MARCH 2022

Acknowledging traditional Indian urbanism as the solution for social exclusion and elite enclave urbanism

Sadaf is a student of urban design with a background in architecture studies and profession. His orientation towards urban studies comes from the amazing complexities and innate character of cities, especially Indian cities, and the enthusiastic attitude towards analysing cities’ constantly changing urban fabric. Through neighbourhood level studies in major Indian cities, he has been able to acknowledge the different aspects of Indian urbanism.

Traditionally our Indian cities have been proponents of optimum density, a mix of social groups, community bonds, and economic opportunities for various socio-economic groups. Taking the case of historic city centres in Indian cities it can be explained that socio-economic interdependency has been the flag bearer of social interactions whether we consider individuals within communities or with other communities. This aids in creating a vibrant atmosphere at the heart of the city. The interdependency of different socio-economic groups in our old cores has also helped in creating an array of ethical values which is proclaimed worldwide. Throughout the ages, this set of ethics has generated urban spaces which are socially and economically inclusive and allow people from different ethical backgrounds to come together and create a lively atmosphere. At the same time, we must understand the fact that the typology of in-migration into our old cities was very different from what happens in contemporary Indian cities.

Indian cities in the post-independence era have served as engines of economic growth and have attracted many migrants from different parts of the country. This is a template that could be seen in all the major urban centres globally as the focus on economic growth has been of prime importance, neglecting the quality of life most of the time. We can understand this by considering the economic policies and urban planning practices after independence, which favored large-scale industrial growth in the pre-economic liberalization period and shifted its focus towards the service sector economy in the post-liberalization period. Most of our cities in their present form lack any sort of guided urban planning policies as the focus mostly has been on creating a conducive atmosphere for large-scale businesses and investments. Urban planning has followed suit in the development of large-scale infrastructure to attract businesses with a lesser focus on creating a livable built environment. The focus on economic growth at the macro scale has resulted in huge disparities in terms of socio-economic inequality. This can be understood through the large-scale funding and investment in the creation of Special Economic Zones (SEZ) which provide relentless opportunities for big businesses with land allocation at minimal prices. While the poor suffered to even meet their basic requirements of food, shelter, and livelihood. Being considered only as service providers, the urban poor have little scope for their aspirations.

The big businesses have boosted the macroeconomy and created a burgeoning class of middle and higher-income people while creating a group of service providers for the affluent class. This group of service providers bears the brunt of socio-economic inequality which in turn creates spatial inequality by creating elite enclaves while pushing the underprivileged to the fringes. The urban poor has been forced to live on the urban fringes of the cities with little to no infrastructure and deplorable living conditions. These areas paint an ugly picture of not only our cities and planning approaches but also present a critique of our contemporary society in general. This is in stark contrast to the kind of ethos prevalent in our old cities like Shahjahan Abad and Ahmedabad. This ugly picture is what becomes an issue in contemporary urban planning without delving deep into the reasons for the alienation of the urban poor. Lack of development policies for the urban fringes has also been a prominent reason behind these negative spaces.

The change in generational behavior of the aspiring elite class has led to the change in lifestyle patterns and newer areas of consumption and livelihood such as high-end commercial complexes, malls, restaurants, cafes, and amusement parks to name a few. In turn, this creates a situation of gentrification where the poor are excluded not only from being the consumer group but also affecting their livelihoods by excluding them from being the providers as well in some cases. This can be understood by comparing the informal markets which provide equal opportunities for all sellers while the shopping malls where the poor rarely have any role to play, either as producers or consumers. This elitism has created a situation of gentrification of public and semi-public urban spaces. These gentrified spaces also have become a role model for future developments, being a highly profitable and business-friendly module that can be replicated at any prominent urban center.

The authorities have been reluctant to focus on improving the lifestyle conditions and infrastructure for the user groups in the fringes, whereby an attempt has often been made to sanitize the areas occupied by these fringe settlements by various methods such as channelizing the riverbeds, opening the spaces for large businesses or complete privatization of suburban lands available at very cheap rates. To complete these projects, the authorities have often sought to displace the native and migrated population. This neo-liberal spatial policy is bound to create gentrified spaces that are in complete contrast to our age-old tradition of vibrant city culture and space utilization. Development being the common agenda should not only be meant to create elite enclaves but also to provide social, economic, and spatial equity in terms of designing spaces that are freely accessible and inclusive to all socio-economic groups. Our traditional urban cores have been the epitomes of culture, economy, and social inclusivity. So, the solution to these gentrified spaces lies in having a look behind and understanding our indigenous urbanism which helped our cities prosper throughout centuries without compromising with social inclusivity despite having the presence of different economic groups from different ethnical backgrounds.

In a hope to revive the social ethos and make our cities more livable, we can take some cues from the spatial structure of our traditional Indian cities. Spaces such as the tea stall, the barber shop, the local public square, the local fair (mela) provided equal opportunities to a variety of socio-economic groups despite the presence of social divisions, something which a mall, multiplex, or a café could never achieve. These spaces define traditional Indian urbanism and act as microcosms. These microcosmic spaces could be used as reference points for our contemporary cities as well. We can design spaces that combine the aspirations of the people as well as provide opportunities for those restricted to the fringes. A hybrid of needs and aspirations amalgamated into the firewood of culture is what new India requires. A place where all can enjoy themselves without being socially or economically superior.

The potential of these spaces to be comprehensibly inclusive could prove to be the beginning of new age public spaces in contemporary Indian neighborhoods. This could mark a new era in neighborhood planning in Indian cities, something which has been ignored continuously in almost all the master plans till date. The approach towards inclusive spaces could not only ensure active participation of all social groups of different ethnicities, ages, gender, and economic potential but also prove to be a factor in improving the socio-economic resilience at the neighborhood level. This neighborhood scale resilience is of immediate interest in the urban planning community especially in the aftermath of the global pandemic. The local economy could continue without being affected by global disturbances if we work towards developing this inclusive neighborhood planning. This is something that can never be achieved by elite enclave urbanism as the focus will always remain on macro-economic growth and harnessing the market potential. We must realize the fact that a socially exclusive economic setup could only become an administrative burden in the long run, in terms of the amount of resources required to sustain those enclaves. Whereby, our traditional neighborhoods have sustained themselves for centuries by being socially and economically inclusive.

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