etc. Civil society seems to have found watchdogs in the militancy of these new organisations. Their pressures have been so effective that the government has nominated such groups as consultants for several projects in the city. They seem to have come from nowhere – not stakeholders, not elected representatives, nor experts on matters: but their efforts are focused sharply on public good!

A newly developed consciousness for the environment among this emergent form of civil society organizations has created reductionist positions such as fighting for the rights of leopards (that exist in the national parks now surrounded and encroached on by the city) or saving mangroves. It is increasingly clear that the consciousness for eco-living is leveraged from concepts of cleanliness, good living, a crime-free environment, healthy food etc. that are primarily marketing techniques of the global economy and are powerful processes that result in urban inequity and resource appropriations. The case of 3 villages of Vajreshwari, Akloli and Ganeshpuri on the outskirts of Mumbai, which are famous for the hot water springs and ancient temples illustrate this shift. Recent allegations by temple trusts in the area suggest that uneducated villagers trying to take advantage of the rising number of tourists, were hampering the sensitive environment around. The government took note and started making efforts to protect the environment. While the area has undergone immense change over several centuries, it is only now that the consciousness of environment seems to surface. This consciousness seems to be propelled by the powerful temple trusts that see the development of the place into a spirituality centre with luxurious tourism products like nature parks, meditation centres, hot spring spas, etc. This is in sharp contrast to the notion of a traditional pilgrim place with busy streets, occasional fairs and a sense of temporality that allows the space to adapt and readapt the dynamic nature of worship in these traditions.

The consciousness of governance has produced several middle class movements and have manifested in drives that flatten the complexities in the way the city is inhabited. The cleanliness drives invariably displace people who are hidden in the ambiguity of the messy urban conditions The aggressive intolerance of the informal/illegal/ambiguous in this consciousness is best presented in films like ‘Aniyan’, where intolerance of messy urban systems leads to a crusader carrying out a movement to clean up the system or in ‘Sivaji’, where an NRI (Non Resident Indian) entrepreneur fights corruption in the government and sets up an alternative system of service delivery. Such processes of sanitization would become a determining factor in the aesthetics of the city. They could potentially heighten the polarized adjacencies that already exist in most urban centres thus perhaps visually and metaphorically fracturing them to an even greater extent.

But the activities of the new civil society groups are not without contradictions. Recently in Juhu a public park was taken over by an elite foundation for maintenance, which took measures for a proper, legal and disciplined use of the garden. But just outside the gate of the park, a hawker set up his shop selling exotic soups, juices and salads. This tactical measure to shift from selling popular junk food towards selling healthy food made him perfectly acceptable amongst the otherwise intolerant, legitimacy-seeking, health conscious people who came to the park.

The Interstitial Urbanism

In Mumbai itself, 60% of the population does not have access to formal housing. They live in the interstitial spaces – road edges, drainage channels, railway edges, on no development zones, and along pavements. New means of negotiating everyday life are innovated – people live in pipes, under plastic sheets or in houses with walls made of empty drums. Their workplaces could be under staircases, in cabinets, over public toilets; and entire production units could be in slums generally in ‘environmentally sensitive’ zones. The Darukhana, a ship breaking yard in the Bombay’s eastern waterfront, houses a large informal economy that feeds off ship breaking, an activity deemed hazardous both environmentally and for human engagement. Workers, with a great threat to their own lives, engage in dismantling old ships. The parts of the ship obtained through this process are then sold in a large marketplace adjacent to this yard, thus meeting the city’s requirements of tools and scrap metal.

Leisure for this largely migrant group that works in the interstitials could take place in the city’s multitudinous dance bars, brothels or class B movie theatres or video parlours. Its shopping needs are met by roadside hawkers that sell cheap commodities (often imported from China), inexpensive but delicious food, garments (often dexterously copied from the world’s most renowned and expensive brands) or pirated music CDs.

But the interstitial operators cannot be understood as synonymous with the poor. There are entrepreneurs who earn substantially by running small enterprises. These often perform more than one function e.g. a pan (beetle leaf) shop often doubles as a front office for informal saving systems or even real estate agencies. There also are, Cable-TV operators, who work from slums to tap international transitions as well as broadcast films that are otherwise banned by the moral judiciary. Moreover, a whole lot of other entrepreneurs like jewellers, food manufacturers, readymade garment makers, embroidery makers, courier services etc use the interstitials to decrease that marginal cost which allows them to compete better. Leaders of the minority communities in the city also talks about how often interstitial living provides security to otherwise threatened communities. They argue that even rich Muslim families prefer to live in the mess of the slum and dilapidated buildings rather than shifting to clean and sound environments only because of the safety that is provided in a Muslim slum – the interstitial ghetto!

Mind Space

In Malad, a northern suburb of Mumbai, a mega township came up recently. This place formed the outskirts of the city until the mid 80s and was characterised by large agricultural lands with a creek along the western side. In the City Development Plan, the land along the creek, a sort of no mans land, was reserved for a garbage dump yard. In early 1999, the garbage dumping activity was stopped as residents of a housing colony built in the 1970s at the periphery of this land had filed pubic interest litigation over the fowl smell of the dump yard. Later that year, the whole edge of the creek was cordoned off and a hoarding came up along the fence stating ‘Mind Space’. The ambiguity of the advertisement spurred a series of speculations. No one knew what Mind Space was. Slowly clues about it started appearing on some more hoardings – it was a township being developed by one of the biggest developers in the country. Soon, outside the cordoned-off space, agricultural fields were hurriedly bought by small developers who mobilised money from large networks of investors, real-estate agents and the mafia. The price of land hit the roof overnight. For the farming communities it was an opportunity to strike gold. Most of these agricultural lands started getting developed as housing colonies. A year later, one of the fenced sections along an arterial road was opened – the smelly edge of the garbage dumping ground was now a brand new mall with three super stores, several small boutiques and a five-theatre multiplex. Just behind the mall was a call centre. As soon as the fence opened, real estate values all around the area spiralled further. People responded to this with confusion – some sold their houses and retired to another quieter town after sending their children to study abroad, some started bargaining with developers to raise the value of their properties and others took loans to buy property in other areas with lower prices with an expectation that there will be an appreciation later.

In retrospect the strategy in Mind Space has become evident. The first sets of advertisements were put up to bring about anxiety amongst potential investors. Once this was done the real estate consultants took over. Rumours were floated in high society parties about large amounts of real estate already being sold. The speculative environment created a large demand for real estate in the project –most of the real estate was either sold or leased even before the foundation was laid. All was not left to speculation – detailed plan was successfully executed over 20 years. The developers had started assembling powers of attorney for the land holdings from private owners since the development plan was made. In the development plan two arterial roads were proposed that would connect the place with the rest of the city and the airport. Further more, what emerged was that the developers themselves had formed the residents association of the housing colony to file the Public Interest Litigation about the foul smell. The Mind Space illustrates a complete inversion of the notion that it is the poor, who use tactical means to inhabit space in the city.

Over the past 7 years, some more sections of the fenced area were opened – there were new call centres, a new shopping mall, large number of residential complexes, wide roads, clubs, gardens etc. A small part of the garbage hill was kept intact and a garden was developed over it. The whole area is under surveillance of private security guards and cameras. The space around the Mind Space complex has also changed. Predominantly developed as residential complexes, these places also have absurd combinations of enterprises – interior designers combined with stock-brokering agents, travel agent with courier and security services, money transferring agencies with an employment bureau or a contract-labour agency, etc. There are also street level informal enterprises, providing cheap food for people who cannot afford food in the malls. In many ways they become a public private-space – hoards of people visit the malls everyday and the mall promises ‘a million experiences’. These have become performative sites where people live their aspirations by just floating around in these spaces. These become sites of borrowed pleasures for those who cannot buy the goodies they sell. These performative acts sometimes help to muddle class structures so firmly etched out by abilities of people to have and not.

Mega Projects

The Mega Projects are born out of a reform-based perspective that views inadequate infrastructure as the largest impediment to the economic growth. India’s largest current Mega project is its National Highways Development project, covering an area of 13,146 km across the country and thereby producing several types of urban conditions along it – largely in the form of the Special Economic Zones. Similarly various states have embarked on Mega Infrastructure drives. A number of cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore are improving their transportation infrastructures. Different models of financing and maintaining are experimented with. There is a National Urban Renewal Mission that provides large-scale finance for such mega projects. Cites are expected to compete on the basis of their reforms implemented to access such finances. Foreign Direct Investment is now permitted in townships, housing, industrial parks, hotels and tourism, infrastructure development, hospitals, resorts, commercial premises, educational institutions, recreational facilities and Special Economic Zones.

While the government usually uses its bulldozer Land-Acquisition Act (which allows the government to acquire any privately owned land with meagre compensation and without negotiation) to get lands for these mega projects, there are also instances of such powers being used to acquire lands for private companies to develop Special Economic Zones. Such instances have however reduced after the infamous Nandigram Crises in West Bengal where a Communist Government faced a violent uprising against its attempts at acquiring lands for setting up special economic zones. However, now we see newer tactics being used by private companies to get lands where use of muscle and money power is at its peak. On the other hand, some farmers have also sensed an opportunity for a good bargain.

Landscapes of Rehabilitations

The Landscapes of rehabilitation typically encompass two groups – slum dwellers and the people displaced by mega projects. High land prices become the raison d’etre of these projects. Here, private developers are encouraged to build houses for the poor on the slum site in return for additional incentive development rights, which can be utilised on the same site or sold in the free market. As land remains scarce, regulations on open-spaces, setbacks, fire protection, etc are relaxed for these sites to maximise the development potential of the land. A slum redevelopment site generally has a rehabilitation building where every care is taken to reduce the costs of construction and maximise the potential of land by packing the 20m2 houses of slum dwellers in very high densities. Next to such rehabilitation buildings raise the buildings that are developed for selling real estate in the open market – the results of the incentive development rights. These buildings stand in complete contrast to the rehabilitation buildings with elaborate services and generous finishes. There are however several dimensions to such rehabilitation. There are instances were slum communities have formed groups and undertaken self-development, where they have kept the profits and have also been able to get good houses. In other cases, the slum dwellers have bargained a good value for their dwellings and have voluntarily shifted to other accommodations. There are also small developers who have spent large amounts of borrowed money in bribing the slumlords and government officials and have got stuck because some NGOs started mobilising people against the builder.

At a different scale, the mega projects in the city (flyovers, expansion of rakes for the transportations system etc.) have spawned a series of displacements that require rehabilitation. Intrinsically linked to the mega projects, the rehabilitation projects seem to be the flip side of the same coin! In Mumbai, the government is in the process of constructing more than 50,000 houses (over the past 5 years) to relocate and rehabilitate slum dwellers that are displaced by the mega road projects. Here, private developers are involved in building 20m2 tenements in return of transferable development rights, which could be used in other parts of the city. One finds these rehabilitation sites coming up on the outskirts of the city on lands of low value. The Developers are able to dispose this cheap land by using it for rehabilitation and at the same time claim its rights on other property with high land value. Similar to slum redevelopments, there is also a gross relaxation of bye-laws, making the unliveable conditions of the rehabilitated units perfectly legal – bars of 8 stories building are developed at 3m distances from each other. While light and ventilation conditions remain pathetic, high densities in these buildings are bound to overuse infrastructure resources. The most pressing problem though is the loss of livelihood. While the slums were active sites of entrepreneurship, satisfying multiple needs of livelihood, social well being and shelter due to the prevalence of strong networks, hybrid activities and a mix of classes; the new places are dormitory locations barely satisfying the shelter function. As it was difficult to shift people into such rehabilitation sites, the government appointed NGOs to negotiate with slum dwellers to facilitate the smooth relocations. The NGO today is a transformed agency that serves as the “middleman” for the state’s mega projects that involve large-scale displacement of people. In one instance a slum was shifted out of the national park into a rehabilitation site – here, an unexpected coalition was formed between traditionally rival environmental groups, and an NGO who were brought together by a real estate developer and facilitated by a state policy. Thus the ironic link between the Mega project and the rehab project is extended in the pot pouri composition of the agencies that are involved. This creates an urban condition where the role of the state is finally totally reversed as the passive bystander that is a token in the equation.

Temporary Spectacles

Interestingly in the incredible urban condition of froth – the glue that seem to connect these bits of disparate urbanism are the temporary spectacles that appear and swell as bubbles and pop out of sight. These incredibly momentary spectacles in cities are enacted during its festivals and are celebratory moments; challenge the secular modernist leanings of the disciplines of architecture and planning. For ten days of the calendar year, during festivals like the Ganesh Puja (in Mumbai) or Durga Puja (in Calcultta), colourful pavilions dot the city – transforming it temporarily with overlays of religious symbols and paraphernalia. With different neighbourhoods competing over the grandiosity of their deities – the sizes of deities increasing and their attires getting more innovative from flower studded costumes to expensive silk attires complete with backdrops that depict themes from the nationalist to moral ones meant to educate children. Often these celebrations are accompanied by local singing competitions, theatre and the prayer recitals organised by the street association. On the final day of the respective festivals, with what constitutes a feat in traffic management, the deities are immersed in the sea. Here the spectacle disappears instantaneously! There are no permanent ways of encoding this spectacle for it is an enacted moment that easily slips through the interstitial space in the city’s memory. Similarly, the Muharram procession, a one-day Muslim festival, where men donning black costumes flog themselves, becomes an enactment of trauma and mourning over the killing of prophet Mohammed’s grandson in the public realm. Very often these temporary spectacles also become the loudest voices both auditory and visual through which the contest for urban space and resources is acted out.  Here disparate imaginations play themselves out on the emergent landscape of the city. In these spectacles, class, location, mobility and aspirations are put on hold and a commonalty that transcends the physical becomes the predominant experience. These temporary spectacles perhaps are emerging as the most accurate representations of the dynamic condition of frothing urbanism.