On the Sabarmati riverfront: Urban planning as totalitarian governance in Ahmedabad, Gujarat – An article in EPW

This paper by Navdeep Mathur questions whether the official narrative that presents Ahmedabad as a pioneer in urban transformation in India engages with the experiences of the urban poor in Ahmedabad by examining processes around the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project.

Does the dominant discourse of “good governance” account for issues of poverty and inequity or does it exclude the poor from being seen as a category relevant to the goals of efficient governance institutions? What connects professional urban planning to the politics of governing urban populations and spaces characterised by poverty?

Highlighted here are the roles played by the architectural consultancy, city administrators and political managers, as well as community groups, civil society and academic institutions. The efficiency of the administration showed an active anti-poor stance in the court proceedings and in the violence of actual evictions and post-eviction suffering. The evidence presented here also shows how "world-class" urban planning has facilitated yet another blatant instance of "accumulation by dispossession" via the flow of the Sabarmati.

Apart from the violent demolition of their homes, evictions from habitations that provided access to livelihoods, schooling, social and physical security and public health services, the tens of thousands of urban working poor residents of the Sabarmati riverbank settlements experienced a traumatizing and stigmatising change in their relationship with society’s dominant sociopolitical institutions.

Having looked at the execution of the Sabarmati Riverfront project, especially through the lenses of the vast numbers of riverbank residents and the conversion of the riverfront to an elite recreation space, the paper highlights how non-state actors facilitate predatory and totalitarian state functioning in the context of an electoral democratic framework.

The riverfront project as it unfolds today is itself a totalitarian modernist planning project, treating (riverbank) space as devoid of the cultural, social, economic and political elements, through which the urban working poor negotiates its place in the city. Reduced to calculation friendly units, working class families become pieces on a social engineering chessboard. Fitted into uniform boxes, they tick the state’s requirement to provide “mass, scalable solutions”.

The planner whose grandiose designs were intended to create an urban imaginary layered with fantasies of western cities and amenities for the global tourist, and local and diasporic elites, has played an important role in the valorisation of riverbank space in distinct ways. Moreover, the idea that the river has been “disrespected” till the riverfront project came along, casts the riverbank residents as not worthy of “being around the river”, as it were.

Indirectly, the language used to characterize the problem to which the riverfront project is the solution frames the riverbank residents as unworthy and illegitimate users of the river. High value uses, and a commodified publicness are attributed to the upper income groups in Ahmedabad, positioning them as moral superiors. There emerges a very strong moral perspective in the planner’s vision, where the river is too valuable to be left to people who exhibit traits that are “uncivilised”. The riverfront project is what would bring civility and a higher moral order to their existence.

The paper states that according to Mahadevia (2011), the newest paradigm in urban governance is one of deliberate confusion, not only in terms of the policy pressures that favour selected groups of elites but also often overlay the discourse of social inclusion as a justification for schemes that claim to address issues of the poor. In the larger context of urban transformation where the JNNURM has had a major role to play, the process of planning was instituted on the premise that the poor were to be viewed as dependents of the state from the very start, or in the words of Mahadevia, “as beneficiaries or objects of change and thereby at the mercy of  the official stakeholders, experts and the urban local body officials”. In Mahadevia’s view, “the urban story so far has been one of big visions and elite capture, bordering on scam, through a predatory local state in cahoots with crony capitalists”.

Adding to Mahadevia’s characterisation of the new urbanization story as a “paradigm of confusion”, where both anti-poor and pro-poor discourses and practices collide much to the detriment of the poor, is Scott’s (2010) “project of rule”, whereby it is necessary for the (neo-liberal) state to gain dominance in the public sphere by seeking “to bring non-state spaces and people to heel”.

His conception applies to “[G]overnments whether colonial or independent, communist or liberal, populist or authoritarian” and their “headlong pursuit of this end by regimes otherwise starkly different suggests that such projects of administrative economic and cultural standardisation are hard-wired into the administrative architecture of the modern state itself” (Scott, 2010). A paradigm of modernist urban planning such as the EPC design of a revitalised riverfront, must necessarily “include” the myriad activities and people carrying them out on the riverbank; one of its key goals was to create “legibility and enumeration” using the coercive bureaucratic structures of the state itself.

The problematisations to which the riverfront project is offered as the solution articulate the river as a non-place (Baviskar 2011, drawing on Auge 2008), even while it was inhabited by hundreds of thousands of working people and their families. As the Yamuna’s thriving cultural and social worlds were invisible to the rest of Delhi (Baviskar 2011), the Sabarmati’s million microcosms were actively made invisible under the barrage of colourful propaganda in the form of brochures, full-page colour spreads in daily newspapers like the Times of India, coffee-table books, glamorous exhibitions funded by New York-based institutions, advertising hoardings selling dreams of riverfront luxury, and public relations films aimed at the international investor.

Drawing on bourgeois environmentalist sentiments, the 10-year campaign waged by the urban planner, local authority, and corporate media encouraged social hostility against the poor, especially those living around the riverbank of the Sabarmati, who now appeared to the rest of the city as the obstacle in the city’s “development”, and its achievement of global aspirations (Baviskar 2011).

Through the demolitions and evictions campaigns, the complete evacuation of the riverfront provided a “blank slate” to the planners, who would now transfer their prior inscribed “planned” geometric lines from paper to the ground. The experiences of hunger, malnutrition, loss of livelihood, loss of life and loss of the will to live were some of the benefits first experienced by

Ahmedabad’s working poor who lived on the riverbank by the grand urban vision of the riverfront development project. It almost seemed like “planning for rehabilitation” had never been a priority or even a mandate for the urban planner. The focus had been on creating an abstract imaginary through modernist planning tools and techniques, not shaping a process of engagement with the everyday lives of hundreds of thousands of the city’s working poor who bore the brunt of such misshapen imaginations.

In the imagination of the planners, the river appears as an assemblage of tubes and pipes with commodified openings for leisure and entertainment, not as seasonal ecological systems with floodplains as an integral part of its flows (Baviskar, 2011).

The floods downstream and even within the city were ignored as if they were caused by some external factor, other than attempts to “pinch the river” (Bimal Patel, quoted in D’Monte 2011). The arrogance of modernism rises to the surface when “respect for the river” is imagined as forcing it into hydraulic calculations, which the river itself seldom obeys, as illustrated by the floods in Ahmedabad, downstream in Dholka, or even in Delhi, Mumbai and New Orleans where ecological water systems were actively ignored (Baviskar 2011).

The role of efficient administrators was highlighted in their active antipoor stance in the court proceedings and the violence of actual evictions and post-eviction suffering. The evidence presented here shows how the role of the world-class urban planner has been to actively facilitate yet another blatant instance of “accumulation by dispossession” via the flow of the Sabarmati.

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