06/03/2017 6:12 PM IST | Updated 06/03/2017 6:41 PM IST

Why Are Our Urban Aspirations So Captive To Our Colonial Past?

Time to look beyond London as the model city.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

In the list of tall political promises made to the Indian public those involving first-world cities, especially London, occupy a station of eminence. "Give me your votes," thunders a leader in the course of an inspired speech, "and I'll transform your [pathetic excuse for a city] into [a glittering first-world metropolis]." Insert suitable names.

Of course, the phrases in parenthesis are never spoken aloud, but you get the drift of the sentiment. In 2011, fresh on the heels of her outstanding victory over the decades-old Left regime, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee made such a pledge to the citizens of Kolkata. The Hooghly riverfront, she said, will be "beautified" after the Thames riverbank in Britain to draw investors to the city. The seriousness of her vision was quickly sealed by her desire to have a Ferris Wheel installed in imitation of the London Eye.

Banerjee's statement, though noble in its intent — who wouldn't want to live in a city as gloriously beautiful and efficiently run as London? — is ironic, even if you ignore the implausibility and practical impediments of her grand vision. The city that was once called Calcutta by the British rechristened itself in its pristine Bengali name to shed its colonial baggage, only for its chief minister to promise to make it look like the former colonisers' capital. In the end, Kolkata's London dreams have come as close to reality as giving its public spaces a lick of fresh paint, in a combination of blue and white that is Banerjee's favourite, and erecting more street lights.

READ: Kejriwal Takes A Leaf Out Of Mamata's Book, Promises To Turn Delhi Into London

Now Arvind Kejriwal, CM of Delhi, has followed Didi's example by expressing a similar wish to turn the national capital into London, if the electorate gives his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) its mandate in the municipal polls that may be held in April.

At least, he has more credibility than Banerjee to make such a claim. Delhi has, like London, one of the best public transport systems in the country in its metro railway network. Although Kolkata was the first Indian city to have introduced the subway, the current state of its underground railway brings to mind the dilapidation of Stalinist Russia. Apart from frequent glitches in the running of the trains, security check at most stations is abysmal, if at all.

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There are more reasons for Delhi to feel closer to London. The former even surpasses the latter in at least one regard. In the winter of 2016, the pollution levels in Delhi went higher than London's in 1952, caused by the Great Smog, as a report pointed out. The Kejriwal government called emergency meetings to discuss steps to control the situation, but the fact remained that air quality in the city and national capital region had hit such levels of toxicity in the first place. Such occurrences are not the result of one season's traffic congestion but are decades in the making.

The aspiration to give Delhi the London makeover seems the most hollow when one compares the state of public safety in the two cities, especially for women. The AAP government may bring the world's fanciest high-street retailers to Delhi, but until its citizens, especially its women, can walk on the road without the fear of being attacked, harassed, intimidated or threatened, Delhi can never join the league of world-class cities.

The city that was once called Calcutta by the British rechristened itself in its pristine Bengali name to shed its colonial baggage, only for its chief minister to promise to make it look like the former colonisers' capital.

Practical considerations aside, there is a certain oddity about the repeated invocation of London as the apotheosis of a modern metropolis, especially when one of our own politicians never wastes a moment to reprimand our colonial masters. It's true, only a fool can grudge London its status of being one of the best cities in the world to live in, though for urban planners and administrators in India there are examples to draw from far closer home.

Why not look East — to Hong Kong, Singapore or Bangkok — to imbibe their lessons of planning, executing and managing civic projects and infrastructure that ensure the smooth running of a city? Or is it much too humiliating to learn from the examples of our immediate neighbours who have surpassed us and far easier to pay homage to our colonial past from which, presumably, we still haven't recovered?

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