A former classmate of mine, a Scottish architect, had made so many trips to India over the last ten years that the last time around I had to ask him what brought him back so regularly. His enthusiasm seemed particularly odd since a couple of years earlier, he — along with a group of Scottish tourists — had been mugged and left stranded in his underclothes on a village road at night in Bihar. Without blinking he said, “India is probably one of the few Third World countries left in the world. Every other place now looks and behaves like America.”
At first I was offended by his remarks, but having known him for his directness, I realised he meant what he said. The truth is that the Third World which once constituted large parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America — has shrunk, and many countries in the Far East, in East Africa and those like Brazil, Chile and Argentina are no different from places in the US and Europe. Singapore’s urban life, its systems of transport, public housing and infrastructure are similar to Jakarta’s, Madrid’s and Bogota’s; public life in Seoul, Shanghai, Canberra and Mexico City is at comparable levels; social life and culture in Rio, New York and Cairo are vibrant and on par; as is the commerce and night life of Hong Kong, Dubai and Tokyo. Other than obvious historic and climatic differences, cities in most parts of the world have settled into a comfort zone of such cosmopolitan similarity that new places no longer baffle. People fly in and out of cities once seen as exotic, inaccessible and altogether strange.
The Indian city, however, remains decidedly Third World, and getting more so. The last few decades of a supposedly liberalised economy has pushed it further into what Donald Trump described as ‘shithole’, by cloistering the affluent in small pockets and allowing the poor to fill all the unoccupied crevices of the city. Delhi’s per-capita GDP rate, for instance, gives no indication of its true demographics. Its 22 million population makes up the highest number of urban poor in the world. People spread like water from a broken drain, living in makeshift places, defying all regulations and planning. Look at the larger public parts of most cities. The wide open green at Delhi’s India Gate today functions as an unselfconscious city maidan for the capital’s poor, a theme park without a theme. When 80% of the city is formed out of migrants from neighbouring states, ceremonial space for government monuments is naturally the first to go. Mumbai’s Marine Drive is similarly a public space without intent, as is Chennai’s Marina Beach. Jaipur’s northern hillocks, once a landscape of green, are covered with tin-shed tenements.
My classmate’s Third World reference was directed at the growing formlessness of the city. Third World had nothing to do with poverty, but a lack of civic control — something that clumps Indian cities with the tribal towns of West Africa. Dusty places like Lagos and Accara have developed through constant migration, their civic life formed out of temporary commerce — daily vegetable markets, cattle fairs, public festivals and informal street life; their urban life is strikingly similar to the increasing migrant reality of Indian cities. More and more, as people move in from surrounding states and rural areas, our towns are becoming small-time artisan centres, with legal and illegal industry, shanty towns and temporary bazaars. The established public culture of museums, theatres and other institutions is rapidly being replaced. Even commerce is more chai shop than coffee shop, more dhaba than bistro.
This may not be an altogether bad thing. A major complaint against New York, Hong Kong and Dubai is that their increasing affluence has excluded the poor and the middle classes, not only in housing infrastructure and public transport, but also day-to-day commerce and social patterns. Unless you are a high wage earner, don’t try buying a coffee, a theatre ticket or a meal in a Manhattan restaurant; the Indians and Pakistanis who man the newspaper kiosks and small stores are quick to return to the Third World tenements in Queens..
In India, wherever you look, the signals are directed towards a future urbanity made up of rural migrants, and a civic life that will become more haphazard and informal. By 2025, migrants are expected to make up almost 90% of India’s big cities. In the long run, this may be good for cities that have too long been based on imaginary European models and middle-class Indian values.
The Indian city will become a recognisable original First World entity only if it gives cohesive structure to its enlarging new majority. Unless migrants have a say in the kinds of places being made for them, Delhi and Mumbai will remain Third World cities, and Trump’s label will become all the more applicable.