The belief that engineering and technology can help us tame nature and build over it has been proven wrong time and again — to little effect
At the start of 2023 we got to know that Joshimath, the pilgrim hub in Uttarakhand, is sinking. The primary culprit is bullish urban development that believes technology and engineering can make any habitat liveable. This sort of planning doesn’t take into account the rhythms of nature or the fact that local residents, whose lives and livelihoods depend on it, know their land and how best to manage it.
In Joshimath the land itself was affected by a lot of environmental damage. Then rampant urban growth, born of an increase in tourism, happened in a manner that overrode the existence and compulsions of nature. It’s easy to analyse a situation far removed from many of us, but the truth is that a lot of Indian cities suffer from the same malaise.
Mumbai, for instance, has developed without planners paying much heed to the people there closest to nature: the city’s fishing community, the Kolis. Shortly after the 2005 deluge in Mumbai, we learned through conversations with some fishers that they had noticed unusual patterns in the sea in the days leading up to the cloudburst. They tried reaching out to government authorities but, unfortunately, there were no official channels of communications that were effective and few took their warnings seriously.
In an earlier time in Mumbai, there was much less construction in areas where the city would flood. Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha had pointed out, in their SOAK exhibition on the city in 2009, that in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Portuguese who came to Bombay (as it was then called) would map the city during the monsoons, making sure to never build in areas that flooded. As navigators, they respected the weather and its patterns.
The British, who arrived later at a time of greater technological knowhow, developed a narrow, technocratic approach. They were keen to reclaim land for increasing habitation. Beginning then, a lot of Mumbai grew out of the conceit of urban planners who thought they could build over nature without suffering the consequences.
In many places in India, indifferent urban planning goes hand in hand with bad engineering. Local administrations rarely understand what environmentally-sensitive urbanism should be. A lot of this involves paying attention to people who live close to nature, whether it’s the fisherfolk of Mumbai or indigenous communities living off the forest.
As writer Amitav Ghosh puts it in his book, The Great Derangement, this kind of arrogance in habitat planning and denial of climate change is the root cause of catastrophes. It is a time of reckoning for us and it’s a perennial and global problem, even in the developed world. There are ways to account for the risks, though.
In Tokyo and Osaka in Japan, cities that had to live with frequent earthquakes, the excellence of Japanese town planning and technology has been used to great advantage. One of several examples is the country’s railways, which distributed populations in a more networked way and also allowed for a greater diversity of habitats to flourish. Even modern cities had low-rise, high-density neighbourhoods which developed into quality precincts.
According to Urbz cofounder and my research partner, Matias Echanove, the Japanese also recognised the contribution of the middle classes to urban planning and encouraged them to develop their own habitats in many instances. In his extensive research on Japan, he writes how after World War II the country allowed a lot of small contractors and local residents to take over the responsibility of housing in their neighbourhoods. Most of them continued building systems in places where people had traditionally lived and worked, and infrastructure grew around that.
But Japan, too, has examples of poor planning: building a nuclear reactor atop a fault line in Fukushima stands out. This was just another case of modern-day engineering and urban planning ignoring the signs of nature. It’s what happens when you adopt a top-down approach to urban development.
This tussle between economics and ecology happens in top-down urban development everywhere in the world. We see marvels of urban development in places they shouldn’t be, like a city in the middle of a desert. Which is why a metropolis such as Los Angeles, which has always denied its relationship with the forest, suffers devastating nearby forest fires ever year.
The tragic and most extreme human cost of poor urban planning is, of course, lives lost. And it’s inevitably the lives of the most vulnerable. In Joshimath, it’s the locals who are suffering, not the tourists. And there is a livelihood implication in this, too. When catastrophe strikes, tourism is the first industry to collapse, taking with it the jobs of a large number of local people.
Dependence on a singular economic activity, like having one job, is the modern language of employment. But historically many families, especially in Asia, were enmeshed in larger community networks. Many factors worked together to provide safety nets. Family members worked across sectors, from agrarian to industrial, across rural and urban regions.
This kind of networked economic activity, based on familial and community connections, has got lost in today’s context. Anthropological studies show that it’s a mistake to straitjacket citizens into narrow categories such as farmers or factory workers, as rural or urban. Social history shows how communities create more complex systems of livelihood and do not see contradictions between trades and occupations.
Most indigenous communities have historically had similar multifaceted approaches towards livelihoods — ranging from foraging to farming, fishing to trading. Even embracing modern technologies within the framework of their ecosystems and forest economies. They potentially had systems in place that provided people with alternatives and possibilities, with risk-mitigating factors built in.
Unfortunately, modern economies create mono-systems everywhere, from agricultural to industrial, and people are reduced to uni-occupational identities. The downside here has urbanism’s imprint on it as well. On the one hand, it encourages zoned approaches to urban existence and, on the other, it causes a reduction of what it means to be urban in the context of our relationship with nature.
Most significantly, it diminishes the capacity of people and their community systems to become part of the process of producing urban spaces, of participating in the process of making cities. Taking away the direct relationship that citizens have with their land and their natural resources is the hallmark of modern urbanisation all over the world. This makes either victims or survivors when they could be collaborators.
The picture is especially stark in the realm of urban housing. The common narrative is that of mechanisms to provide housing for everybody, either by the state or the market. In reality, even the two together cannot deliver in the volumes that are required.
Instead of encouraging systems where people with skills can build their own houses in a legitimate and valid way, all efforts are directed towards persecuting those who take responsibility to make their lives, homes and habitats. No wonder that all over urban India there is the continuous growth of so-called slums.
This phenomenon simply signals that you have not allowed people to legitimately claim space to live in a legal and dignified way — outside the realm of property ownership. The only official form of slum rehabilitation allowed is through privatisation of property, where everybody gets tiny apartments and the shanties disappear, temporarily and in specific spaces, only to reappear as entire livelihood systems. That’s because neither the market nor the state can execute rehabilitation programmes effectively.
After all, the so-called slum, is a socio-economic ecosystem for its residents. If slum redevelopment were done from the point of view of these residents, they would probably prefer collective ownership of the land and may choose to improve their habitats on their own. This doesn’t happen because we have reduced human lives to a single variable: that of economic activity.
Urban planning needs to recognise economic activities that already exist in a place, and how human beings generate livelihoods for themselves. A street hawker should be enabled to hawk his wares better. If fishing is part of Mumbai’s history and sections of the Koli community are dependent on it, planners should pay attention to their requirements. Doing that will not make Mumbai any less advanced or urbane.
Interestingly, in the global narrative of aspirational urbanism, people are talking about urban farming. From New York to Paris to neighbourhoods like Bandra in Mumbai, we suddenly want to promote farmers’ markets. If we had given importance and space to this idea when visualising modern cities, it would already have been a part of our everyday lives. One cannot resist pointing out that up until the 1960s we had rice farms in Parel in the heart of Mumbai (along with gigantic textile mills and, not too far north, plenty of fishing in the clean waters of the Dharavi creek).
If only we had not reduced the city to just land for buildings and real estate, Mumbai — in the era of aspirational farmer markets and trendy urbanism — would have been way ahead of its time. And also much more resilient to the vagaries of climate change. Besides, it could well have been the benchmark of quality urban planning in India.