Book review: No walk in the park

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 An extract from DangleThe utopia of modern planning has been connected with the redistribution and the reconfiguration of land by the state. After the state acquires land for ‘public purposes’, previously existing complex land ownership patterns coalesce into a simplistic but gigantic blank piece of land, the clean slate, on which utopias of modern planning have been historically constructed and are still being repeated in many places through the state policy. Such practices of mapping, that simplifies the measurement and consolidation of land, produces centralized land maps, and sets up uniform property regimes for ownership and taxation, are some of the techniques of the state to achieve legitimacy in governing its territory.

This to me from Suptendu Biswas, architect, urban designer and planning professional is a wellresearched  inquiry into why our cities are unable to deliver services in a socially equitable manner. He poses questions we are used to seeing hurled during panel discussions on TV channels, without the kind of aggression that prevents reasoned debate. Why, for example, do some areas of the city get piped water supply whereas others are perpetually in wait for water tankers? He calls it the politics of service delivery, and draws on the rich literature of writers like Michel Focault who have brought all the force of their intellects to address issues that prevent citizens from being productive.

Some of the solutions are already being mooted by the Delhi government in the form of the Aam Aadmi Party. Could resident welfare associations (RWAs) not take on the task of computing a colony or settlement’s monthly water requirements? Just as self-assessment made property tax easier to pay, cannot this be done for water. Similarly, for determining a household’s needs, could the total floor area be used as a measure? In this, the writer seems unaware of the fact that large numbers of migrant workers, both poor and middle class, are often stuffed together in small living quarters, but need their fair share of water in the bathroom.

Assorted-City

The author points out that the Nehruvian idea of creating cities was to presume a clean slate. Thus Le Corbusier was asked to design Chandigarh and Delhi was handed over to Albert Mayer and the Ford  Foundation team (1962). The planning practices of the ‘utopian grandness’ and the ‘authoritarian determinism’ wiped out the vibrancy and complexities of urban life, as per the author.

However, one cannot blame only central planning in the days of socialism for the urban blight we find ourselves in. The mass media, including satellite TV, alienated the entire population from its immediate environment and had it worrying about matters far removed from its own realities.

The author admits that his work may disappoint those expecting a ground-breaking solution to emerge.
The reader, however, is well aware that technocrats cannot offer solutions when political will is the key determinant of a city’s comfort level. Urging citizens to get involved, as the AAP is always doing, is always problematic in a large city where  neighbours have little in common and settlements consist of non-homogenous groups from all over the country.

One wishes to lob the ball back in the court of urban planners, for this is their full-time job. In   implementing a sane measure, however, the citizenry would be only too happy to pitch in.