Learning from Chandigarh – Workshop Report

by Anu Sabhlok

The workshop in Chandigarh brought together multiple stakeholders in the city. It was planned to foster conversation between academics, bureaucrats, NGOs and activists on the contested histories and imagined futures for Chandigarh. In that sense, the discussion revealed the connections between the past, present and futures – the spatial and temporal linkages showed how the plan for Chandigarh as a smart city reimagined, challenged and/or reproduced the ideas of Chandigarh as ‘City Beautiful’ and ‘Heritage City.’ The workshop brought to the fore cracks that lie between the planners’ vision and the experiences of cities’ diverse populations.

The workshop began by the organizers presenting the larger project (William discussed the Varanasi workshop, Ayona talked about the objectives of the workshops and the two upcoming workshops in Nashik and Navi Mumbai, and Anu welcomed everyone to the Chandigarh workshop). The first talk was given by Prof. Rajiv Lochan and was entitled ‘Adjusting to Chandigarh, Adjusting Chandigarh.’ He discussed how the city has transformed and adapted to the strict regulations that accompany a planned city. Dr. Lochan argued that the Chandigarh was a city controlled by bureaucrats and that too much control did not allow for a living space. Here the modernity, is rooted in the exclusion of multiple voices particularly those of the urban poor. However, according to Lochan, Indians are an adjusting people and it is not difficult to miss the various fissures where the masses have created their ‘lived spaces’ thereby subverting the official utopian visions.

We had invited Mr. Danish Ashraf, IAS – the Chief Nodal Officer for the smart city proposal for Chandigarh and he shared with us the vision that he had drafted in consultation with several citizen forums. Mr. Ashraf’s central argument was that the smart city was not merely a city, “it is a mentality – smart mentality.’ Presenting an antipodal perspective from the previous talk, Mr. Ashraf said that the best thing that about Chandigarh is that the decisions are made by bureaucrats. This has enabled a city that is liveable without the encroachments and lawlessness that characterizes most Indian cities – In Chandigarh, people follow traffic rules, the roads are lined by trees and the playgrounds are well maintained. Mr. Ashraf celebrated the efficiency of the bureaucratic controls when he gave the example of slum rehabilitations in Chandigarh. There was an engaged discussion after his talk questioning his ‘top down vision’ and instead stating that democratic participation is removed further from the people when bureaucrats govern. Nevertheless, this session enabled the audience to appreciate the various challenges that administrators face as they envision, govern and plan the city.

Prof. Gopal Krishan’s talk was an apt follow up and he began by asking the question: “What role has the bureaucracy played in sustaining or otherwise – the character of the City?” Chandigarh, until very recently never had a Municipal Corporation (until 1996) and was therefore directly governed by bureaucrats. With the bureaucrat terms being often arbitrarily controlled, the city government has been a transient one. Each administrator has come with their vision and has set about implementing it as an ‘immortal idea.’ There have been many macro perspectives on the city but the micro view has been missing. Even now with the elected Municipal Corporation (MC) in place, the controls are not quite even. Prof. Krishan gave the example of the Health sector which lies in the domain of the MC, however Malaria control (where the funds are) is the responsibility of the Chandigarh Administration. There are only 26 electoral wards for a city of 1 million and the Mayor’s term too is only one year. The speaker also argued that Chandigarh is an elitist city – it has one of the largest concentration of middle class in the country. The Chandigarh mentality – which is largely the perspective of the middle classes – has gotten used to the bureaucratic controls and trusts bureaucrats more than elected representatives. Prof. Krishan shared a piece that he had written several decades back where he had envisioned Chandigarh’s future. At that time, owing to the high speed train connections between Delhi and Chandigarh (The Shatabdi takes 3 hours), he had argued that Chandigarh would eventually become a suburb of Delhi. However, he reflected on his own writing in this talk and conferred that the city (which now consist of the tricity area including Mohali and Panchkula) has grown in its own right.

Pashim Tiwari has been advising the Indian government on the smart city project and his talk focussed on the larger idea. He began by discussing how in most cities the ideating person is the bureaucrat and not the citizen. Moreover, different sets of people are responsible for planning, execution and finance. In the smart city project, as envisioned by the central government, citizen participation is built into the structure and the elected Municipal Commissioner is the head of the mission. The smart city project, Mr. Tiwari explained, is not a master plan but a strategic plan. A Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) is set up for the project and a CEO is appointed (this would be the CEO’s sole charge) for a fixed term of 3 years. The objective for each city is to become financially self-sustaining along with an efficient integration of citizen services (such as electricity, traffic, road maintenance and sewage etc.). Mr. Tiwari’s critique for Chandigarh was scathing and he argued that this city was a ‘white elephant’ for the central government. It is only a couple of years back that this city of extremely well to do citizens, started collecting property tax – this city he argued “is artificially sustained.” The parking fee in Chandigarh is as low as 5 rupees whereas it has the highest per capita car ownership in the country. Mr. Tiwari’s big push was for incorporating technology as a panacea for the inefficacy of the Indian governance structures. Everything from hospital appointments to road repair complaints can now be handled electronically. The project will run on a PPP mode where the central government will put in a 100 crore per city. The city governments will have to generate the rest. Mr. Tiwari argued that as cities become self-sustaining and profit generating they will be in a better position to cater to the poor and marginalized populations.

 Navpreet Kaur’s presentation brought us back to ground reality as she showed how “caste is a running thread within the urban narrative.” Even as we imagine cities to offer anonymity and a transcendence of caste prejudices, we see that caste discrimination just assumes different forms in the city but does not go away. Navpreet narrated oral histories of the sweepers in the city revealing how subtle forms of oppression characterize their everyday lives. She also discussed, the case of the City’s major hospital and medical research institute. Several jobs which lie in the purview of the nurses and doctors but involve dealing with ‘dirty’ bodily fluids and excretions are often relegated to those who are lowest in the caste hierarchy. The ‘City Beautiful’ just like other cities, generates waste which needs to be dealt with. This job too gets passed over to the Dalits, either directly or through layers of outsourcing by regular government employees. A sanitized and detached bureaucracy presumes that caste does not matter in Chandigarh, however the experiences of the Dalits tell a different story which also is readable in the spatial landscape of the city.

 In the afternoon sessions many of the long standing NGOs and activists in the city spoke about their experiences of leading movements in the city ranging from housing rights to creating spaces for diverse sexualities. Kanwaljit from CPIML discussed the city from the perspective of the working classes. His intent was to show the gap between “those who enjoy the city and those who create it.” Since the initial construction of the city phase, migrant labourers have been coming into Chandigarh to work on construction sites. However, the provision for their residence has been deliberately kept tentative and ‘illegal’ and they can be re(moved) from their homes suddenly based on the arbitrary whims of the administration. Kanwaljit averred that the “citizen is itself not defined in Chandigarh. They think that only those who own a house are citizens.” The city cannot be built without the labouring masses and yet they have no rights as citizens in the city. Kanwaljit also denounced the current trend of conversion of the plots in the industrial belt of the city into malls and hotels.

 Paali is a social activist with the Ghar Adhikar Sangarsh Morcha (Movement for Housing Rights) and his presentation shed light on invisible aspects of a ‘smart city.’ Paali contended that the smart city was just another euphemism for a neoliberal agenda – “it is the foreign markets where capitalism is facing its worst crises ever and the smart city project has been imagined to emerge from the crises. India does not have the technological or manufacturing capabilities to execute this project – it is a way to increase production in western economies. Our Prime Minister is making frequent foreign trips and handing over one city after the other to other nation-states. Varanasi to Japan, Badodara to China, Allahabad, Ajmer and Vishakapatnam to the US; Nagpur, Puducherry and Chandigarh to France.” In 2013, the Chandigarh Administration declared Chandigarh to be a slum free city – ever since the frequency of slum demolitions have increased manifold. Paali asked quite evocatively – “Who will decide whose land this is?” Large amounts of land will be needed for the smart city project and again the poor will be pushed out. He gave the example of the recent demolitions in December 2015 – the peak of winters – despite the high court ruling that there will not be any demolitions in the winter months. Many of the so called slums were inhabited in the 1970s with the development of the industrial belt. While the industrial zone was a planned effort, the labour was told to camp on the surrounded empty lands. As the industrial land use is now giving way to fancy malls which rely on a different nature of labour and do not want to see slums surrounding them – the labour colonies are being demolished. Paali ended by asking “Does the working class have to labour all their lives for the benefit of the elite class and their smart cities?”

 It is not just the labour that continuously gets displaced as urban utopias are imagined and reimagined. Mr. Tarlochan Singh read out from his book Chandigarh: ujadiayan di dastan ‘Redrawing the Erased Maps: Land Acquisitions and Making of City,’ the experiences of the villagers who were displaced when the city was first built. In the first phase of the city, 17 villages were uprooted. While these were easier to resettle owing to the comparatively smaller numbers the 11 villages dislocated in the second phase are still struggling for resettlement. In 1952, the city came under the Periphery Control Act – which designated a 5km buffer green belt all around the city. Such provisions are ideal for the elite who wish to live in a green city but endanger the livelihood of the villagers who have inhabited this land for generations. Several protests and petitions have accompanied each land acquisition. However, these stories never become part of the mainstream narratives. This utopia was built by erasing many others that predated it.

 The final presentation of the day was a particularly poignant one.  Dhanjaya from the Saksham trust narrated the experiences of sexual minorities that inhabit Chandigarh. He argued that Chandigarh, just like all cities are planned according the heteronormative ideal – the spaces created are not sensitive to the needs of any one who deviates from this norm. The sexual minorities have had to cloister in colonies called deras but these too are only limited to the Hijra/Kothi populations. Each dera has a demarcated zone in the city where they make their ritualistic collections and territoriality is respected. Single family homes in the city do not allow for alternative families and relationships outside the norm have to seek out peripheral areas that lie mostly in the urban villages or the slums. Moreover, even as the gay populations have been able to form certain networks and create meeting spaces in the city, the lesbian populations remain largely closeted. Dhanjaya gave a moving account of his own life as a queer and an employee of Punjab University – the prejudice, witch hunting, police torture and also support and understanding from family and friends that have marked his life.

We ended the day by a theatrical performance by the group – Pragati Kala Kendra. They presented a play entitled ‘Mochi ka beta’ (Son of a cobbler) written by Mohan Lal Philoria. This play looked at the rural to urban transition of a cobbler’s son and his struggle to escape his caste identity while still retaining his roots. This was followed by songs on struggle, discrimination and democracy sung be a student group (Punjab university) called the People’s Artist Forum.  The next day a few of the participants went on a field trip to various part of the city. Namely, the Capitol Complex, sector 2, lake, IT park, industrial area, leisure valley and sector 17. We saw how the city embodies class hierarchies in its spatial form and how the city is transforming as the terms of control change from governmental bureaucracy to neoliberalism.


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