TECH TALK: Creating Indias New Cities: Learning from Our Past

Last weeks Tech Talk discussed some of the challenges facing India. In seeking how to address them, one of the ideas put forth by my colleague, Atanu Dey, is the focus on urbanization and the creation of new cities. Over a 10-part series spanning two weeks, Atanu outlines how we need to create the new cities that India so desperately needs.

Isnt it astonishing that 2,600 years ago, when most of the world was living in tiny little human settlements, the Indus Valley civilization had well-planned cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro? Some of these cities appear to have been built based on a well-developed plan. The streets of major cities such as Mohenjo-daro and Harappa were paved and were laid out at right angles (and aligned north, south, east or west) in a grid pattern with a hierarchy of streets (commercial boulevards to small residential alleyways), somewhat comparable to that of present day New York. The houses were protected from noise, odors, and thieves, and had their own wells, and sanitation. And the cities had drainage, large granaries, water tanks, and well-developed urban sanitation, the Wikipedia article on urban planning says.

What is even more astonishing is that now, two and a half millennia later, most of the current inhabitants of land of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro civilization live not in well planned cities but in tiny little impoverished villages, and some in ill-planned congested mega-slums. The shame of the whole thing is that as a collective not only have they lost the knowledge of what cities mean but also they dont even dream of building and inhabiting cities. One wonders when the regression started and what led to the death of the spirit that built those ancient cities. Something snuffed out the spirit, something killed those dreams, something made the inheritors of such great vision and accomplishment into myopic poverty-stricken masses living in misery, huddled into very primitive small villages.

The world or at least some parts of it has moved on. They have built many wonderful cities, much grander in scale than Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. Over the centuries, human civilization has progressed pari passu with the development of cities. Immense understanding and knowledge of what works and what doesnt in city planning has accumulated.

With a modest investment in airline tickets, our leaders can visit great cities and see them with their own eyes. They dont even have to imagine. Yet they refuse to dream or perhaps they are incapable of dreaming. Perhaps they are too busy with their incessant bickering over who gets how much of the little pie of material wealth that is created. Their mental poverty doesnt afford them the luxury of dreams. They just want a little bit more, not something better. Their vision has narrowed to focus on how to continue to live in villages. I have yet to hear or read of even one leader of India calling for the creation of great well-planned beautiful cities. More shameful than our material poverty is the poverty of our imagination and aspirations.

We have the power to imagine a different future even if our leaders dont. Using our collective wisdom and skills, we have the power to dream big. More importantly, having dreamt the seemingly impossible dream, we have the power to make that dream a reality. We need to ask the question: if not us, who else?

Tomorrow: Designer Cities

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.