[Reader-list] 'World Class City' concept & repercussions for urban planning in Asia-Pacific

Prem Chandavarkar prem.cnt at gmail.com
Thu Sep 17 14:23:21 IST 2009

I am not sure about an analysis which sees the whole problem as pushed on us
from above by global financial institutions.  As Foucault has pointed out,
power is difficult to enforce until it is also constructed as something
desirable to those on whom power is to be enforced.  So one has to look
within the Asian region and see why the idea of the "world class city" is
seen as desirable by Asians.
In India, I believe it is linked to two factors:

Firstly, as a post-colonial country we suffered a sense of historical
discontinuity.  Given over two centuries of history that one could not
consider authentically one's own, the connection between past present and
future suffered a disruption.  This created a development discourse for the
first five decades after independence where the nation's sense of history
was perceived as being in a state of suspension between a memory of a
glorious yet distant past and an anticipated technological modernity.

Secondly, when it came to any sense of culture, the city suffered from a
lack of perceived authenticity.  Any discussion of "authentic" Indian
culture was always rooted in the village.  Unlike the west where the city
was seen as the site of the avant garde and therefore the cutting edge of
cultural production, in India culture was perceived as being largely rural,
and the city was seen more as a technical efficiency to be viewed purely
through a rational lens.

But after 1991, with the successes of industries such as software in
particular (and other industries followed based on the global credibility
for India that the software industry created), suddenly India was perceived
as being anchored in global production in a very central way.  Modernity no
longer had to be anticipated - it had arrived.  The software industry is
essentially an urban (that too largely metropolitan) industry, and therefore
the city was seen as leading India's march into modernity.

This has created a perception that "globalisation equals modernity", and has
created a desire for the global city in India, where the global city is seen
as clean, ordered, efficient and visually iconic.  Some indicators of this
desire are:

a)       One often hears a public rhetoric that constructs an imagery of the
global city as being clean and efficient: examples like Singapore and
Shanghai are often raised as paradigms that the Indian city must aspire

b)      There is a growing wave of middle class activism driven by
resident's associations that is pushing towards better master planning and
the better enforcement of master plans.

c)       Judicial judgments are leaning towards this notion of the efficient
and ordered city.  To take as an example three recent Supreme Court
judgments on Delhi:

·         The requirement that all public transport vehicles must shift to
CNG as a fuel.

·         The sealing of shops and other business establishments in
residential areas (even though the master plan provisions of commercial
space are grossly inadequate for a city of the size of Delhi).

·         The decision that the three decades old Nangla Machi basti on the
banks of the Yamuna must be demolished because it is not recognised on the
master plan, and the master plan authorities have declared the site as the
location of the games village for the proposed Commonwealth Games.

d)      Cities are now concerned about branding themselves.  City
authorities evince greater interest in brandable projects such as stadiums
and convention centres, as opposed to non-brandable projects such as social
The existence of organisations like World Bank and IMF has definitely played
a role in this process, but one has to realise that we have sought them out,
and it is not a one-directional process of something being shoved down our
throats.  Except it is a very narrow (but powerful) segment that is seeking
out this model.  Unfortunately it is this segment that dominates the
attention of the media, and as a result the dislocations to large segments
of our population go unrecognised.

Am copying this to the urban study group as there have been discussions on
that list expressing concern over the concept of the 'world class city'.


More information about the reader-list mailing list