What we don't but must talk about our cities

Shiv Visvanathan
Shiv VisvanathanSep 18, 2016 | 12:43

What we don't but must talk about our cities

The French poet and litterateur Charles Baudelaire, one of the great aestheticians of modernity, once observed that the newspaper virtually recreates the landscape of the city.

Subtly put what Baudelaire was emphasising was the intellectual reciprocity between news and the city.

Indian media, however, gives a strange twist to this idea. Our newspapers have a lot of news about the city but rarely is the city itself news.

The city as an idea, a utopia, an imagination, a way of life is hardly a topic for discussion. The only discussions, if one can call it that, are about "smart cities" which amputate the idea of the city into a grid of IT technologies.

As a wag said, "A smart city unfortunately is not an intelligent city. A smart city is a set of gimmicks and gadgets, an intelligent city is a way of life which combines the formal and informal economy."


Often one hears of the crisis of the city. Every rainy season one hears the scandal of blocked drains and yet once the rains are over the scandal of drainage is no longer news. Every season one hears of a new epidemic.

Delhi is rampant with chikungunya but a few months later epidemic and problem are forgotten. It is almost as if the urban imagination mimics the short-term memory of news.

I find this ironic. It is almost as if a Brahminic idea of the city finds pollution difficult to discuss. Any perusal of a Dalit writing would show them how sewage is central to the architecture of the city.

The city becomes a form of life and a way of life. (Photo credit: PTI) 

The city smells and stinks throughout the year and yet the planners still write their antiseptic prose.

This problem was highlighted in a hard-hitting way when I heard the Dalit activist Bezwada Wilson talk about the government's Swachh Bharat programme.

Beginning in a gently acerbic way, Wilson admitted the programme was well-intentioned. He then added sadly that at the end of every Swachh Bharat programme is a septic tank.

A septic tank is a crime against humanity. It is appalling to clean and it is unfair to ask any community to clean it. Yet Dalits are forced to clean it and no one thinks of the conditions under which the city is kept clean.

Wilson dismissed the Swachh Bharat programme contending it was neither an innovation in hygiene nor a project to bring justice. The septic tank mentality runs through most of our city projects.

City planning in India had no sense of the informal economy as a domain of marginal, migrants, waste and rubbish. In fact, city planners do not see waste disposal as a human act. They are blind to scavengers and foragers as citizens of the city.

In fact I wonder if any urban planner can differentiate between filth, waste, garbage, junk and rubbish and groups and communities that deal with each concept.

Oddly, it almost seems as if the very idea of flows is restricted to information flow, while the variety of other critical flows of sewage, water, money and people seems to be ignored.

The manner in which the notion of IT has damaged the organic or even material concept of the city dismisses detailed examination.

Sometimes I wish I could gift every urban planner, a set of copies of the Oxford anthology of Dalit writing.

Literature could open their imagination to subaltern views of the city and also reveal that the city is not an abstract space but a sensorium of smells, tastes, sounds, a community of touch.


Watching the city and the erratic debates around the city, one wishes people who talk of planning would read India's first sociologist and town planner carefully. Our illiteracy about our own past achievements is amazing.

Patrick Geddes was a Scottish biologist who was the first professor of sociology at Bombay University. He wrote about 30 major town plans some major manographs some scraps of thought but each was fascinating.

Geddes emphasising that the one way to understand the city was to walk through it. Walking captures the body time of the city, it creates an ethnographic style where one senses the city as a sensorium.

Walking and the surprises, the encounters that walking brings challenges the mechanical idea of a city. The straight line and the grid are abandoned as linear and mechanical notions of the city.

The city becomes a form of life and a way of life. Geddes was against unnecessary demolitions, an idea our planners don't seem to understand. He advocated an idea of conservative surgery as a therapeutic idea of planning.

One wishes the planners had read Geddes because then the Emergency with its fetish for demolitions may not have been so brutal.


I keep wondering why the city seems to have no sense of the future. Recently, the architect Gautam Bhatia advocated a department of the future to be attached to our government departments.

This is critical and creative because an idea of the future, the demands of the future, and the rights of the future is critical to the idea of a sustainable city.

Our cities as communities have to think a hundred years from now. In fact the reader should try and imagine how a Kolkata, a Mumbai or a Delhi would look five decades from now.

Oddly, no one in India takes the future as a life world, or a worldview seriously.

In fact thinking about the future can no longer be an act of state. Civil society has to participate in it.

This has to be experimental and playful act of citizenship and not be left to idiot architects and the land mafia.

Rather than inanely suppressing the NGO movement, the government has to recognise that it does not have the dreamers to think of a future city. Only the poets of citizenship in a civil society may come up with interesting answers.

Oddly, the absence of the city as news contrasts with insights of literature. In the 20th century literature the city has often been the hero of major stories.

Paris, Berlin, Lahore, New York are literally collective personalities around which a range of storytelling has occurred.

It is time citizens become storytellers of the city. Only then can news of the city be actually city news.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Last updated: September 18, 2016 | 12:43
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