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The City in Imagination: Vitasta Raina’s ‘Chalet’

Architect Vitasta Raina clearly spent a lot of time observing and worrying about life around her, the life of cities, the life that millions had chosen. Here’s an extract from her published fictional novel Writer’s Block that is woven around the imaginary city of Chalet that, with its class wars and segregated living, disconcertingly resembles the cities we live in today.

Vitasta’s writing reminds me that the city is often a metaphor for the society we live in. It’s a mirror, a visual representation of the chaos that we create and experience. All the imagination of urbanists and policymakers is channelised into imposing order on this temerous chaotic creature, The City. Yet it demands so much more than rules and regulations. Love? Belonging? Tolerance?

Ok, time to shut up and let you read….. And do send in that entry to #TheCityasMuse contest to by 15th September 2015

Extract: From ‘Writer’s Block’

     My name is Roma but in the Chalet City Census 2017 I am listed as C-PUE7/RI/WB6. I am a poet though they often say that I am a cynic. Well, if you spend your childhood questioning the universe and all things therein, by the time you are twenty-eight you are quite enlightened and then you cannot understand why people are pretend puppets. Then as you grow older still you see they only pretend to be puppets because they can exercise free will at any given time. I am only pretending to be a puppet because the multiple choices of Chalet’s free will scare me.

     Chalet—the city of numbers. Massive and expansive, her sheer statistics can drive you to acute paranoia.

     There are a billion beauty shops in the streets of Chalet and a billion billboards display beautiful people playing blind man’s bluff in a world perpetually riding on Prozac. Smiling, hedonistic and narcissistic, I see Chalet.

     There are a billion blue tin roofs below badly built flyovers that connect Chalet to her sorry peri-urban sprawl, and a billion headlights tail each other like electric snakes on her highways. Always moving, north to south, south to north, disturbed, dislocated, with a violent entrance and a volatile exodus, I see Chalet.

     I see her billion lights shine from makeshift footpath novelty stores and desperately silent watching windows of her penthouses night after night. Lonely, isolated and abandoned, I see Chalet.

     Every second or every hour, I see Chalet as her billion sexless lovers lick the pus of her festering body, feeding on her lemonade-soaked sweat running down the gutters of her gothic churches and the sewers of her stale slums. Every day, as I make mad love to her cold corpse covered in the filth of her billions, I see Chalet.

     Chalet’s urban culture is embracing and engulfing; it can consume you whole and then sometimes for no perceptible reason it can cast you aside. We are misguided into believing that the space we occupy on Chalet is defined by us. The truth is that we are distinguished by our place on Chalet. The only options Chalet gives are murder or migration, suicide or suburbia.

     Chalet is governed by the Group Housing Builders’ Consortium and by RUMP, the Reformed Urban Manual for Planning. Chalet’s billions are efficiently classified according to their “ability to pay” and “willingness to conform” into three categories: Elegant, Indigent and Parasite. Needless to explain the pecking order, lesser the need to outline the characteristics of the categories.

     The RUMP, by application of various anthropometric calculations and architectural standards, has made it possible to establish the degree of differentiation of basic amenities that each category should be provided. Chalet’s Elegants live in high-rise gated estates, while the Indigents are shifted into typecast social housing projects. The Parasites live everywhere in between, along every traffic corridor, in the gutters and the garbage dumps, below the flyovers and on the railway platforms.

     I am part of a special category the RUMP has classified as “Refined Indigent.” We are the outcasts of Chalet, misfits because we are educated but not moneyed, scholars but strugglers, not rich enough to be put among the Elegants, and far too genteel to belong with the Indigents. We remain on the fringes of Chalet’s sociology. We have knowledge but we have no voice. We have observations but we must remain without opinions.

     For the little things that form the parts and parcels of a huge whole, we are specs floating through the linear networks of this stratified city. I think of myself as a gutter rose. I exist superficially untainted on the surface of the filth but my roots are embedded deep in the many layers of human refuge, trembling when cars zoom past at high speeds, shying away from the men who govern this concentration camp.

     I breathe the poison fumes of the traffic and my petals, dust-covered, no longer have any trace of their original color. I think I used to be pink or orange once, but my leaves were definitely green. In Chalet’s concrete jungle, I have spent the better part of my life undoing my original self. And I am not alone. I am not the only one watching her nightmare world unfold day by day gloriously and brazenly corrupt and calculated; nor am I a solitary witness of the games her billions play on her regional sprawl, and I will also not be the sole observer of the game that one day Chalet will play with her billions.

You can check the book out on Amazon

One more week to send in your entry #TheCityasMuse

We’ve got in some interesting entries for #TheCityasMuse contest.

I’m excited that all sort of fun people are writing in…from teenage schoolchildren to professionals, from travel enthusiasts to foodies, from bloggers to those making their first attempts at writing. The entries are pouring out straight from their hearts and that’s exactly what the ethos of #TheCityasMuse is!

What? You haven’t sent in your entry yet? What’re you waiting for?

Just take half an hour out from your super busy schedule. Transport yourself to that place you love, admire, yearn for, detest, want desperately to improve….. And then write or draw your feelings and experiences! Mail it in to

It’s really very simple!

Look forward to seeing your entry in my mailbox soon :)

Housing segregation: Not just a problem, but the symptom of a dangerous disease

This morning, a single woman friend put up a very witty post on her Facebook page that described her failed attempts to rent out a workspace. She used humour as her weapon to deal with the blatant patriarchy that she faced from landlords and even landladies, including constant requests to meet the husband, complete refusal to deal with her single status and even allegations on her character! Years ago, I remember fighting with a bunch of old men on behalf of a friend who was being asked to leave our housing society because her boyfriend misbehaved with her! Again, being single was conveniently associated with bad character and none of those chivalrous gentlemen (even within the limits of their self-conceived patriarchal roles) thought to come to the rescue of this damsel in distress who was being harassed by a man. Oh, the injustice of it!

This is one of many types of housing segregation that is commonly experienced in Indian cities. Caste and religion are routinely used to turn away renters. Many scholars have put a spotlight on the increase in housing segregation. Gazala Jamil’s work on the spatial segregation of Muslims in Delhi  and Vithayathil and Singh’s research on caste-based segregation in India’s seven largest metros are part of a growing body of literature that show us that even as we look at the city as the panacea for the old social evils, these identities are viciously reconstructed the urban context.

In their piece in The Wire, Kumar and Sen argue that housing segregation is a direct result of poor housing policy combined with ingrained prejudices. “The reason why legislative intervention, as opposed to judicial, is necessary to resolve the matter of housing discrimination is because the problem should not be exclusively framed in the narrow context of individual acts of discrimination. Ghettos in cities do not rise spontaneously or accidentally. Ghettos are created by bad housing policy coupled with prejudice,” they write. They suggest legislation that makes it illegal for landlords or housing societies to be able to discriminate in such a way.

While legislation that comes out strongly against discrimination would be a good thing, I am not at all sure if it will end housing segregation in the short term. Something larger than the ability to discriminate without facing consequences is driving segregation in our cities. The expression of identity through the clustering of groups by language, caste, food preferences, religious practices and cultural norms is a way for people to find refuge and solace in the confusing and chaotic city, a context that is complex and disordered, where there is no tangible link between what you do and what you get. In this urban spider web where most citizens see themselves as a fly, the ‘other’ assumes a terrible importance. Hence, the single woman in a society that sees itself as bound by the values of family is a threat to the group’s collective identity. The Muslim family that may or may not attend the Diwali and Janmashtami celebrations or contribute to the Mata ka bhandara is viewed with suspicion. And so on and so forth.

How fragile is our sense of identity that we can see the people who are different from us as such potent threats? Clearly, we can find no easy way to unite and fight poor governance, or find concrete ways to improve our collective lives. It’s much easier to identify the ‘other’ and weed them out of our midst, to lull ourselves into the false complacency of uniformity and sameness. What is under threat is not simply access to housing, it is the very idea of pluralism that is essential to cities that is under question. If Indian cities are merely collections of villages (and do not let the shiny glass, Metro rail networks and CCTV cameras fool you), then the dream of urbanized development (smart cities included) is a false one. At the very least, we must all realize that.

Inclusion, Contestation and Identity in Indian Cities: An event report on recent talks


A week of exciting talks at CPR!

Originally posted on cprurban:

By Mukta Naik, Senior Researcher, CPR

With three excellent talks taking place within a week, CPR has been quite the hub for discussion on topical urban issues. While distinct, the talks (as conversations on ‘urban’ are wont to do) converged and coalesced, intersected and jumped around common themes like inclusion and poverty, the politics and contestation over urban services and identity issues around urban and rural.

Inclusion in public sector housing

On Friday, 20th February, Diana Mitlin, Professor of Global Urbanism and Director of Global Urban Research Centre at Manchester University talked about ‘Realising inclusive urban development – a discussion of experiences across the global South and lessons from the JNNURM’. Her study of the Basic Services for the Urban Poor (BSUP) component of the JNNURM program reveals, broadly, that end-users were inadequately consulted during project, that access to services worsened for many beneficiaries, that the process of…

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Finding new meanings through meetings with strangers

Earlier today, I shared my mother’s blog post recalling her assistance to unknown fellow travelers years ago. Knowing her well, I account her actions to a strong sense of duty, a following of the Hippocratic Oath so to speak. Her post has prompted a discussion on whether times have changed and would well-meaning people still help strangers if they find them to be in trouble.

Right on cue comes news about the #Illwalkwithyou campaign in Australia, where citizens are helping Muslims afraid to commute fearing religious backlash and hate crimes following the hostage situation in Sydney. Started by an individual, the campaign snowballed into several citizens tying up over twitter with Muslims to offer them their company while using transit in the city.

Reaching out to strangers in need without fear is an act of bravery, no doubt, but beyond that it is an act of humanity. How many strangers do you, on an average, meet with and interact with? Of these, how many are ‘curated’ and ‘filtered’ through formal and informal processes? I include here surveillance and security mechanisms as well as pre-decided appointments in a business or social milieu that involve some form of deliberate selection. Are there any opportunities, or indeed any desire, to meet people you don’t already know? Moreover, would we be open to meeting strangers across the barriers of class, gender, religion, etc?

As an urban professional, I’m raising two questions that I feel rather concerned about:

1- Are we, as urban citizens, inside a ‘zone of fear’ and averse to initiating contact with strangers?

2- Are urban spaces and systems designed to make meetings between strangers happen?

I find it important to raise these questions, especially in the political climate that we are experiencing in India at this time, where segregation, insecurity and fear are prominent themes. If we are to ‘develop’, I  think these are issues we need to think about and, at least as individuals, deal with.

On a personal level, I try to have meaningful conversations with everyone I meet. Since I’m interested in the urban informal sector and in migration, I make it a point to especially speak to those who offer urban services- auto drivers, fuel pump attendants, vendors, cleaning staff. What I hear from them has a profound impact on how I think and behave; it also informs the way I look at cities and people. And my biggest takeaway is that we are all human. If we lose that sense of humanity, I’m not sure life will have meaning any more.

Does the government really understand? #Modi #oversimplify

I was taking an undergraduate class for architecture students this morning on housing and urban poverty in India. The discussion was long and winding. We spoke of how the informal city is created and how city managers are trying to resolve issues of varying magnitudes with scarce resources. I tried to bring in a bit of the realism and build on the interconnection of architecture with the social sciences in the classroom.

And then, one student raised her hand and asked me: “All this that you are telling us, does Mr Modi understand it? They way he says things, it’s like a magic wand needs to be waved and stuff will get done!”

Well, well, well! We’re all waiting and watching here….but a lot of us are beginning to worry about how much deep diving government departments are really doing into issues that matter when they are given 100-day diktats to conceptualise schemes to be unrolled in the near future and their prime motivation is to please the PM? Efficiency and speed are commendable, but I do hope it is not at the cost of quality and inclusiveness, especially of those still trapped in poverty.


Be careful what you advertise #BJP #Haryana #Assemblypolls #land #realestate

Poll season is about the strangest of radio ads. While driving to work this morning, I was surprised to hear a BJP ad for the Haryana Assembly elections that directly addressed the issue of State-sponsored land grab by developers. In the ad, a Haryanvi farmer talks about how the government has used the ruse of wrongly declaring fertile lands to be infertile to hand land over to developers, thus disenfranchising farmers and leaving them out of the development process. Another ad in the same campaign talks about the challenges farmers face to access water for irrigation. Clearly, BJP is aggressively wooing the rural voter in Haryana. Which is all well and good.

800px-Green_farms_of_Jats_in_HaryanaWhat intrigues me is the implication that the BJP, if elected, will NOT develop agricultural land if it is fertile! Is that even possible for a State that seems to have put most of its eggs into the urbanization basket over the past few years? Leveraging its border with Delhi seems to be an important objective for the State from its recent planning documents.

Of course, Haryana has had a Congress government and these policies could, in theory, change if a new government were to come to power. But, as a colleague cynically quipped, if the BJP were to rule then the land taken from the farmer might go to a Reliance instead of DLF, with nothing really changing for the farmer!

We see a general disillusionment with agriculture across India and a decline of the farm sector, but in Haryana, farming is culturally ingrained. Land and farming are a very strong part of the identity of the Haryanvi people. I’m no expert, but perhaps the State has the opportunity to re-focus on the agri sector, for which it needs to think about compact, transit-oriented, well-planned cities instead of the sprawling, poorly conceived urban stretches we see when we drive around the State.

Allowing Indian cities to grow: Can we be bold enough to adopt global FAR densities?

I wanted to share this fascinating piece in the Next City about Indian cities and density. The article argues that low FAR (floor area ratio, that essentially controls how much you can build) makes no sense for Indian cities. We’ve known this for a while. To me, the constant back and forth about FAR and the obsession of planners and private developers with it has been a source of frustration and amusement in equal measure. Why? Because FAR alone cannot determine urban form, or infrastructure, or anything unless it is rationalized with other development controls. Unless there is a vision of what we want the city to be. The obsession with FAR is, I think, yet another symptom of the disease of technocratic planning that India suffers from.


Why are we scared to allow our cities to go vertical? High-density slums don’t scare us, then why high-rise?
Picture of Pune: Slums and mid-rise dominate out cities. But Pune is relaxing its FAR and might go the global way, as per the article!

But to get back to the article. What fascinated me was the revelation that Indian cities do not really account for the fact that the per capita consumption of space will increase over time, as people become more prosperous. We need to, therefore, stop planning cities at “essentially slum densities” and be more real about the kind of people that will come to occupy, say the areas around a Metro corridor as time goes by. I also liked that the piece points out to another paradigm shift that is needed- one in which we see increasing populations as a good sign and not only as a problem. If more people want to come in, then something is happening right in a city and we need to 1-create more space inside the city for these people and 2-enable them to come in and leave more efficiently, and support meaningful suburban development.

Author Stephen J Smith cites the work of Alain Bertaud, a former World Bank researcher in the piece. Bertaud advocates that Indian planners junk the idea of low FARs and allow cities to grow out “to the same height as its peers across the world”. Can we handle that?

Do the new cities being proposed for the UK spell an opportunity to rethink city design?

I’ve been following UK’s housing crisis with a lot of interest. Without knowing a lot about the history and political context of the housing industry in that country, it amazes me to read the stories coming out about homelessness, huge shortage of units and now, the idea of building new ‘garden cities’ to solve the problems (read about it here). With housing production at an all-time low and the industry being declared incapable of meeting demand, prominent people have been advocating for changes in the planning norms to allow a slew of new cities to be built in what former BBC Chairman Michael Lyons (who has been given the task of drafting a plan for more homes by the Labour party) calls post-war spirit (read here)!

Of course it is logical and of course, greenfield developments have the power to jump start the economy and of course, this means an opportunity for a new kind of thinking about cities. With all the analysis and knowledge, all the criticism out there (some days my head spins with the number of media articles analyzing cities) about what has gone wrong with the cities we have built over the last couple of centuries in the Global North and the Global South, I’m looking forward excitedly to what will be proposed as the model for these new urban entities.

I hope they will not be boring replicas of what we already have. I look forward to at least some space for a new architectural language. More public spaces, more walkable and cycle-able networks, a lower carbon footprint, an exploration of cutting edge research on high-density, sustainable urbanism. There is a long wishlist out there. I know all of it cannot be achieved, but some of it certainly can and it would be fitting for the UK to show the way ahead in doing so.

Are there smart ideas for cities and errr, slums? #informality #Delhi

This is the week when the semester-long research efforts of my final year students at SPA culminate in a presentation they make to the world-at-large, which usually means their fellow students, faculty and guest invitees. It’ a big deal and they all put up a good show. Dress codes, fancy invites and posters, bouquets, formal welcome speeches and funky presentations, all thrown in for good measure. It’s great fun to see them there, all confident and gung ho, after all the struggling and fighting, the crazy discussions and the times when you shrug your shoulders and sort of give up as their advisor, at least once through the semester! My group, which speaks on Smart Slums under the ambit of the Smarter Cities seminar for their batch, is on tomorrow and I’m looking forward to it. Take a look at their FB event page to see some cool graphics and pre-event buzz.

smartercitiessmat slums-2smart slums-1On the content side, we’ve spent all semester arguing and debating the place of informal areas like slums in a big city like Delhi, which aspires to be world-class and ends up being exclusive in the worst possible way. In that context, I have looked at play areas for children in the informal city in an article published today in The Alternative. Children, youth, the elderly and many other groups who need special attention get bypassed not only by formal planning processes, but even by community-centric approaches. Keeping this in mind, tactical interventions that are agile and responsive can provide answers to problems that appear insurmountable.

What sort of safe, clean play spaces can we create for children in the informal city?

What sort of safe, clean play spaces can we create for children in the informal city?

More such tactical and even technological approaches are going to be presented all week at the School of Planning and Architecture by students who are exploring the Smarter City from varied angles. Looking forward to seeing some of these presentations and if yesterday’s glimpses were anything to go by, they will be both informative and though-provoking!


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