Friday, April 9, 2010

Thoughts on a 'Planned City'

I have been in the 'planned' city of Chandigarh for the last few days, teaching in a school for graduate students. Chandigarh, as most educated Indians have been taught, was designed by the architect Le Corbusier who was also responsible for various cities in Europe, Russian, North America and South America. The planned part in this case implies that the roads follows a Cartesian system of coordinates (nothing particularly unique about that -- so does Manhattan, except where it is broken by Broadway, and many other cities) which enclose identical sized sectors which can be confusing to a first time visitor since many of these sectors look completely identical. The other unnerving part is the habit of the residents to refer to Sector XX as if that is all that is needed for a visitor to find it. (I suppose that is true if you are taking a taxi or rickshaw but not if you are planning to find it yourself).

The first thing that strikes you when you reach Chandigarh is the traffic or rather the lack of it. Wide roads and avenues, flanked by trees and side walks where you can actually walk without being in danger of either getting knocked down or fumigated, with the occasional car zipping by is a familiar sight, totally alien from anything in any other part of India. Coming from a city where it now takes me about 40 minutes to traverse a distance of five and a half kilometers, this is as close to heaven as it is possible to get without actually getting run over ! Delhi also has wide roads, but every inch of space is taken over by all modes of transport. Which brings me to another aspect - auto rickshaws are few and far between, I never saw a bus, and few two wheelers. So here is my deeply thought out prescription for clearing Chennai roads -- remove MTC buses (ok, maybe keep 10 or 15), get rid of two wheelers (I am dreaming already) and cancel the permits of all auto rickshaws (I am drooling). Just cars and nothing else (perhaps pedestrians who are confined to Chennai's non existent side walks). The ultimate dream city of capitalist America (Los Angeles?) . How does it look?

And talking of cars, Chandigarh I am told has the highest standard of living in the country. This means big cars with few Altos and Maruti 800's . On my first day here, I counted seven Honda City's in the Physics Department parking lot in Panjab University (the rest were Maruti SX4, Ford Ikons and so on). Very different from a standard parking lot of an academic institution in the rest of the country. Presumably people have secondary sources of income since academic salaries are about the same everywhere. I also found out (yes, I like getting such information!) that these were all four to five years old which meant these were not the result of the largess of the sixth pay commission!

The other surprise is that motorists are regularly fined for traffic violations. This includes not wearing a seat belt, over speeding, jumping lights and other such infractions. As a result, traffic here, whatever there is of it is very organised and disciplined, and nobody tries to jump a traffic light even at night when there are no other cars at a traffic signal. (Am I really talking of an Indian city). The city is also full of parks, rose gardens, (the University itself has one) the famous rock garden, lakes, making quality of life distinctly a cut above the rest of the country.

The rock garden which most locals will tell you to visit is a concrete monstrosity, a park made up of the detritus of an upcoming city full of narrow tunnels with towering walls, the mandatory water fall and all kinds of items salvaged from garbage dumps set in formation with concrete. This is my second visit to the rock garden and I find it impossibly claustrophobic, with all that tonnage of concrete giving it a very hard and soulless character -- a three dimensional Jackson Pollock piece gone wild. I realise that this is probably a minority viewpoint but there you have it.

On the other hand the zoo, in the outskirts of the city is a pleasant surprise. There is a lion safari, a deer park and the usual collection of somewhat underfed lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards and so on. But it's spread over a huge area and it's easy to spend a couple of hours there, though I am told that the animal collection used to be much better earlier. I also had my first Rainbow Trout caught in the Beas at the 'Flamme Bois' in Sector 35B and it was excellent.

So is this utopia where most of us would like to move. There you have me -- one should perhaps ask those who live here -- including some of my colleagues who moved here recently. My guess is that it would come as a breath of fresh air (literally!) in the initial period. In the long run, though, I wonder if one would miss the bustle of a standard Indian city, the cultural life, the eating out places, the general chaotic richness of an Indian urban landscape. I leave it to readers of my post to comment. I am only a bird of passage, here for a mere 10 days.


kapil said...

> In the long run, though, I wonder if one would miss the bustle of a standard Indian city, the cultural life, the eating out places, the general chaotic richness of an Indian urban landscape.

Bustle exists --- go to sector 17 any evening of the week! There are number of good places to eat out (at all price levels) --- sector 35C, where you went, is a good example. There are concerts on a regular basis though obviously cultural activity is not at the Chennai levels. As for cultural diversity, the third most common language spoken in Chandigarh (after HIndi and Punjabi) is Tamil.

Some things that I feel are better in Chennai:

Telecommunication services. Connectivity is generally worse in Chandigarh that in Chennai. The BSNL Chennai offices (and officers) are generally more pleasant than their counterparts here.

Banking services. There are branches in every sector but few/none are open outside office hours. Many shops charge you extra if you pay by credit card.

Sea food. Mostly non-existent or too expensive in Chandigarh. This is not surprising, given the geographical location, but we sorely miss it.

All in all though, my answer would be, that it may not be utopia but it would be difficult for someone to leave Chandigarh and give up the fresh air and open spaces. The hemmed feeling you get in the rock garden may be the feeling that a Chandigarh-ia will feel in all of Chennai. The elbow room one has in Chandigarh leads to a suprisingly high level of politeness amongst strangers.

Rahul Basu said...

Kapil: I was hoping you would see it and comment and you have...thanks for a recently moved resident's views. Your views do seem to coincide with what I felt over the last few days. In fact, despite Chennai's overdose of cultural activity, how many of those do most of us attend? Just the thought of battling the evening rush hour to get to Music Academy (unless you have a chauffeur!) is enough to make you want to crawl into bed and curl up.

vbalki said...

> the bustle of a standard Indian city, the cultural life, the eating out places, the general chaotic richness of an Indian urban landscape.

I'm sorry, Rahul, with all due respect I can't agree with you on the "chaotic richness of an Indian urban landscape".
This is a pretty pen-picture, but not the ground reality, as the cliche goes.

There is absolutely nothing rich about it for those condemned to live in it. It is unrelieved misery, to varying degrees, for all except perhaps 0.001% of the population. And "urban blight" is far nearer the truth than "urban landscape".

Jas said...

"In the long run, though, I wonder if one would miss the bustle of a standard Indian city, the cultural life, the eating out places, the general chaotic richness of an Indian urban landscape."
I absolutely agree with vbalki, this is not a richness but in fact a disgrace on Indian cities something of which we ought to get rid of. Calling it a cultural richness may be romantic way of validating this national shame but this does not alter the act that we Indians are basically irresponsible in creating chaos.

Neelima said...

After all you `no chaos' types have got rid of the buses and autos that plebian types like me take to get to work, and to conduct all the other ordinary business of life, will you always be on hand to give me a ride in your nice, large, red, cars? Please excuse me for asking, but I don't know how I will manage otherwise! Thanks in advance.

vbalki said...

@Neelima: Yes, that's a major reason for the chaos. Namely, the focus on individual transport and a criminal neglect of public transport. Aided and abetted by the govt., which wants to show enhanced "industrial might" via car production figures.

As for the solution to the immediate problem: put that driving license to use and join the snail race on the roads:-)

Sourendu said...

motorists are regularly fined for traffic violations

Surprised. Don't the guardians of the law have better ways of making money? Or maybe they need less money in Cgarh? If the cost of living is substantially lower than in the rest of the country, it could also explain the kind of cars you saw in the parking lot.

N. Sukumar said...

I lived in Chandigarh for over two years and I can definitely attest to the fact that it was not utopia, not by a long shot. Public transportation was abysmal, as was (to me) the cultural life. Inspite of the open landscapes, I felt positively claustrophobic and escaped out of the city at every opportunity. Part of the reason for this feeling, of course, was the political condition at that time (Khalistani terrorism in the early 90s) and thankfully that aspect is much better now. I had a much more enjoyable time during my brief visit to Chandigarh earlier this year.

But the building codes specified in the Master Plan imposed an unthinking bland uniformity on all construction. Le Corbusier planned the city in Paris without visiting Chandigarh and with no knowledge of local conditions. Slits designed into walls let in the cold winter air and the blistering sand-laden summer dust-storms from the Thar desert alike. For four months a year it is like life inside a pizza oven (daytime temps of 47-49 C).

What is refreshing is the low density of traffic and the relative cleanliness in comparison to other Indian cities. In that respect the city as a whole is like a university campus (e.g. one of the IITs). For me, the best thing about living in Chandigarh, nestled at the base of the Shivalik range, was its proximity to the Himalayas.