Posts Tagged ‘Urban’

What’s Happening in Karachi?

November 16, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

What’s happening in Karachi is obvious for all to see. Why it’s happening is less obvious and, for that reason, the cause of much speculation.

Karachi’s ills are complex in nature and beyond the stage of simple prescriptions. This article looks at only one dimension of the problem: Why and how have conflicts in the city taken an increasingly religious form? For that, it is necessary to look at events that took place many years ago outside the city itself. It is often the case that the present cannot be explained fully without recourse to seemingly unrelated events that occurred in other places in the past. (more…)

Karachi is a Small City

November 15, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

City size is back in fashion as a variable of interest and this time bigness is being viewed as an advantage. This is quite a change from the perspective that prevailed for years when countries, specially developing ones, were decidedly anti-urban and wished to retard migration to prevent cities from increasing in size. Size was seen as a handicap and served as an excuse to explain away the problems of big cities. How should we see Karachi in this new perspective?

Of course, well-managed big cities have been around for a long time – Tokyo, New York and London are obvious examples. But somehow it was felt that such success could not be replicated in developing countries. (more…)

Lahore – What is to be Done?

January 26, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

In two earlier posts I had made the point that there are evidence-based methods to resolve the conflict over the proposed construction of an expressway along the Lahore Canal to reduce traffic congestion. In this post I suggest two specific approaches to achieve this objective.

Before proceeding to the concrete suggestions one should note that the judiciary, having intervened in the controversy, has given both sides time to resolve the dispute through mutual discussions. I feel this approach would prove inconclusive because this is not the kind of market transaction that is conducive to negotiations that are aimed at striking a deal, e.g., an agreement to sacrifice a number of trees that lies somewhere in the middle of the range mentioned by the two sides. (more…)

Lahore – The Wisdom of Jane Jacobs

January 22, 2010

By Anjum Altaf


The proposal to transform the greenbelt along the Lahore canal into an expressway in order to relieve the congestion of traffic has predictably divided citizens into two camps. The environmentalists bemoan the damage to nature while the developmentalists consider it the price for progress. Both sides rely on highly emotive sentiments and there seems no prospect of either convincing the other based on refutable evidence or logical argumentation. This outcome would be understandable in the Age of Faith but seems strikingly bizarre in the Age of Reason.

In the previous post I proposed one way to resolve this dilemma. In this post, I use the work of Jane Jacobs, perhaps the wisest urban scholar of the twentieth century, to further advance an analytical approach to the issue. (more…)

Lahore – A Canal Runs Through It

January 20, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

This is an essay about Lahore but it could be about any city in South Asia because it deals with an issue that is common to them all – traffic congestion. How do we propose to deal with traffic congestion that is growing all the time, what do we hope to achieve, what is the price we are willing to pay, and how do we know what we are doing makes sense?

The controversy in Lahore centers round the fate of a branch of the Bambawala-Ravi-Bedian (BRB) Canal (a 37 mile long waterway built by the Mughals and upgraded by the British in 1861) that runs through the city and is more than a cultural heritage for the citizens. The Lahore Canal is a unique linear park that serves as one of the few public green belts and the only free swimming pool for the majority of the city residents as can be seen in this photo essay. (more…)

Democracy in India – 9: Who Speaks for India?

May 24, 2009

Every five years there is an election in India and we interpret the results to conclude what we think the majority of Indians want. But what happens between two elections? How do we know where the majority of Indians stand on the various issues that crop up between elections?

Let us take an issue like the relationship of India with any of its neighboring countries that might become salient because of some random incident. What determines the policy response of the Indian government to such an incident?

If we are not Indian and are outside India, all we have to go by is the English language media. How representative is this of the voice of the majority of Indians who are rural? (more…)

Ahmedabad: Life in the City

January 18, 2009

What is the problem some might ask – Isn’t Ahmedabad still among the most dynamic cities in India growing economically at double-digit rates?

True enough, but there is something special about Ahmedabad; and the city is also changing in ways that warrant watching by those who are interested in the long term.

One person who has wondered about these changes is Professor Vrajlal Sapovadia who teaches in Ahmedabad and who has studied the impact of communal conflict on the life of the city.

The first fact Professor Sapovadia points out is that there are over 3000 urban locations in India but half the deaths in communal riots have occurred in just 8 cities that account for 18 percent of the India’s urban population and 6 percent of its total population. Of these 8 cities, Ahmedabad is among the main contributors. Given that Ahmedabad is the home of Gandhiji, the apostle of non-violence, this is a bit odd, isn’t it?

The conclusion is that communal conflict is not inherent in just the proximity of two communities. There are some places where, as Professor Sapovadia puts it, ‘sparks’ ignite much more readily into ‘fires’. If that is indeed the case, there is a clear need to study the reasons that abet this ignition more readily in some places than in others. Perhaps some useful lessons can come out of such a study.

The second point that Professor Sapovadia notes is that communal riots are changing the shape or the morphology of Ahmedabad: “The Muslims feel safer in their own ghettos and the same in true for the Hindus. The communal divide became more pronounced after each riot, but major riots of 1969, 1985, 1992 and 2002 made the divide much sharper…. There is a constant migration of Hindus and Muslims into the ghettos making the separation more apparent…. Segregation is not confined to the poor and middle classes. Even the elite areas are ghettoized.”

The effect of the communal conflict is reaching even further down to affect urban architecture: “The construction of houses is done in view of providing protection during communal riots. Therefore clashes along communal lines have been accepted and the people of the two communities are now mainly concerned about protecting themselves…. Often, ghettoization is promoted by the fact that Hindu/Muslim landlords simply refuse to rent out their houses to Muslim/Hindu tenants.”

The third impact on the city is the atmosphere of fear. Professor Sapovadia cites a study in Juhapura, now the largest Muslim settlement in Ahmedabad, where 56 percent of the respondents interviewed had been living in the area for less than 10 years: “This indicates a high level of migration or ghettoization in recent years.” Of the in-migrants, 46 percent had moved in from Hindu-dominated localities and 22 percent from areas with a mixed Hindu-Muslim population. “This clearly implies that fear and insecurity was the most important reason for their shifting of residence from one locality to another.”

This relocation has had a negative impact on the life chances of over 10 percent of the city’s population: “Migration and consequent ghettoization seems to have had a particularly deleterious impact on the economic condition of the [interview] respondents in Ahmedabad. Some 52 percent of the respondents in Ahmedabad said that their conditions had markedly declined after migration.” And this has consequences for future generations because “ghettoization of Muslims appears to have extremely deleterious impact on their overall economic and educational conditions.”

So, is the writing on the wall for all but the blind to see? Because, as Professor Sapovadia remarks on the consequences of segregation, “the lack of joint activities among the two communities has reduced the level of tolerance making Ahmedabad more prone to riots…. A large number of Ahmedabad respondents said that while before their migration they had frequent and fairly cordial relations with non-Muslims, this had markedly declined after migration.”

Professor Sapovadia refers to research by Ashutosh Varshney in suggesting that the antidote to communal disputes is an increase in ‘bridging’ capital (ties between ethnic groups) rather than ‘bonding’ capital (ties within ethnic groups). This is the factor that explains the marked difference in the incidence of communal violence across the various cities in India. But the dynamic that has been underway in Ahmedabad continues to erode the bridging capital in the city sapping the ties that hold people together.

So, what is in store for Ahmedabad? Double-digit growth that blinds the authorities to the changes beneath the surface till one day the city burns itself down in flames?

Given a choice, would you wish to live in a city with rapid economic growth but where sizable groups belonging to various communities live in ghettos in fear? Is it acceptable in the twenty-first century to have citizens of a city subjected to the insecurity and uncertainty of terror? Have we learnt nothing from the history of Europe in the twentieth century?

The paper by Professor Vrajlal Sapovadia (A Critical Study on Relations Between Inter-Communal/ Caste Ghettoism and Urbanization Patterns vis-à-vis Spatial Growth and Equity: A Case Study of Ahmedabad, India) is available here.

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Ahmedabad: The Power of Labeling

January 16, 2009

We turn our attention closer to home and discuss if Ahmedabad is a successful city.

If one looks at the pronouncements of international development agencies there is little to doubt. Ahmedabad is one of the most dynamic cities in India with 5 percent of the national population but 14 percent of its export, an average annual growth rate of 9 percent and industrial growth rate of 15 percent. Every few months there are presentations about the city and visiting delegations extol the multiplication of municipal revenues and the successful launch of municipal bonds. Rating agencies swoon and investors salivate over the prospects.

And yet, within a few miles of the forums where such presentations are made one can also listen to civil rights groups showing photographs and statistics and narrating stories that can churn the stomach and make one sick with despair. One can read announcements from international human rights organizations that can make one lose faith in humanity.

So, is Ahmedabad a successful city?

Clearly, both processes are going on at the same time and one’s verdict would depend on which dimension is given more weight. This, as they say, is a value judgment.

But this also brings us to the power of labeling. The accolades of the international development agencies carry a lot more clout than the protests of civil rights groups and so, to all intents and purposes, Ahmedabad is a successful city. When the leaders of Ahmedabad and India see this global verdict propagated they feel little need to pay attention to that other dimension that is relegated to an inconvenient footnote.

This demonstrates the power of labeling. Imagine that international development agencies were to say that livability conditions would be a factor in lending and rating agencies were to refuse to rate cities with particularly egregious excesses against human rights. What do you think the response of the leaders of a city like Ahmedabad would be if a minimal attainment of human rights became necessary for doing business?

For a concrete example, recall the 1994 plague in Surat, not too far from Ahmedabad.  Because the global tourism industry let its negative ratings of India be made public, there was an immediate response not just by the city and the state but by the national government as well. For a while, Surat was even reputed to have become the cleanest city in India.

Consider also the fact that imposing minimal conditions for doing business is not an impractical or utopian idea. There are industries where consumers have had enough impact to eliminate manufacturing in sweatshops and the use of child labor. And there were instances where college students were able to generate enough awareness of human rights to force global corporations to divest their interests in South Africa under apartheid.

So why does a social plague that repeatedly kills more people in one city than a medical plague in another continue to have no impact? Because the power of labeling that deems Ahmedabad a successful city allows business as usual to continue and because activists have failed to effectively mobilize global attention to their cause.

Rates of economic growth continue to trump fates of human beings.

Does this make sense?

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Singapore: Evidence from Bollywood

January 14, 2009

Picking up on a story in the New York Times we had suggested a counterintuitive hypothesis about Singapore – that despite the fact that it is considered one of the most successful cities in the world it could have a lot of unhappy citizens whose dissatisfactions were going unregistered and failing to affect its approval ratings.

A reader had asked why, if that were the case, the citizens were not protesting and making their voices heard? We had provided a speculative answer applicable to all cities but kept wondering if there was some real evidence we could bring to support our position.

Such evidence is very hard to find and the frustration was mounting till we had a brainwave – when in doubt, turn to Bollywood. Bollywood captures perfectly the mood and spirit of the times and records the major changes that occur along the way. So, if we were looking for the unhappiness of citizens that does not get captured in measures of urban success, we would have a good chance of finding it in the movies.

Aakar Patel has captured this aspect of Bollywood well in his claim that Indians often discover India through the movies. As late as 1964, the year Nehru died, India made movies in which politicians were noble (e.g., Dilip Kumar’s Leader). By the time of Rajiv Gandhi’s election in 1984, Indian’s believed that India could change but the vile politicians who were standing in the way were the villains of Bollywood. By the turn of the century, the economic optimism generated by Manmohan Singh had led the Indian middle class to disengage from both politics and the state – hence Shahrukh Khan and movies like Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Ghum and Kal Ho Na Ho.

So what did we discover in Bollywood about urban life and the feelings of citizens?

Plenty, it turns out. For example there was the story that when Nehru had given a speech in which he had remarked “I am proud of India”, Guru Dutt asked Sahir to work the line into the refrain of a song. This was the result:

yeh kuuchey, yeh niilaam-ghar dilkashii ke
yeh luTTey huuay karvaan zindagii ke
kahaaN haiN, kahaaN hain, muhaafiz khudii ke
jinheN naaz hai Hind par who kahaan haiN?

these streets, these auction houses of pleasure
these looted caravans of life
where are they, the guardians of self hood?
those who are proud of India, where are they?

This taunt was followed by a harsh indictment of the national leadership:

zara mulk ke rahbaron ko bulaao!
yeh kuuchey, yeh galiyaaN, yeh manzar dikhaao!
jinheN naaz hai Hind par unko laao!
jinheN naaz hai Hind par who kahaaN haiN?

go, fetch the leaders of the nation!
show them these streets, these lanes, these sights!
call them, those who are proud of India!
those who are proud of India, where are they?

What was the response to the expressions of these sentiments?

“This mode of filmmaking soon ran into problems. The censor board, now under the control of the Indian government, kicked into gear, reflecting the government’s hyper-sensitivity towards any reference to people’s struggles, particularly in the cause of socialism…. The lyrics of phir subah hogii were considered so radical that two songs from the film were banned for a while.”

One of them was a parody of the famous Iqbal poem saarey jahan se achchhaa Hindostan hamaaraa (our India is better than the rest of the world):

Cheen-o Arab hamaaraa, Hindostan hamaaraa,
rahney ko gahr nahiiN hai, saaraa jahaN hamaaraa!

China and Arabia are ours, so is India
yet we have no home to live in; the whole world is ours!

jitnii bhii bildingeN theeN, seThoN ne baanT lii haiN
fuTpaath Bambaii ke, haiN ashiiyaaN hamaaraa

the wealthy have distributed all the buildings among themselves,
while we are left to take refuge on the footpaths of Bombay.

“These songs reflect a disenchantment of the urban poor with the state. The ban came into effect around the time of the second parliamentary elections and was not repealed till 1966.”

So here we have it: the proclamation of success by the leaders and the elites, the protests of the poor, and the silencing of their voices.

Case closed.

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The material in the text is from the chapter by Ali Mir (Hindi film songs and the progressive aesthetic) in the book Indian Literature and Popular Cinema edited by Heidi RM Pauwels, Routledge, 2008.

Is Singapore a Successful City?

January 8, 2009

What a question? Is there any doubt? Singapore is seen as the poster child of successful urban and economic development.

But it is good to revisit such certainties, if only to reassure oneself that the case continues to hold.

The reason for this particular revisit springs from an article in the New York Times published on January 3, 2009 (Singapore Prepares to Gobble Up its Last Village). Readers should look at the short article which describes how Singapore’s last village (Kampong Buangkok – 28 houses in an area the size of three football fields) is being acquired for high-rise development.

Three statements reflecting three perspectives stand out in the article:

The Government: “We will need to optimize land use, whether it is though reclamation, building upwards or using subterranean space.”

The owner: “If there’s a change, I won’t have my friends any more,” she said, but added: “We must not cling on to things. If the government wants to take the land, they will take it.”

The citizen: In modern Singapore, few neighbors know each other, said Sarimah Cokol, 50, who grew up in Kampong Buangkok and now lives in one of the apartments that people here call pigeonholes. “Open door, close door,” she said in the terse speech of no-nonsense Singapore. “After work, go in. Close door.

These statements provide us the frame for our revisit. What we take away is that the government is focused on optimizing land use, the owner feels helpless against the State, and the citizen is unhappy with the outcome.

So, how do we look at the choices and tradeoffs implicit in this story? First, Singapore is renowned for the efficiency of its land use. But is efficiency everything? Should we forget that we are dealing with human beings in the pursuit of efficiency? Would it be preferable to give up some efficiency for a little bit more happiness? If so, how much?

Could the starting point be wrong? A successful city might not be one with the highest land use efficiency or the highest GDP growth but one with the most satisfied and unafraid citizens. How would we rate Singapore if this became our criterion for urban success?

Let us begin with the owner who is 55 years old. If there is a change, she will not have her friends anymore – she clearly does not wish to sell. Could there be some compromise at the cost of some land use efficiency? Could only part of the village be developed now and the rest after the owner reaches an age when she wishes to move voluntarily or dies? Have we lost the imagination to think in these terms? If so, is that a good thing?

And then look at it from the perspective of the citizens living in what they call pigeonholes. That is not a description of happiness but of resignation – a one-word verdict on the model of development. Should we be listening to these voices? Would they have preferred a slightly less rich Singapore that gave them slightly more room to live?

Suppose, East Asia were to become like the European Union with the choice to live anywhere in the region and suppose there was a rapid transit link between Singapore and Johor Bahru across the strait in Malaysia. How many Singaporeans would prefer to live in Johor Bahru and commute to work in Singapore? Have we tried to elicit that opinion?

This lack of choice, this constrained unhappiness, the feelings of helplessness are not revealed to us by the statistics of GDP per capita that we use to measure success. But these are dimensions we should think about too because, in the end, life is about people. People do not exist to maximize the GDP of cities; cities exist to give people the kind of lives they want for themselves.

If we look at cities through this lens, which cities would you rank as the five most successful cities in the world? Or to make it more concrete, if nothing else in your life changed (you had the same assets, the same education, the same skills), only there was freedom to live in any city of the world, what would be your first five choices in order of preference?

Would these two lists be the same? If not, why not?

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