‘Shopping Malls’: The New Icons of Chandigarh, by Shilpa Dahake

[The facts and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and have not been verified or endorsed by the project team in any way]

Chandigarh rises. Free from the deep gray depth of orthogonal, solidity cast in concrete. And yet its shadows chase her as they question her need to change. Who will she be tomorrow? She is more than a material. She is more than lines and volumes. She is the pride we feel in moving ahead… the bronzed planes of the edifice renew their oath to a new modernity. Plazas, people, paving, floor plates ad claddings combine to produce a complex of offices, a hotel, lounges, business centres, plazas, mall and shops, a multiplex and food courts… That yet again can reclaim its space both, in the bed of the city and the height of its skyline (Excerpt from the World Trade Center – Chandigarh Aerocity Brochure)

The city of Chandigarh is renowned as India’s first planned city after independence. Famous for the places like the Rock Garden, Sukhna Lake, Sector 17 and three monumental buildings: the Secretariat, the Assembly, and the High Court. Recently, people started adding shopping malls to the list; the upsurge of shopping malls have transformed the urban landscape of the city. The shopping malls have become ‘the predominant spaces for leisure and recreation in the city’ (Wilson 2004:106). They have become the inevitable form of the neoliberal urbanism in the cities all around the world. The shopping malls in the city of Chandigarh have become the new attraction for the residents and people in this region. This essay attempts to unpack how neoliberal urbanization is changing the icons and the identity of the city of Chandigarh.

The shopping malls give a perception that they are ‘mass public property’ (Gray and Gray, 1999), but are owned and controlled by developers. Such ‘quasi-public spaces’ are implanted on the city’s urban fabric as an accumulation site. Initially the shopping malls were perceived as community centres or as a platform where people would congregate for various activities. But in recent times the malls are focusing only on consumption. To increase the profitability, the mall developers started to combine shopping with various leisure activities like gaming zones, food courts, multiplex movie theatres, etc. all under one roof in shopping malls. These interventions were made due to an institutional shift in the capitalist investment cycle from Fordist – Keynesian to neoliberal economy (Zukin, 1998). In the neoliberal era, the urban spaces around the world are increasingly privatised (Banerjee, 2001, Madanipour, 1999). By adopting neoliberal forms of governance, the state tends to privatise public space in exchange for economic returns (Turner, 2002). Thus, the neoliberal reforms tend to replace the industrial landscape with the landscape of consumption.

A widespread type of such a ‘space of consumption’ is the shopping mall. The developers of such spaces identified that ‘control-led diversity is more profitable than unconstrained social differences’ (Mitchell, 1995:119), thus presenting a perfectly polished environment ready for consumption. Referring to Sanderock (1997) and Voyce (2006, 2007), Sager (2011:173) suggests that, ‘malls are often fortified cells of inducement that filter the middle classes away from the unnecessary social influences and interruptions to the intensity of their spending’. Every nook and corner of the shopping malls are designed to present a world of choices that promote consumption and induces aspirations for consumption. The processes here, culture of consumption and consumption of culture are not mutually exclusive, rather they work simultaneously. Along with the generation of new choices that are conditioned, the neo-liberal capital manufactures needs and results in new consumption cultures and a culture of consumption that becomes a symbolic capital for the neo-middle class to reproduce their hegemony.

The industries in the early capitalism era were the only spaces of acquiring profit but in the late capitalism era, the surplus of gathering space extended to leisure and market spaces by the privatisation of public spaces. More often the critique of the neoliberal policy of privatising urban public space is linked to the fear of loss of inclusion and increase of control in the cities (Cybriwsky, 1999; Kirby, 2008; Macleod, 2002; Mitchell, 1995). Such urban transformations, as expressed by Doreen Massey, are designed by the elites to the extent that ‘cities of the many are claimed by the few’ (2007:216). The phenomena of the emergence of ‘spaces of consumption’ and ‘privatisation of public space’ is very recent and very visible phenomena in the city of Chandigarh.

The Chandigarh city has come a long way from abiding by the principles of Nehruvian modernity to becoming a part of the fast neoliberalizing world. The impact of neoliberal transformation on cities can be described as:

‘The consequences [of neoliberalisation for cities] can be seen in the increasing focus on hyper forms and mega construction activities, increased speculation and expanded investment in land and real estate …, service sector, signature projects, mega cultural events and a reduced focus on the employment generating production process, affordable housing, and collective sharing of urban space and resources’ (Banerjee-Guha, 2009: 105).

The Nehruvian model assumed that a planned city like Chandigarh would become the symbol of scientific development, equality, and justice in society. But like any other city in India, the city of Chandigarh is also facing rampant urbanization and the Nehru-Corbusier model is failing to accommodate these transformations. The city was planned initially for a population of 5 lakh, which has reached above 10 lakh in 2011 (Census, 2011). The economic sector of the city has seen significant transformation in the last decade. The industrial sector has not seen any significant growth. Since the 1980s, no new industrial plot has been created. Due to the limited space envisaged for the industrial development in industrial area phase I and II within the original architectural framework, many industries shifted to the outskirts of the city. Thus, the administration started to promote the information technology sector in the city that requires less space. The diminishing growth of the industrial area motivated the union territory administration to formulate a conversion scheme in 2005. This intervention allowed few plot owners to change the land-use from industrial to commercial in the industrial area phase I and II. The conversion policy led to the mixing of the industrial units with the hotels, malls, offices and showrooms.

The policy involved accumulation projects that aimed at the massive restructuring of the urban areas. The neoliberal restructuring of the cities is inherently trying to attract investments by producing commodified landscape. Thus, the spaces like shopping malls are being produced at a very rapid rate. Following the neoliberal trend, the number of shopping malls started to increase in Chandigarh from 2003. The implementation of the conversion policy in the industrial area by the Chandigarh administration, commodified the land that was dedicated to production purposes. As a result, the city also has started to experience a real estate boom in the last decade. Due to such processes, the neoliberalism is often accused of producing spatial inequalities. As rightly suggested by Kaur and Ami (2014):

‘From being a middle-class city of sarkari babus (government bureaucrats) in its early decades, Chandigarh is now one of the most expensive cities of the country to live in. The city’s outskirts bordering Punjab and Haryana have seen a huge spurt of real-estate activity, as real estate prices have become unaffordable in the city’.

The presence of the shopping malls in the vicinity adds to the exchange value of the land in the city. With the help of conversion scheme, the city adopted new concepts of commercial areas like shopping malls with large floor plates to provide shopping and leisure under one roof, which was not permissible within the existing architectural framework of the city. There are a total of nine shopping malls in and around Chandigarh, of which three are located in industrial area phase I. The shopping malls in Chandigarh, like any other city, are large enclosed buildings with many shops of different brands. The malls are air-conditioned, perfectly lit with bright and flashy advertisements everywhere, providing a perfect shopping environment. Everything inside the mall is carefully presented and available for consumption. Such urban spaces are not fulfilling basic human needs, rather are generating desire by providing a range of choices and luxurious commodities. The accessibility to the different brands makes people feel the part of the modernising world. A 26 years old male, who visits malls often, feels that ‘malls have brought Chandigarh to compete with other cities like Delhi and Mumbai, which have big malls…people enjoy time out with families in big malls, where everything is available under one roof…the experience is great as the world moves forward we Chandigarites are no less behind.’ The shopping malls have become symbols of the globalising developing cities.

People from the nearby cities and towns come to Chandigarh for visiting the shopping malls. During a field visit in Ladhak, Jammu and Kashmir, one respondent said, “aap Chandigarh se ho… waha to XYZ mall hai, to aap yaha kyun aaye ho?” (You are from Chandigarh. The XYZ mall is there, so why did you come here?) (the name of the mall is intentionally kept anonymous). People have forgotten the places like the Rock garden, Sukhna lake, etc. that are unique to Chandigarh. In neoliberal times, the spaces like shopping malls have become the part of the identity of the Chandigarh city. Most school authorities take students to shopping malls in the cities as part of their trips. The capitalist icons are replacing the historical-cultural icons, denying the young citizens of our nation to know and reflect on their social context, history and becoming agents of societal transformation. This symbolic destruction of cultural icons denies them the opportunity to know about themselves as collective self by replacing it with more of an individual self. Thus neoliberal urbanization has transformed one’s relationship with oneself, relationship with the society and the entire urban landscape.

By Shilpa Dahake.


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