The Saga of our Inner Cities

The social and cultural homogeneity of inner cities is transforming with erstwhile traditional occupations and enterprises fast vanishing together with the displacement of communities practising those occupations.

India’s urbanization story unfolds in two dominant patterns- expansion of its suburbs and a simultaneous rupture of its inner (often historic) core. The forlorn, dilapidated tale of inner cities located in the older parts of many Indian cities is best depicted through films and literature but seldom grab the attention of policy makers. The overcrowded inner cities of India represent organic growth, diversity and dense social life that one encounters in locations like the Shobhabazaar in Kolkata, Chowk in Lucknow, and Nai Sadak in Delhi. The often neglected and forgotten narrow gullies, mohallas, neighbourhoods, lanes and by lanes are valuable because they help preserve the urban tissue-the fundamental character and identity of the city. They also add value as the smallest social spheres of urban life, cherished and celebrated by people, acting as public space by virtue of their inclusiveness and maintaining informalised forms of social order. In this article, I highlight some of the characteristic features of our inner cities.

Old Spaces, New Uses

The social and cultural homogeneity of inner cities is transforming with erstwhile traditional occupations and enterprises fast vanishing together with the displacement of communities practising those occupations. For instance, some parts of Chowk in old Lucknow are fast changing and many of its old gullies have come to be lined with fast food stalls selling Chinese and Italian dishes replacing traditional snacks. The rhythmic sounds of hammering produced by craftsmen busy with warq ka kaam are replaced with glaring loud noise of moving traffic. The Unani dawakhana houses designer boutiques selling exclusive chikankari and zardozi embroidered garments. The solitary presence of a hakim sahib reminds us of the original use of this place. All the rest has been encroached upon and put to varied uses- grocery shops, coaching centres, beauty parlours and new houses possibly with new residents.

Displacement of Communities and Loss of Urban Tissue 

Few renowned, old wealthy families have managed to retain their ancestral homes and eke out a living from their traditional professions in inner cities. With changing times, the de-valorisation of traditional occupations, lack of social infrastructure like schools and colleges, most of the older residents have either migrated to newer upcoming areas in search of better economic prospects or relocated to adjoining bigger cities. The communities left behind are mostly occupied in petty businesses like running small shops or street vending and live and work under abysmal conditions. 

Can Gentrification work?

Gentrification as a social/urban policy has been widely used in US, UK and Netherlands. Usually it means redevelopment of inner city housing stock in order to entice middle- income groups to blighted neighbourhoods. This is believed to lead to positive effects in terms of revitalizing run down inner city areas that would result in generating employment opportunities for the poor already residing there, rise in real estate stock and property prices widening the fiscal base of local governments. Usually terms like urban revitalization or urban renaissance (as in UK), urban regeneration have been used in the deployment of this urban policy in Northern cities. Gentrification works in a piecemeal way in Indian cities because of the strong presence of informal settlements that are difficult to displace. Some houses are either demolished or replaced by new ones with modern amenities. In other cases, the old and new structures are juxtaposed with each other.

Increasing Contrasts between New and Old City

With liberalization and the onslaught of global forces most cities have witnessed a real estate boom and the entry of private players. A series of urban development projects ranging from residential and commercial complexes and physical infrastructure like roads and flyovers rolled out in the decades post 1990s. This pattern of urbanization often termed as a bypass strategy characterised by peri urban growth continues till the present times with not much focus on urban regeneration strategies. It is not surprising that the contemporary city in India is a city of contrasts with marked distinctions between old and new territories.

Conservation of Inner Cities

To conclude, the forgotten inner cities of India are increasingly being superimposed with new spaces solely driven by commerce. The now dilapidated spaces qualify as living heritage and are testimonies of the history and culture of our glorious cities. The place specific cultural identity of our inner cities appeals to the romantic tourist and enthusiastic traveller. Cities could do a lot better from conservation of the run down inner areas and rethink and revaluate its current policy on culture and heritage. For instance, in Lucknow, area based development currently underway in the Smart Cities Plan only focusses on a small area demarcated for conservation in Qaiserbagh. The larger inner core of Chowk, Aminabad and Hussainabad with their bustling social life reflected in the presence of innumerable arts and crafts and practising craftsmen still living and working in those areas are simply “forgotten”. I am yet to come across a plan or strategy or vision document from any Government agency in Lucknow that has put in some thought to revive the lost cultural and historical glory of Chowk, which stands for everything that Lucknow city represents. The saga is the same almost everywhere else.

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