Comments on social engineering and urbanization in China, India

I won’t say I am shocked by the news that China is moving 250 million rural residents to newly created towns and cities over the next 12 years. In keeping with an economic policy restructuring that aims to rely less on exports and increase domestic demand, China is re-engineering the lives of rural people in a bid to convert them into urban consumers who will boost their economy in the future. As rural homes are bulldozed and replaced by highrises, people’s lives are being thrown into turmoil and I can only imagine the sense of loss and outrage being experienced by those who are the guinea pigs of this economic experiment.

It seems to be standard for governments, not just in China, to simply decide what’s good for thousands of their citizens; no skin off their backs, just a steely face and a shrug!

It’s not just China, where in the absence of democratic institutions, it is perhaps easier to implement sweeping decisions like this. When Delhi decided to relocate slum dwellers to far-flung resettlement colonies before the Commonwealth Games 2010, it also subscribed to a notion that world-class cities were those that did not have slums, were exceedingly clean and I would say, devoid of anything spontaneous at all! What gives governments the right to take decisions that benefit a small minority in the name of the greater common good, decisions that often follow no proven success mantra (indeed defy everything suggested by previous experience!) and put those who are poor and disadvantages through suffering and misery? When such massive changes are carried out without consultation, without debate and without any window for recourse, it violates not only democratic principles, but humanistic ones as well. What is the hope then for societies, indeed civilizations, based on the premise of exploitation?

Yes, yes, I know. The poor cannot hope to move toward prosperity if there is no economic growth and therefore they need to sacrifice their lives at the altar of national growth. I am familiar with that line of thinking and I find it hard to agree.

Urban planners like me are trained in the great tradition of modernism and taught that everything can be planned. I have come to believe that there is much to be said for not planning, simply leaving things be. A balanced perspective would mean that we neither over-plan, nor abandon planning completely. We try to propose the future based on an informed understanding of the present, including physical and socio-economic conditions as well as aspirations of the people whose lives will be impacted by what you propose. This is not just a question of human rights, but also a matter of common sense, if our objective is to build a society where people can hope to lead happy lives and contribute meaningfully to the collective progress of their communities, cities, nations. I am suggesting that the desire for growth needs to be balanced with measures that allow people to opt for alternatives ways of life.

In China, would it not be possible to identify areas slated for urbanization and then allow options for farmers to either opt for urban jobs by retraining for them and changing their lifestyle, or be offered alternative space where they can continue to live rural lives. I am sure enough young people would opt to join to new economy, while others would still be able to live lives of dignity and earn enough to feed themselves. This way, reports say, the old and the infirm are reduced to playing mah-jong all day without having any useful role to play in these new cities and towns.

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6 thoughts on “Comments on social engineering and urbanization in China, India

  1. The point is that any planning exercise has to involve stakeholder participation – from creating the brief upwards, rather than the whole methodology today of top down planning (without any planners involved) which re engineer little people’s lives to suite some grand plans, squashing their lives, livelihood and aspirations to dust, and creating horrendous modules of failed sustainability. My understanding over my 15 years of being in the design field is that design has to stop from being on the top (including how we are taught in archi schools to design with plans first), but at eye level, with experiences, situations playing out amongst living breathing human beings.

    And ofcourse then comes the whole middle class tendency of thinking that the little people dont know whats good for them :(…thats a whole different story.

  2. This is an autocratic and anti-democratic way of spearheading policies that can only benefit a bunch of capitalists. How do we seem to forget that capitalism is a recipe for failure like it has been the case in UK and US? It is a sad state where citizens are being pushed away from their own homelands to maximize profits. What do the common men get in return> Peanuts! Yet! They call it development.

  3. dialogue with stakeholders and the role of the designer has been systemically marginalised in public urban infrastructure development in India. Its almost deliberate. Here is a petition being circulated by avaaz: http://www.avaaz.org/en/petition/Seeking_good_Architecture_for_Public_Buildings_in_India/?cBSuGab
    This kind of opinion mobilisation is new in India, where infrastructure design is on the blindsight of media and people’s vision. Its important to promote these voices and raise many more. There are a couple of things that have been in discussion in our local circles in how to get the government to engage effectively with the professional community as well as stakeholders without awarding jobs to foreign infrastructure companies which are engineer intensive and often profitibility motivated. At some levels I do not see any other way than forming strong voice blocks which go after these issues with RTIs and civil cases and public hearing. Thats how we can effect democracy!

    • I so agree with you. Since we live in a democracy, we ought to use all the tools available to exercise it. Problem is that we as professionals are trained in a service delivery mode and only some of us get to this point of realising we need to fight for every inch of space or forever be deluded into ineffective anonymity. Never has design been more marginalised I agree. Nor has it ever been more direly needed to offer solutions to complex problems that face the human civilisation today. Governments need to be pushed into taking responsibility, a slow but necessary process.

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