Necropolis heights book now

Published: Wednesday 28 February 2007

it is clear that the Delhi Master Plan has been written by lobbies of traders that don't want their commercial establishments operating out of residential areas to be sealed, as ordered by the Supreme Court. A citizens' outfit has already gone to the court against the plan. The court is looking into the plan now. There are several critiques of the government's shameless populism. Nobody is talking about the process through which commercial establishments came up in residential areas. What happened is eerily simple people had the money to pay regulators to look the other way while they constructed illegally. There is no reason to believe that any master plan--even a more honest one than the one rolled out in Delhi--can control the power of money and corruption.

But there is hardly a serious critique in the popular media of the 'master plan' method of urban development. Given the pace of economic growth and urbanisation in India, no master plan can estimate the requirements of civic amenities 15 years hence. Any effort to put in place a plan that aims to fashion a city of Delhi's size two decades later is wishful thinking at best; at worst, it is an effort to divert attention from the problems that have made our cities living hell-holes.

So, is it futile to plan for cities? Not really. But the plans have to be based on hard-headed estimates and a realistic understanding of the problems. A lot of academic research exists on what makes and unmakes a city. In his vastly popular book The City in History, Lewis Mumford, acclaimed us historian of science and technology, described the degeneration and fall of the ancient city of Rome, and showed how that is a model for other cities. His description of the six-stage rise and fall of Rome--Eopolis to Polis to Metropolis while growing, and Megalopolis, Tyrannopolis and Necropolis (city of the dead) in decline--is now canon. "Wherever crowds gather in suffocating numbers, wherever rents rise steeply and housing conditions deteriorate, wherever a one-sided exploitation of distant territories removes the pressure to achieve balance and harmony nearer at hand, there the precedents of Roman building almost automatically revive", he wrote.

Be it the Delhi Master Plan or the Goa Regional Plan (see Cover Story Goa must grow... but how?), industrial growth and urbanisation in India is based on nepotism, not democracy.

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