perspectives /

The Wealth of Nations

What three cities in Gujarat tell us about the crisis in Indian urban planning

ABOUT 45 MINUTES NORTH of Ahmedabad, having passed under a sign that announces your impending arrival in “GREEN CLEAN GANDHINAGAR” and another advertising Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University, you may or may not notice a small placard with the word “GIFT” printed over an arrow pointing east. Follow that arrow down a dusty access road, past a rusted-out advertisement for an amusement park called Gujarat Funworld, which looks decidedly un-fun. Within 15 minutes, you’ll reach Gujarat International Finance Tec-City, or GIFT—a place, a video on its website proudly proclaims, “where wealth breeds wealth.”

GIFT is to be India’s first Smart City. Phase one of its construction is slated for completion by March next year. When the third and final phase wraps up in 2024, the “city” will run on an ambitious infrastructural grid that includes a citywide cooling system to decrease energy use, an automated trash collection system, as well as a tech-aided response system that will allow citizens to quickly lodge complaints, and see them rectified with a minimum of fuss and wasted time. No one living or working in GIFT City will have time to waste. This will be a place of immense, single-minded productivity.

Productivity and modernity are urban Gujarat’s calling cards, nowhere more so than in Ahmedabad and the adjacent capital of Gandhinagar, from where Prime Minister Narendra Modi led his home state for 13 years. Ahmedabad’s success in the nineteenth-century textile boom transformed it from a medieval walled city, and helped make it India’s most important centre for architecture, design and planning. The construction of Gandhinagar in the rash of optimistic, post-independence city-building, was meant to encapsulate a specifically Indian vision of modernity. GIFT, as an extension of its neighbours, does the same thing for India’s twenty-first century. To walk through these three cities is to experience urban India’s evolving hopes for its future, petrified in concrete and asphalt.

The source of those hopes has shifted over time from the early industrial potential of the nineteenth century, to the democratic dream of the mid-twentieth, and the mercantile and financial opportunism of liberalisation. But the goal of urbanisation in India has remained remarkably consistent: modernity and modernisation, something that India has always thought of as an escape from the unsightly realities of its urban present. If Gujarat is any indication of what’s to come—as Modi promised regularly on the campaign trail last year—then the Smart Cities programme may be the solution, and the disaster, that India has been begging for.

Michael Snyder graduated from Columbia University in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in English literature and comparative religion. Since then, Michael has lived in Santiago, Chile, and now bases himself primarily in Mumbai. His work has appeared in publications like GQ, ELLE, Condé Nast Traveller and Open Magazine.



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