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Writing the City

A.G. Krishna Menon

By Murzban F. Shroff
Picador, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 306, Rs. 295.00

By Ranjana Sengupta
Penguin, Delhi, 2007, pp. 248, Rs. 250.00


I find it heartening to come across an increasing numbers of books on Indian cities and to see them getting reviewed in literary journals. As a city planner I hope that this trend will expose the issues of city planning to a wider audience, beyond its disciplinary boundaries. There is a great deal of misunderstanding on the nature of the Indian city—what it is and what it aught to be. While this is primarily a matter of disciplinary concern, it also reflects the shortcomings in the public perceptions about the nature of Indian cities. As a consequence there is a wide gap between the ideals and expectations of planning authorities and opinion makers and the urban reality. This gap makes it easier to criticize the conditions in cities than to offer anything realistically constructive to mitigate the pathetic conditions of cities.   One of the reasons for this hopeless state of affairs is the widespread ‘urban illiteracy’ in our modernizing society. It is important to achieve higher levels of urban literacy because it contributes to the development of a healthy culture of urbanity. Urbanity enables urbanites to fulfil their individual potential and contribute to the betterment of society as a whole. Such a condition is a prerequisite to live in an increasingly urbanizing environment. Arguably, public policy on issues of city planning in India is characterized by ‘urban illiteracy’. Thus, there is no common platform on which to discuss and resolve urban issues. The problems this creates get exacerbated because professionals tend to talk to themselves, while the public is unable to understand or mediate the discourse. The lack of communication between the profession and public can be identified as an important reason for the sorry state of our cities.   For example, few realize that the latest update to the Master Plan of Delhi for the period up to 2021, has been formulated without substantive data to justify its contents or its policy prescriptions. This shocking fact emerged only when the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) admitted this in response to a question put to them through the Right to Information Act. Not surprisingly, the city and its citizens have had to suffer the recent traumas created by court mandated sealing and demolitions. But there has been almost no discussion which tries to get to the roots of the problem, that is, the omissions and commissions of city planners and municipal authorities. ...

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