The Evolving Identity of the Indian City - Putting People First

In the race to modernity following independence, the country's planners, architects and engineers made the grievous error of believing that the answer lay outside. They adopted city-building practices from the developed world and ignored the local answers which emerged over centuries

Tanzeel Merchant
Published: 20, May 2013

Follow Tanzeel on twitter: @tanzeelio and via the "+ Follow" option on this page. Tanzeel Merchant relishes complexity. Based in Toronto, Merchant has proven expertise in long-range growth and infrastructure management, strategic planning and implementation, and stakeholder engagement in the private, public, and non-profit sector. Tanzeel is also an architect, urban designer, writer, financial advisor, and flâneur. He was the founding Executive Director of the Ryerson City Building Institute, a multi-disciplinary centre focused on urban issues relevant to city regions globally. Prior to that, he played a key role in working with governments and the energy Industry to plan for a better, more sustainable future in the Athabasca Oil Sands region in Alberta, Canada, home to the world’s third-largest oil reserve. Since 2003, he has also worked on the implementation of Ontario’s award-winning Places to Grow initiatives in Canada's largest province and one of North America's fastest-growing urban regions. Tanzeel has journeyed with his professional, academic and community-building interests through five cities on three continents. He likes that the days in his life have meaning, and no two days are the same.

Women walk past high-rise apartments in DLF Ltd. City in Gurgaon
Women walk past high-rise apartments in DLF Ltd. City in Gurgaon, India (Photo Courtesy: Getty Images)

Over the last decade, some Indian cities have been among the fastest growing in the developing world, but they are also the ones facing great challenges in terms of crumbling infrastructure, lack of access to basic services, and endemic corruption.

Years of indifference and foot-dragging by administrations of all stripes have done little to address these issues. They are worthy of being written about. But in this post, I will focus on the topic of identity – the one defining and associative attribute that a city’s denizens can subscribe to, and own.

Aldo van Eyck, who was a famous architect from the humanist Team Ten movement of the 1960s in Europe, once said, “Space in the image of man is place, and time is occasion.” A city’s residents do not experience their environments through high theories and jargon-filled narratives. Instead, it is about the very basic, tactile urbanity they experience, live in, and encounter every day.

India’s older, more ancient, cities were incredibly successful in developing individual identities. Constrained by geography and technology, limited to local resources and shaped by unique histories and climates, each developed into its own.

For instance, Udaipur grew at the foot of an uneasy compromise between the monarchy represented by the palace at the top of a hill and priesthood some way down its slope. The white surfaces of terraced, stone urbanity were a direct response to heat and topography.

Varanasi [earlier known as Benares], rumoured to be the oldest living city in the world, grew along the simple stream that was its lifeblood. The Brahmanal was covered over time to be the main route to the Ganges and the priestly class. In the city's branding as the sacred abode of Shiva, it was established as a path to heaven, which eventually ensured its protection. Its urban form is rich, complex and layered with successive eras: temples built over houses, built over temples, in houses, over houses, under temples.

Mumbai [earlier Bombay] is yet another example. An amalgamation of seven islands and the seat of India's economic power, the city is home to the largest repository of neo-Gothic and Victorian architecture outside of the United Kingdom, and still supported by the ageing, intricate and rich urban infrastructure built by the British colonisers.

Ask anyone who lives in the old districts of these cities, and they will tell you that they identify with the landmarks; they will have legends and anecdotes to share.

In my undergraduate architectural thesis titled The Open-Endedness of an Indian Urbanity, I posited that a successful urbanity sets the larger framework while allowing its occupants and actors to create their own fine-grained identity within it. Every Indian city needs to recognise its urban form and encourage its residents' unique cultural and societal habits, their visible identities.

The ability to express an individual presence as part of a collective, and a collective as a part of a city, is what makes neighbourhoods and allows people to belong, no matter how large the city might grow to be.

The urban form of a successful place not only echoes its stories, but reinforces and passes them down to successive generations. Done well, it makes a city liveable and worth caring for. Done badly, it kills the very life it seeks to sustain.

Walk through a newer suburb of any Indian city, and you wonder where have you arrived! Densely built flats and walled compounds have encroached roads which are in turn crammed with garbage and traffic. There's a proliferation of such places in modern urban India. They breed indifference and alienation, and very few people residing there have anything of note to describe about their city. Worse still, they don't have anything to take pride in. Where did India go wrong?

In the race to modernity following independence, the country’s planners, architects and engineers made the grievous error of believing that the answer lay outside. They adopted city-building practices from the developed world and ignored the local answers which emerged over centuries. I fear that in the 66 years of purging everything old, there may be nothing left to recover.

Planners and architects permitted and encouraged concrete buildings and discarded local craftsmanship. They brought in grand plans for cities that denied the fine-grained fabric of Indian neighbourhoods. Architects did away with the country’s indigenous aesthetics that respected its climate. Instead, they built Swiss chalet-like roofs with Chinese tiles and added gimmicky vaastu effects. India’s modernity had little to do with its past. A future that is severed from its past is dead on arrival.

India’s civic decision-makers have failed to learn, or even to acknowledge the problems  of Indian urbanity. Instead, they continue to chase practices and solutions from the developed world. There are plenty of reports on how Mumbai can be transformed to Shanghai, and Ghaziabad to Frankfurt.

But there are no innovative, local solutions like the one award-winning engineer Himanshu Parikh came up with in his slum-rehabilitation work in Indore. Cities ask consultants for imported solutions on slum rehabilitation, and build fraud-riddled towers that have destroyed the vital fabric of unique communities like Dharavi. In this rush to dream big, India continues to do it wrong every day.

Without identity, there is little pride; and without pride, there is indifference and disengagement. This lack of civic engagement has a far-reaching socio-economic impact too. The breakdown in law and order, poor health indicators, lack of accountability are some of them. The recent collapse of an illegal building in Thane in Mumbai is symptomatic and typical of India’s new urbanity.

The McKinsey Global Institute forecasts that between 2008 and 2030, over 250 million more Indians will live in cities. That is an increase of almost 75% over the 340 million in 2008. Think of 14 new Mumbais or 30 new Bangalores being built in the next 17 years. The impact will be staggering. Much of this growth will be in India’s smaller and medium-sized cities that will witness the creation of greenfield communities.

If India wishes to continue to be a global economic engine and if wants to transform itself from an agrarian economy to a diversified knowledge-based one, the success of its cities will be the key. The act of city-building is one that spans many generations, not just a few political cycles.

Investing time and thought to engage residents in developing home-grown, environmentally, socially and economically responsive models for urbanity, and encouraging them to implement those models, will create sustainable communities.

Most importantly, this will foster a sense of belonging  in people and nurture a newly-minted generation of urban Indians who will pride themselves in their civic identities.

  • carol borg

    Well said Tanzeel. I feel the same could be said for what's happening in many places in the world. Including right here...

    on Jun 11, 2013
    • Tanzeel Merchant

      Apologies for the belated reply Carol. I missed seeing your comment. Yes, it's true in Toronto too, but we're better off than most places, and we must try and keep it that way. Thanks for leaving the comment.

      on Jul 24, 2013
  • sourav

    excellent article as always, isnt it such a pity .. the state of our so called planned cities. As you rightly pointed out, the people who can make all the difference are the ones who are least bothered about making any changes.

    on May 28, 2013
    • Tanzeel Merchant

      thanks for the comments Sourav.

      on May 31, 2013
  • Zaheer

    Thank you. Look forward to reading more.

    on May 24, 2013
    • Tanzeel Merchant

      Thanks. Looking forward to writing more too.

      on May 27, 2013
  • Nazneen

    Always such a pleasure to read your articles. This one reminded me of a quote by Winston Churchill that I have on my messy fridge. You may ,even ,have seen it. 'we shape our buildings: thereafter they shape us.' 12th sept1960

    on May 23, 2013
    • Tanzeel Merchant

      I'm glad you enjoyed reading it. I hadn't seen it, but those words are so true. The third reich had an edict that required their institutional buildings to be built in stone, so they would decay with grace and continue to have an impact after the regime was over. How ironic!

      on May 27, 2013
  • Ravi Varma

    Very happy to read your article Tanzeel,we may have missed the bus of "organised and well Planned' urbanisation forever.Most of the political class is involved in making mega bucks from trading in urban land.Artificial shortages are created to prop up prices of real estate by instrument of policy.Gracious living and user friendly cities with consumer centric services is something we can on dream about. As a country we should be able to offer rewarding careers to professionals like you,in a emerging Mega city like Pune we have Town planning department which works only once in 10 years to make a development plan which is never acted upon in its original form. But one must keep trying to communicate sense may be one day ---

    on May 21, 2013
    • Tanzeel Merchant

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts here Ravi. Land, its control, and profiting from it have been central to the human condition through history. That isn't about to change. What should though, in a democracy, is the definition and protection of the "public interest", and that isn't happening. If I had a few lives to live, I'd be up for the challenge, but right now my hands are full. Perhaps someday... ;-)

      on May 21, 2013
  • Saif

    Yes the article makes makes sense - but not to Realtors, Builders and Politicians! Well done .

    on May 21, 2013
    • Tanzeel Merchant

      Very true... the ones least inclined to accept change, are usually the ones holding the levers and switches. The challenge is to take back control.

      on May 21, 2013
  • Suresh Mandan

    Yes makes a great reading.The older cities had a history and every street in it had a story behind it. Today the cities lack character. Look at Gandhinagar (Gujarat) or Chandigarh (Haryana /Punjab), the street are known by numericals or alphabets.Therefore all the people living there become nameless. There is no identity.

    on May 21, 2013
    • Tanzeel Merchant

      Thanks for the feedback Suresh. New cities are riddled with Sectors #s. Ideal for an efficient delivery system, but tragically morose to find one's way back home. ;-) "Nameless" is an apt description.

      on May 21, 2013
  • sundeep verma

    Brilliant article! i was having a similar discussion with friend few months back that our modernity in terms of architecture doesnt feel like ours but a borrowed irrationale from outside. There is very little depth, understanding and cultural context in today's urban infrastructure. I personally feel no connection as an Indian with my country's modernity. The worst is that we are not even copying very well and even at some points destroying the original concept as soon as its erected in india.

    on May 21, 2013
    • Tanzeel Merchant

      Thank you for the comment Sundeep. There are few parts of the world that haven't been infected by the urge to pastiche and import. It's one of the early discontents of globalization, well before Dick and Jane started to outsource their call centres. ;-) With the rapid rate of change and growth, it's a daunting prospect to try and reclaim something uniquely local, but it's worth a try.

      on May 21, 2013
  • TD

    Great article - does not share my pessimism and paranoia on the trajectory that all (though about going with "most" but could not think of any exceptions) Indian cities seem to be following but good to know that more people are talking about it. Given your love for tradition, i am curious what you think of Chandigarh as a city and how it has evolved since it first came into being. By the way, William Dalrymple, and I am paraphrasing here, described it as Nehru's soulless creation. Yikes! I personally found it to be very distinct in its character and functional in form.

    on May 20, 2013
    • Tanzeel Merchant

      Thanks for the comment TD. Chandigarh, like Brasilia, was an interesting exploration of planning, at a scale that was unforeseen and a blank slate that few dreamers will ever have. Ironically, their grand scales have been made more intimate and humane by the occupation, subversion and plain, old squatting :-) As an architect I was enthralled by the accomplishment, but fortunately it takes more than architecture to bring life to a place.

      on May 21, 2013
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