The 20th century history of Indian-ness is, very significantly, a history of words to describe aspirations of being and becoming. As the 20th century unfolded, the most significant of these words was “modern”. The word was added to an entire range of hopes, activities, goods and institutions to suggest an entirely new way of being and doing. So, we had Modern Tailors, Modern School, Modern Bakery and Modern Bazaar, each offering a vision of an improved and reliable present and a hopeful future.

After decades of trying to be modern, however, we decided it was even better to be “global”. From the 1990s onwards, then, we had global schools and universities, shopping complexes and commercial buildings and whatever else that was thought to require the patina of trans-nationalism.

In the current time, globalism has, however, given way to “smartness”: the landscape of our imagination is now filled with smart cities, smart highways, smart governance and smart technologies. What has remained constant through all the word-play is our capacity for self-delusion about the Indian realities. The urban nightmare that is the “millennium city” of Gurgaon is a tragic case study.

On September 3, 1979, the DLF corporation wrote to the Director of Haryana’s Town and Country Planning Department seeking permission to develop an area of around 200 acres in village Chakkarpur in Gurgaon into an urban residential locality. After an eighteen month period of “scrutiny” – for mutually beneficial negotiations between businesses and bureaucracies – a licence was granted.

However, a senior bureaucrat objected to the department’s decision on the grounds that the “plan” that had been approved was no plan at all: there was no road planning or service lanes, residential plots were to be converted into shopping areas, and that the layout plan was faulty in the manner in which traffic flow might be impacted. The objecting bureaucrat noted that the process of approval “raises doubts about the integrity of the [department] officers”.

Notwithstanding such objections, the new Gurgaon roared ahead, creating new lifestyles, real-estate millionaires and, if you’ve been following the news of the past week, an urban mess characterised by blocked sewers, concreted water-courses, flooded roads and traffic jams of unprecedented proportions.

Three reasons

The above episode contains some key clues about the morass that is the Millennium City.

Firstly, right from the beginning, the state has ceded all capacity to oversee the public good. Rules of urban development – such as the Haryana Development & Regulation of Urban Areas Act of 1975 – have been routinely ignored to create a wild-west capitalism where the rich retreat into gated enclaves and the poor slosh around in post-monsoon sewerage waters.

Unlike common practice, no public infrastructure is built before a private company starts construction of its real-estate project: a company may start construction in any wilderness without there being roads, service lanes, street lights, footpaths, or, remarkable, sewerage facilities.

Further, while the 1975 Act stipulates that all such areas are to be handed over to the government five years after they have been developed, the rule is followed mainly in breach. By retaining their privately developed localities beyond the stipulated period, the developers are able to alter land-usage according to changing land values. This is done, of course, in the full gaze of the state.

Secondly, the lines of demarcation between state and private responsibility are very rarely clear. So, sectors are developed by the Haryana Urban Development Authority, new areas within the sectors by private real estate players and the old city is managed by the Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon, or MCG.

In between , there are highway concessionaires, the Public Works Department, the Town and Country Planning Department and various other official bodies with their own claims and counter-claims regarding their responsibilities and jurisdiction. Gurgaon is like an Octopus with each leg heading in a different direction, the body torn asunder at its seams.

Consider this: even in those areas that are considered to be under the MCG, it is not able to levy any house tax as residents pay a ‘maintenance charge’ to the developer that built that locality. These are some of the richest areas in new Gurgaon, and the MCG is deprived of valuable revenue due to its inability to enforce its writ.

Thirdly, modern urban life requires a balance between private capital, the state and private citizenry. The last group should, ideally, be part of a civic sphere that keeps the other two honest. In Gurgaon, however, there is increasingly no independent civil sphere that can create and look after civic spaces. Indicative of this is the fact that the largest and best resourced resident’s welfare group was created by a real estate company.

Private capital has created its own citizenry which neither questions activities of the private sector nor the state’s inability to rein in the haphazard urbanisation pioneered by the former. The logic of profit is the natural underpinning of private capital, but what happens when there are no spaces outside it and when what is meant to be outside is a creation of the inside?

Come see new Gurgaon.

Fundamental shift

At the heart of the Gurgaon scenario is the death of the idea of public and a fundamental shift in the relationship between ideas of public and private.

Urban living – where vast numbers are strangers – requires an idea of public good in order to allow for community living beyond our kin, caste and neighbourhood spheres. Proper planning of streets, streetlights, footpaths, sewerage systems, parks and various other public facilities comes about in a situation where we are able to imagine our connections with wider society.

What we have in Gurgaon, on the other hand, is a complete break-down of this idea of the city and a primordial retreat to self-interest. In Gurgaon, we concrete over natural waterways, clear forests at will, and allow construction without reference to even minimal requirements of urban planning. Such activities for private benefit arise from the growing sense that this is the most natural way of living our lives.

The stream of sewage that floated inside of some of Gurgaon’s gated enclaves in the monsoon of 2008 – because the developer had not connected the enclaves sewage pipes to the main sewage system – was soon pushed out on to the streets to mingle with those unable to escape it.

Pure self-interest destroys community life. However, the turning point arrives when the state too becomes completely blind to the balance between private interests and public good. Then, there is little left but for the cannibalism of wild-west capitalism.

The monsoonal waters and the catastrophic traffic jams that clog the streets of Gurgaon are merely signs of our contemporary urban state: we are eating each other.

Professor Sanjay Srivastava is the author of Entangled Urbanism: Slum, Gated Community and Shopping Mall in Delhi and Gurgaon