Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ahmedabad recollections

Since so many people are speaking of Narendra Modi as the best Prime Minister India could have, the latest being Preity Zinta, here's my account of what I experienced of the man's development policies. I travelled to Ahmedabad in March 2007, my first and thus far only visit to the city. The town has over a dozen world class historical monuments, some great modern architecture and a fine museum, but has never made it to India's tourist map because it is noisy, dirty and lacks atmosphere. Gujarat's ban on liquor doesn't help.
Most auto rickshaw men are clueless about major architectural landmarks. Luckily, I ran into a driver named Mohammad who specialises in ferrying around the few heritage-seekers who come to Ahmedabad. He saved me a lot of time, aside from taking me to one or two interesting places that guidebooks don't mention and, at the end of the day, only charged what his meter showed.
Most of Ahmedabad's oldest surviving monuments are delicately-embellished mosques. Many have been in continuous use for half a millennium; they predate the Mughal emperor Akbar's takeover of Gujarat. I expected the people in these mosques to treat me with suspicion. I have encountered such suspicion in places like Bhopal and Banaras, and assumed the onslaught that Muslims in Gujarat faced in 2002 must have made them wary of strangers. To my surprise, I was received warmly everywhere I went, with caretakers going out of their way to point out decorative details I might have missed. One young Maulana, on learning I was a journalist, took me round the mosque under his charge, showing me places where it leaked, other areas where the structure had weakened and needed to be propped up by bamboo sticks. He'd been asking for assistance from the state government since the earthquake of 2001 without any response. He pleaded with me to send letters to the Archaeological Survey (ASI) or any other conservation authority I knew to bring the neglect of the monument to their notice. I promised him I would, but am ashamed to confess I did nothing after returning to Bombay.
On my final evening in Ahmedabad, I rode through an area of the old city called Astodia, to find many of the structures bordering the street were being bulldozed. One old man stood in what had been his living room on the third floor of a building whose entire front had been gouged out. He had probably stayed in that home his whole life. Many of the structures being demolished were clearly over a hundred years old. It was unfathomable why anybody would want to destroy one of the few places in the city with real character. My immediate reaction was that, since most of the residents of Astodia were Muslim, the administration probably didn't care what happened to them. It was one more strike on behalf of Modi's revolution.
Back home, I tried to make sense of what I'd seen by googling the Ahmedabad news. I learned that the city's municipal authorities had decided to widen the main Astodia road in the 1950s. The case went to court and, in 1964, residents got a stay on demolitions. When I visited, the locals had just lost their final appeal, the stay had being vacated, and the municipality had gone to work immediately.
Along that road lie two of the 500 year-old mosques I have spoken of, including the Rani Sipri mosque, a small but exquisite construction in excellent condition. The Ahmedabad municipality planned to take down the compound walls of these places as part of their road-widening plan. Since both were ASI-protected structures, conservationists prevented the vandalism by getting a court order in the nick of time. But they could do nothing about more recent buildings of architectural merit, because the list of Ahmedabad's heritage structures had not been published.
In the months since I witnessed those bulldozers at work, I have spoken to some Modi supporters from Ahmedabad about the destruction. Their defence has been that, a) the widening of the congested arterial road is necessary for Modi's 'Megacity Ahmedabad' plans; b) The residents have been given good alternate accommodation and are happy with the deal; and c) Many Hindu roadside shrines were removed as part of the civic improvement drive, so there is no special targetting of Muslims involved. I have not verified these claims.
The road widening, though is yet to be completed, and just today there's a news item about a Brazilian student of kathak performing in public as a protest against the destruction of Astodia's heritage. So, what is it the Brazilian could see that Modi's acolytes in the municipal corporation could not? The answer lies partly in the time-warp involved in the demolition. It was mooted an astonishing fifty years before it was executed. I've written about the revolution in museum architecture that took place in the twenty years between the design of the new NGMA wing and its construction. It's hardly surprising that ideas of urban planning have also substantially changed between the 1950s and 2009.
The urban planning revolution began even as the Astodia road was first being scrutinised. If one were to mention a single event that kick-started the movement, it would be the publication in 1961 of Jane Jacobs' book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which took on the policies of Robert Moses, the man who transformed New York City. Town planners like Moses believed in making cities more liveable by executing big-ticket public works projects: expressways and bridges, parks and promenades, dams and waterworks, and massive public housing schemes. Whatever came in the way of these efforts was bulldozed without much consideration of value. The new way pioneered by Jacobs rejected this rationlist, top-down approach in favour of decentralisation, preserving and empowering communities, consulting locals rather than depending solely on appointed experts, and working on a small rather than gargantuan scale.
This movement is now seen as a shift from modernist to post-modernist thinking. A modernist would view Astodia as a traffic bottleneck ghetto of mostly impoverished citizens, living in uncomfortably tiny habitations without good public utilities. A post-modernist would see it as a close-knit community dwelling in old structures, some of them finely crafted, practising a lifestyle that had developed organically down generations.
In India now, we are faced with an interesting conflict. NGOs have overwhelmingly adopted the post-modern approach, but administrators preserve the modernist mindset, with one important variation, namely that they rarely accomplish what they set out to do in the proper time frame, thus negating the essential advantage of modernist planning, which is its emphasis on rationality and efficiency. The fact that the Astodia road widening is yet to be completed nearly two years after the demolition drive is a good example of Indian modernist planning.
The modernist and post-modernist viewpoints are so distinct that one side cannot comprehend the other's perspective. As I took that ride through Astodia, for instance, I found it mind-boggling anybody would even consider demolishing that row of antique buildings. I am sure that, conversely, some officers of the municipal corporation were amazed to discover activists fighting to preserve that enclave intact.
Although I thought the razing of buildings in Astodia foolish, I have not bought entirely into the post-modern line of thought. My friend Rahul Srivastava has recently co-written an article about Dharavi which exemplifies what I believe to be the shortcomings of the postmodern-NGO approach to urban planning. More on that in a day or two.


VV said...

Preity Zinta? Crazy! She seems to be talking through her behind in that interview. What was that rant about "illegal migrants"? Is she talking about illegal immigrants from other countries or her own countrymen?

And that Modi rah-rah was pretty unbelivable. "Even Narendra Modi must have realised this and it won't happen again"- awwww, cho chweet that Modi has discovered his humanity!

Anonymous said...

Most indian politicians have no sense of aesthetics. They are mesmerised by the glass and chrome that dot most of SE Asia. Bangalore is a classic example of this. Odd shaped g&c structures loom on streets respecting neither the area nor the heritage it seeks to devour. Contrast that with the loving restoration of Rallis House by TCS.
NGOs have become luddites in this respect. They oppose, litigate and build unreal aspirations for compensation. Not one of them has come up with a win-win plan in any of these redevelopment schemes. Compromises can be made without materially affecting the existing set up but they are rarely willing to be accomodating which then allows the babus to exercise their powers. Prague and much of Europe offers lessons in blending the old and the new cohesively if we werent so fixated on shanghai and singapore.
s anand