A Tale of Two Tickets

Gautam Bhan

It is not enough for us to say that the world-class city idea is elitist, exclusive and caters to the need of a few if we cannot offer other, more just imaginations of material change and progress.

In 2002, the Delhi Metro made a small beginning. The five stations that opened that day have now grown to 142 across six lines. The Metro defied many urban Indian trends: a mega-infrastructure project that was run by a public company, that remained free of even an accusation of corruption, that met almost every deadline and that remains today a model of efficiency, responsiveness and a shared infrastructure. It was built first not in the rich parts of South Delhi but in the peripheries – by the time elite Delhizens rode it, it was already part of everyday life for many (though by no means all) of the city’s working people.

I rode up and down between those first five stations – the pull was too hard to resist. An air-conditioned, hyper-modern, incredibly efficient system that was not, for once, a shopping mall or yet another elite entertainment enclave. It felt like possibility, like aspiration. This was a public system. It worked. It made other larger public infrastructure seem possible. In the next column is the Metro Card that I bought that day. It was a card for a city’s system—a picture of a bus alongside a picture of one of the city’s most famous heritage monuments which themselves are increasingly becoming some of the city’s last free and accessible public spaces. Last week, I bought a new Delhi Metro card. The bus is gone. The metro train still surges forward but this time it is surrounded by shiny glass buildings and a sports stadium that was refurbished for the Commonwealth Games held in Delhi in 2010. The first five stations – each of which marked a workers colony from the 1970s, many built as resettlement sites for central-city slum evictions—seemed erased and distant.

The seduction of the idea of the World-Class city is understandable. In one sense, it strikes at the very heart of an old dream: infrastructure, function, progress, modernity. Delhi-based social scientist Awadhendra Sharan once told me that, as social scientists, we had done fairly well in deconstructing cultural modernity. We had deconstructed the racial hierarchies of colonial imaginations, we had unearthed the subaltern, we had reinvented the idea of tradition. We challenged the idea of cultural evolution and progress just as we spoke of multiple, alternative and new modernities. We stood our ground. What about the material, he asked me? What alternative imaginations of material progress have we given to our fellow city residents? What other aspirational landscapes? What other definitions of infrastructure, of land, of consumption? The world-class city, argued Sharan, was, in part, a vision of the material modernity that we had side-stepped —one whose arguments we had not countered.

Indian cities no longer want to be New York, London and Tokyo – they want to be Dubai, Singapore and Shanghai, three cities built with the firm hand of semi-authoritarian governments and witness to sweeping urban renewal in the recent past.

Indian cities were, in the 1970s and 80s, relatively and oddly egalitarian —infrastructural dysfunction was not the domain of just the poor. Informal settlements stood and grew in a tacit acknowledgment that the poor’s right to the city amidst state failure to provide adequate low-income housing. This is in no way to hide the deep disparities that existed between the rich and the poor. Yet, in Delhi, where the government was and is the largest employer, where housing for the rich and the poor was built by the state on land that was dominantly still publicly owned, where consumer good items were restricted and markers of social differentiation less stark, and where water and power cuts were nearly universal, the material disparities of the city were tempered. What has changed in our cities is that material change is now real—aspiring to it is both possible and encouraged. Infrastructural dysfunction is no longer an option for the city’s growing elite and the nature, geography and intent of governance seem to have shifted accordingly. The Metro now has a new card.

It is this shift for a new material landscape that lies at the heart of the world-class city imagination in the current form it has taken in Indian cities. A shift in the priorities of investment, the unbundling of public systems, the opening up of regulated real estate and property markets and the re-shaping of the city landscape on a new set of values and paradigms of citizenship. This emergent material aspiration comes with a political mandate of impatience. Indian cities no longer want to be New York, London and Tokyo – they want to be Dubai, Singapore and Shanghai, three cities built with the firm hand of semi-authoritarian governments and witness to sweeping urban renewal in the recent past. The world-class city imagination in India is one where the dream of material transformation comes alongside one with that of an efficient state that brushes aside complexity to deliver, democracy notwithstanding.

Does a manifestation of material modernity have to take this form? Here is where the challenge that a world-class city imagination offers to all of us concerned with a more inclusive, just city must be taken up. We need to do the work to re-claim the idea of progress, material transformation and infrastructure from the narrow reading that the “world-class city” imagination gives it. It is not enough for us to say that the world-class city imagination is elitist, exclusive and caters to the need of a few if we cannot offer other imaginations of material change and progress that are more just.

It is here that (its new card aside) the Delhi Metro remains a reminder of a battle not yet lost. The Metro stands for another kind of material aspiration—of infrastructural systems that are able to echo a drive for change away from the infrastructural dysfunction of decades past but that retain some sense of collective, public infrastructure. What would the equivalent of the Metro— ambitious, large-scale, aesthetically modern, future-facing and public—for housing? For the provision of water, electricity and basic environmental services? The Metro’s story in Delhi is now being re-packaged and re-sold—if this occurs successfully, it will no longer signify the possibility of public investment in people-centred infrastructure but instead will become another part of a cityscape rapidly and impatiently trying to shed its skin, and with it, those that do not fit into its new imagination. Do we have it in us to take on this challenge?

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