[Reader-list] Daniel Brook: The Slumdog Millionaire Architect (NYT)

Patrice Riemens patrice at xs4all.nl
Sun Jun 22 13:05:08 CDT 2014

original to:

bwo Jan Nijman

The Slumdog Millionaire Architect
Daniel Brook

The offices of Hafeez Contractor, India’s most commercially successful
architect, are on Bank Street, just around the corner from the Mumbai
Stock Exchange. The prestige of the address, however, is undermined by the
beleaguered state of the Raj-era building. In the reception area, a
flat-screen displaying a loop of Contractor’s futuristic projects is
mounted on a cracked, stained plaster wall. Upstairs, hundreds of
designers sit shoulder to shoulder at long rows of computer monitors,
packed in almost as mercilessly as on the commuter trains that ferry them
to work each day. The office has struggled to keep up with the firm’s
expanding work force and is perpetually under construction. Staff members
were known to walk 15 minutes to the five-star Taj Mahal Palace Hotel
rather than brave the employee-restroom line. Contractor has vastly
increased his square footage by building a loft, but a day at the office
now entails ducking through archways, dodging stray wires and ignoring the
wail of power saws.

>From this unlikely office, Contractor is helping to create the face of
21st-century India — a nation of flourishing wealth and entrenched poverty
that looks, according to the economists Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze, “more
and more like islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa.” More
than anyone else, it is Contractor who is responsible for building those
“islands.” He has done this in part by designing elaborate corporate
campuses on the outskirts of cities, like his projects for Infosys, the
Bangalore-based technology giant that employs more than 160,000 people.
For Infosys, he built a software-development park outside Pune that
features two avant-garde office orbs, which Contractor calls his “dew
drops,” and a 337-acre corporate educational facility near Mysore that is
laid out around a columned structure Contractor designed to look like St.
Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. In New Delhi’s D.L.F. CyberCity,
Contractor constructed a sprawling office development for blue-chip
companies including Microsoft, KPMG, Lufthansa and American Express. His
most famous project is Hiranandani Gardens, in suburban Mumbai, not far
from the airport, where Contractor designed the domestic terminal. The
250-acre mixed-use neighborhood achieved some measure of fame when it
served as the backdrop for India’s breakneck development in the 2008 film
“Slumdog Millionaire.” In one of the movie’s more famous scenes, a
character gazes out at the neighborhood’s skyline, dominated by what
appear to be Greek temples stretched 33 stories into the air, and
declares, “India’s at the center of the world now.”

The neighborhood, named for the billionaire real-estate-developing
Hiranandani brothers, certainly bears its architect’s signature
flamboyance. But what defines a Contractor project is the feeling that you
are in a world apart. It houses more than 15,000 people and includes
offices for more than 150 companies; it has its own school, its own
hospital and its own recreational amenities, like Nirvana Park. All of
this is supported by a vast system of backup power generators and
sewage-treatment facilities that free the community from India’s
notoriously dysfunctional infrastructure. At Hiranandani Gardens, you can
almost forget you’re in a nation where 300 million people lack
electricity. You certainly don’t have to worry about bathroom lines.
Inside Hiranandani Gardens — taking a meeting at Colgate-Palmolive,
lunching at Pizza Hut — there is little, save the auto-rickshaws buzzing
down Technology Street, to remind you that you’re even in India. And that
is precisely the point.

Contractor’s projects constitute a kind of alternate India, an archipelago
of green zones in which Indian professionals inhabit a first world behind
walls and security checkpoints, insulated from the chaos that has long
hamstrung their homeland. Unlike most developing countries, India has
pursued professional-services-led economic growth, opting for office parks
over sweatshops. India “looks like no other developing nation,” the
Mumbai-born pundit Fareed Zakaria has written. “India’s G.D.P. is 50
percent services, 25 percent industry and 25 percent agricultural. The
only other countries that fit this profile are Portugal and Greece —
middle-income countries.” Contractor has found his niche in building the
offices where India’s professional services are produced and the
residences, hotels and shopping malls where Indian professionals spend
their time and money.

While the world wonders whether India, under the incoming pro-market
government of Narendra Modi, can return to the blistering growth rates it
was consistently posting before the global financial crisis, Contractor
only obliquely acknowledges that the recent sputtering of India’s economy
has affected his practice. Certain projects that would ideally be built
quickly, he concedes, are instead being built in stages. Regardless, he
prefers to look forward. The total acreage of an upscale satellite city
he’s currently building near Delhi (when combined with a neighboring
nature preserve) “will be larger than Central Park in New York,” he
crowed. “Now that’s called creating history.”

In February, Contractor took me to see one of his newest projects, an
85-story Y-shaped condominium tower called Minerva that is being built
atop a former shantytown. As we rose in the steel-framed, open-air
construction elevator, the oft-obscured fact that Mumbai is a tropical
island revealed itself, with the Arabian Sea stretching out beyond the
lush, green oval of the Mahalaxmi Race Course. We ascended to the 26th
floor, just a slab of concrete that was poured 10 weeks earlier. From this
vantage point, we had an excellent view of the kinds of buildings
Contractor is known for building in city centers — luxury high-rises set
in the middle of India’s slums. To our left, next to the most expensive
home in the world — the industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s $1 billion personal
high-rise — were Contractor’s sleek Imperial Towers, built on the site of
one of the city’s first slum redevelopments. Moving from left to right,
Contractor pointed to the Four Seasons Hotel, which he worked on. “Atria
Mall is us,” he continued, “and we’re doing three towers in that slum”
next to a modern building with a pitched roof. Squinting out over the
metropolis from this altitude, it was easy to spot the skyscrapers, but
the teeming, low-rise slums — just undulating mounds of tarp and
corrugated metal — were harder to locate. When I spotted the shantytown,
Contractor added, “That pitched roof is also us.”

To call Hafeez Contractor Bollywood’s starchitect would not do justice to
his fame. He is more like a luxury brand. The entire headline on a
billboard for a new housing development in Kolkata read, “Designed by the
famed Hafeez Contractor.” The architect does product endorsements for
companies as if he were a movie star: computer makers (HP) and airlines
(Swissair). When Indians talk about Contractor, they generally call him
simply Hafeez.

Stylistically, Contractor’s buildings have no signature, save a penchant
for glitz. “I always say . . . that you definitely like a woman with
lipstick, rouge, eyelashes,” he told me. “So if you make your building
more beautiful with some appliqués, there’s nothing wrong.” Instead of a
style, what most unifies Contractor’s projects is that they actually get
built. Architecture has long been described as the most political of the
arts, and the key to Contractor’s success is as much his mastery of the
policy levers of the world’s largest democracy as his talents as a
designer. Combining the skills of an architect with those of a political
operative, Contractor can read new regulations and immediately find
exploitable loopholes and work behind the scenes to shape legislation that
serves his business. He cultivates friends in high places, and he has
learned to time his public statements judiciously. “There are several good
ideas that I have announced at the wrong time,” Contractor told me. “Just
before [the] election, some party accepts it and — with good fortune or
bad fortune — the other party comes, and he kills it.” Most crucially, he
has mastered the art of rhetoric, of phrasing his private interests in
terms of the public interest.
Continue reading the main story

Nowhere is this more evident than in Contractor’s effort to redevelop
Mumbai’s slums. When India became independent in 1947, only a small
segment of Mumbai’s population lived in shantytowns; by the 1990s, after
wave upon wave of job-seeking domestic migrants arrived, roughly half the
city’s estimated 10 million people lived in them.

The local government has long been vexed by the problem. Until 1970, the
city held that informal settlements were illegal, and it sent the police
to clear them in periodic crackdowns. Then it switched gears and endorsed
so-called slum upgrading, adding basic amenities like streetlights and
public toilets to informal neighborhoods. But between the government’s
penury, endemic corruption and the ever-growing size of the problem,
progress was limited. Today Mumbai’s best-known slum, Dharavi, packs a
population comparable to San Francisco’s into less than one square mile of
urban space. Its jerry-built structures can rise several stories, the
upper floors accessible by ladders that extend down into darkened
alleyways. Though families are large and child labor is rampant, the
average household income in the neighborhood hovers around $60 a week.

Contractor had long supported a grand bargain in which developers would be
given the opportunity to build market-rate projects on valuable land
covered by slums in exchange for providing new, free housing for slum
dwellers. He argued for such a policy in the media as well as in private
conversations with politicians. In 1995, when the conservative Shiv Sena
Party took power in elections in Maharashtra state (Mumbai is its
capital), Contractor saw an opening. But it required cozying up to one of
the least savory figures in Indian politics: Bal Thackeray, the leader of
Shiv Sena and a political cartoonist by trade, who openly admired Hitler
and rose to power by pitting Mumbai’s ethnic groups against one another.
His followers called him by the honorific Balasaheb. The local press
dubbed him “the uncrowned king,” because Thackeray was not an elected
official but a party boss. He controlled Mumbai through a devoted
following of Hindu youths that he could call upon to paralyze the
metropolis with protests — or riots — if he didn’t get his way.

Shiv Sena came to power on a platform of “free housing for slum dwellers”
but lacked a concrete policy for putting it into effect. After the
elections, Contractor says he set his staff to work on a comprehensive
study of Mumbai’s slums. His team came up with a plan to allow market-rate
development of skyscrapers with extended height limits in exchange for
rehousing the slum dwellers. In a closed-door meeting, Contractor
recalled, he presented his proposal and got Thackeray to endorse the grand
bargain over the objections of his deputies.

As Contractor spoke with me, he couldn’t hide his disdain for Thackeray’s
populist pretensions. But he had a grudging respect for his ability to get
things done — specifically Contractor’s own agenda. “You need a strong
guy,” Contractor said.

Although he credits Thackeray, Contractor calls himself “the real
architect of slum-redevelopment policy.” It’s an audacious claim, given
that the policy details were worked out by a committee on which Contractor
did not serve. But whatever the extent of his role, in the years since
enactment, Contractor has become the go-to architect for transforming
shantytowns into plots that combine low-income apartments and ultraluxury
condominiums. Inside the high-rises, several million dollars buys not only
granite countertops and Arabian Sea views but also electricity that never
goes out and water that always runs.

Given Mumbai’s surreal inequality, Contractor’s market-based plans have
made him the architect that Indian intellectuals love to hate. P. K. Das,
Mumbai’s best-known radical urbanist — he is known as an
architect-activist — is the nemesis of market-friendly architects like
Contractor. Das rails against slum-redevelopment policy as a ruse to
privatize prime plots of real estate, tarring it as the “greatest bluff
ever perpetrated on the city’s poor.” While Contractor claims his
structures, with their reliable utilities and sewage treatment, model best
practices for the rest of India, critics like Das worry that giving
India’s most influential citizens high-quality infrastructure amid India’s
poverty removes the political will to make basics like reliable power and
potable tap water universal. Providing basic services to the rich and not
the poor bespeaks “a state of underdevelopment, not a state of
development,” Das told me in his studio.

Following the tour with Contractor of his Minerva project, we headed
across town in his chauffeured white S.U.V. to have lunch at an upscale
Indian chain restaurant in a shopping mall. The busy street life passing
our windows — fruit sellers hawking their produce, young rag pickers
filling their giant tarp sacks with scavenged recyclables, women in abayas
going about their daily chores — seemed to be far removed, as if we were
watching a documentary about Mumbai’s poor from the comfort of a
well-appointed theater. At the Jacob Circle roundabout, a teenager gunned
his motor scooter the wrong direction around the one-way traffic circle,
his helmetless friend hanging on tight behind him. “Look at this guy!”
Contractor offered, more in amusement than in anger. “Bombay” — he still
calls it that — “has gone wacko.”

As the surname suggests, Contractor’s family has deep roots in the
building trades. Family lore has it that his great-great-grandfather
helped build what is now the University of Baroda, 250 miles north of
Mumbai in the state of Gujarat. The Contractors were part of the tiny
Parsee community in Western India privileged by the British. By the early
20th century, Contractor says, his ancestors were wealthy industrialists,
well diversified into power plants and liquor.

Hafeez was born in Mumbai in 1950, part of the Midnight’s Children
generation that never knew the British Raj. Despite the joys of freedom,
it was an inauspicious time to be born — and not only because Hafeez’s
father died unexpectedly just 13 days before his birth. The family was
foundering. The newborn Republic of India looked with disdain on the
Contractors’ industrial concerns. Private power plants would have no place
in Jawaharlal Nehru’s state, and alcohol would be banned in Gandhi’s
spiritual nation.

But if politics destroyed the Contractor family’s fortune, under Hafeez’s
savvy guidance, politics would rebuild it. After barely securing a spot in
architecture school, the young Hafeez excelled. His senior project was
displayed at Mumbai’s leading contemporary art museum, and he won a
postgraduate scholarship to Columbia University, where he earned a
master’s in 1977. Contractor came to find Manhattan seductive, but unlike
many Indian professionals, he vowed to return to India rather than use the
fellowship as a ticket out. “The temptation was so great,” he recalled,
“that I said, ‘Graduate in the afternoon, catch a flight in the night.’
And I literally meant it. I left for my flight from the farewell dinner.”

In the India he returned to, apartments meant for low-income residents
were hemmed in by a square-footage limit that was part of the Urban Land
Ceiling and Regulation Act, passed while Contractor was in New York. The
legislation capped some apartments at just 40 square meters (430 square
feet), but nearly as soon as the regulations were enacted, Indians found a
simple way to flout them: Husbands and wives would buy adjoining units and
then remove a wall to combine them. That was just the first step. The race
was on to come up with a design that could conjure the feel of luxury
within the still-modest 860-square-foot flats.

In the impeccably air-conditioned glass-and-steel sales office of the
Minerva condominium tower, Contractor recalled how the Mumbai developer
Kirti Kedia approached him and demanded apartments that included 10-by-14
bedrooms and 20-by-20 living rooms, straining the limits of the
regulations before even considering necessities like hallways and
bathrooms. “I said, ‘Come on, Kirti, I can’t beat arithmetic,’ ”
Contractor recalled. “Kirti said, ‘Raja’ . . . he calls me Raja — raja
means king — ‘that is why I have come to you.’ ” Contractor took out his
red felt-tip pen and legal pad and showed me how he did it.

Starting with the living room, Contractor drew a 20-by-20 square — 400
square feet. Turning the height of the square into the diameter of a
circle, a bit like Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, Contractor shaved
off the top two corners. This little move cut some 40 square feet off the
room. He applied the same trick to the rectangular bedrooms. “And I got
it. I beat the arithmetic. I showed him the plan the next day. . . . This
was the rage of that time!” Contractor had outsmarted the regulations by
literally cutting corners. The result was the Megh, Malhar and Raag
Towers, a set of organic-shaped buildings. The towers weren’t finished
until years later, but commissions for other buildings rolled in, and
Hafeez became a household name. A 1987 print ad showed him standing atop
his latest bullet-shaped high-rise holding airline tickets. It said
simply: “Hafeez Contractor Flies Swissair.”

In 1991, when an economic crisis forced India to adopt I.M.F.-imposed
free-market reforms, Contractor was perfectly positioned to benefit.
Foreign capital poured into the country, and domestic companies boomed.
One day, Contractor was sitting in the restaurant of the Taj Palace Hotel
in New Delhi when he spotted Narayana Murthy, a founder of the software
outsourcing giant Infosys. In 1981, Murthy started the company with six
partners and $250 in pooled capital; now he was a billionaire. Though
Contractor had never met the tycoon before, he seized the opportunity to
pitch his services. As Murthy tells the story, Contractor walked up to him
and asked, “Can I disturb you?” When Contractor introduced himself, Murthy
recalls, “I thought, This guy is so humble, almost a zero-ego person, and
yet he is the most creative architect from India. After just a brief chat,
Murthy concluded that he wanted to work with Contractor.

In the early days of Infosys, the company was headquartered in an office
building in downtown Bangalore. But Murthy saw no way to expand there. The
city’s transit system was hopeless. Murthy recalled telling his
colleagues: “Look, if we try to expand in the city, we won’t have enough
car parks ... We will create India’s first software campus.”

Contractor was initially enlisted to add “show buildings” to Murthy’s new
Bangalore campus, including the glass pyramid television studio from which
the company beams its quarterly results to the world. (Murthy told me he
liked I.M. Pei’s addition to the Louvre so much that he had Contractor
build him one.) Soon Contractor was tasked with designing entire campuses
for the company. “We fight a very tough battle here,” Murthy mused. “We go
through all this pollution, traffic, noise, and we reach our campus, and
in a jiffy we are expected to satisfy the needs — the technological needs
— of the most advanced customer from the first world all day. We have to
create an environment where it becomes easier.” To this end, Murthy
demanded all the amenities of a large city behind the gates. “It has to
have bookstores, it has to have food courts,” he said, “it has to have a
swimming pool, it has to have a cricket pitch.”

As Sadaf Khan, an Infosys communications staff member, told me bluntly
when I arrived at the gates of the Bangalore headquarters: “This campus is
a different world compared to the rest of the city. When you’re inside the
campus, you might as well not be in Bangalore.”

If the goal is to conjure a “different world,” Infosys’ campuses are
indisputably successful. But not everyone is happy with the results. Varun
Singh, a 30-year-old middle manager, was enjoying a smoke with his team of
programmers outside the gates of the company’s Pune campus when he told me
that employees didn’t have much access to the recreational facilities,
“because we’re loaded down with work.” His underlings stood by nodding,
impressed with his candor. Working in a chic, Contractor-designed “dew
drop” wowed his parents when they came to visit, Singh continued, but on a
day-to-day basis, the campus irked him. The location on the edge of town
was inconvenient, and after the long ride from his apartment each morning
on a company bus, he still had to walk a third of a mile from the campus
gate to his office. (The golf cart that I traveled in, he informed me, was
reserved for visiting clients and journalists.) Singh said he would prefer
Infosys to operate out of a more ordinary office building in the city
center. But Murthy tapped Contractor to build exurban campuses precisely
because he concluded that expanding in India’s dysfunctional downtowns
wasn’t feasible.

Contractor is changing the makeup of those dysfunctional downtowns by
building luxury residences alongside the slum redevelopments he advocated
for with Shiv Sena. In those constructions, the two Indias sit side by
side, but still painstakingly sealed off from each other. As the architect
explained to me, his firm lays out the redevelopment-site plans with an
eye toward keeping the slum dwellers and the condo buyers segregated. Each
group is from a “separate class,” he said. “If you had it combined,
neither the slum guys nor the prospective clients would like it.”

According to Contractor, prospective clients and slum dwellers alike
support his efforts. At the ribbon-cutting for what would be the first
slum-rehousing apartments abutting the site of his Imperial Towers, the
tenants who inhabited the 2,500 huts that covered the 13-acre site
conducted a religious ceremony to mark the opening. Contractor says the
women put on their finest saris and approached him and the developer
reverently with an oil lamp. “They were taking our aarti,” or making an
offering, Contractor recounted, “giving us as much honor as they’re giving
to a god. So I asked this lady, ‘Why are you doing this?’ She said: ‘Do
you know what you have done to our lives? We, all ladies in the slum,
cannot go to a toilet after the sun rises and before the sun sets, but you
are giving us tap water, 24-hours water.’ ”

The day after meeting Contractor, I visited the low-income housing next to
the Imperial Towers. Beside the nine-story concrete parking garage that
constitutes the condominiums’ base, teenage boys were absorbed in their
game on an improvised cricket pitch. Inside a building bearing a
spray-painted mural of Bal Thackeray and other local heroes on its facade,
an old man was busy at an ironing board he had set up in the stairwell as
an informal laundry business. Up one flight and down the dimly lit
hallway, I met the seven members of the Khan family in the 225-square-foot
apartment they received after the community voted to give developers the
right to build the multimillion-dollar flats.

The Khans’ original home had been on the footprint of the building where
they live today. Back in the 1950s, the family patriarch moved to Mumbai
as this community was being carved out of steep, flood-prone jungle land
that nobody else wanted. Until their slum was razed, the Khans were living
in a 90-square-foot hut with only corrugated metal sheets to keep out the

When I asked the Khans if they were satisfied with the redevelopment,
every member of the family agreed enthusiastically. Even when they become
eligible to sell their flat — after 10 years of residency, as mandated by
the redevelopment policy — they told me they planned to stay. The access
to jobs, markets and services afforded by their central location outweighs
the temptation to part with their 225 square feet of Mumbai, which was
worth, they estimated, $65,000.

In order for a developer to secure the rights for a coveted plot, 70
percent of the shantytown’s occupants have to vote in favor of that
builder. Developers vie to win over influential community members,
sometimes promising to sweeten the deal with add-ons. Contractor mentioned
providing a free refrigerator in each unit. When I noted the rampant
rumors that development companies pay cash bribes for votes, Contractor
didn’t deny it. “Every country has to go through this kind of a phase,” he
said. “In your country, it was the 1920s and 1930s.”

In their apartment, however, the Khans told me that there had been only
one developer making an offer for their slum and that there were no
handouts. The community simply accepted the baseline offer to redevelop
the parcel to the minimum standards required by the law. Contractor points
out that under the law, the slum dwellers’ costs are covered by the
developers for 10 years. But the Khans said there were additional fees
associated with the elevators and the fluorescent lighting in the common
hallways. Before redevelopment, they had to pay only a 50-cent tax to the
government each month; now they have to come up with nearly $9 a month.
Covering that cost takes nearly every member of the Khan family pitching
in to augment the $50 a month that 37-year-old Amina earns as a maid.

As for Contractor’s story of being thanked for 24-hour running water, the
Khans told me they get running water for only one hour a day — 30 minutes
in the morning and another 30 minutes in the evening. When the water goes
on, they fill up buckets to use for the rest of the day or night. Just
next door, in the Imperial Towers penthouse (asking price: $20 million),
the swimming pool is the size of seven slum-redevelopment apartments
combined, and it is always full. Still, the Khans insisted, they were
satisfied with this situation.

Contractor sees his slum redevelopments as studies in communal harmony in
which both rich and poor “enjoy their own freedom, but they don’t disturb
the other guy’s freedom.” But Sheela Patel, the director of the Society
for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers, an organization that advocates
for the urban poor, considers the rehousing units “vertical slums.” In
many redevelopments, she said, “the space between the [buildings] is six
feet, so the first three or four floors don’t even get sunlight during the
day.” Patel served as the sole NGO representative on the committee that
helped redesign the slum-redevelopment policy after Shiv Sena won the 1995
elections on its free-housing pledge. “This thing of 70 percent of the
community agreeing to do it, that was our contribution,” she said. “The
developers were violently against that.” But, she says, in the decades
since the policy was enacted, greed and corruption have rendered it “one
more thing that it is done in the name of the poor but hasn’t improved the
quality of habitat for the poor in the sense that it was meant to be.”

“If you ask me what am I most happy about, I wouldn’t say I made a
building for the richest man or that I made one of the tallest buildings
in this city,” Contractor told me in the Minerva sales office, puffing his
chest and flexing his biceps for comic effect. “What I’m really happy
about is one fine day, I got an idea for slum redevelopment. I used to say
that until we do something about the slums, we’re not going to have
anything. We must have a good social-housing policy.”

But critics like the Mumbai writer Naresh Fernandes dismiss Contractor’s
enthusiasm for market-based policy as self-serving folly. “Instead of
building the sort of public-housing projects that have proved effective in
London, Hong Kong and Singapore,” Fernandes wrote in his 2013 book, “City
Adrift,” “Mumbai decided that its housing crisis should be left to the
whimsies of the private sector.” As a result, only those slums located on
the most desirable plots of land have proved tempting to developers. When
Shiv Sena enacted the redevelopment policy, Fernandes wrote, it estimated
that it would rehouse 800,000 slum dwellers. Now, nearly two decades
later, it has served only 127,000.

Contractor stands by the policy and insists that even his high-end
projects are not exercises in excess but models of best practices. They
set standards for a developed India that the government must emulate. In
talking about the potable tap water on the Infosys campuses, Contractor
offered: “If Infosys can do it, why can’t the Bangalore city do it? Why
can’t the Mumbai city do it?”

His voice took on a pleading tone: “If we can do it, why can’t you do it?”

Indeed, in America’s development, what began as private amenities
available only to the rich — indoor plumbing, electric lighting — were
eventually incorporated into public building codes and universalized. In
neighboring China, the pro-market reformer Deng Xiaoping argued, “Let some
get rich first,” and in the decades since his reign, even average Chinese
have seen remarkable improvements in their living standards. Today 99
percent of Chinese have regular access to a toilet; in India, the figure
is only 49 percent.

Some argue that if India really is following this well-trod path of
development — just with a late start — the concerns of Contractor’s
critics are misplaced. But China’s rise out of poverty was based on an
authoritarian model that is a nonstarter in democratic India. And even
America’s broad middle class is beginning to look like a 20th-century
anomaly. Besides, Contractor’s projects suggest India is on a different
path altogether.

India’s social commentators dismiss Contractor’s gaudy creations as
real-life Bollywood sets. But taste aside, they are nothing to sneer at.
Developments like CyberCity and Hiranandani Gardens are more than just
symbols of India’s rise; they are a key part of it. Inside Contractor’s
corporate campuses, with their private, reliable infrastructure, it’s
always business as usual; outside the gates, you’re at the mercy of the
nation that hosted the largest blackout in human history, which left 600
million people without power in 2012. When, for example, the Bangalore
authorities initiate a multiday shutdown of their municipal water system
for “maintenance,” as they have been known to do, you can still make tea
with the tap water at Infosys headquarters and get back to your
spreadsheet. And by permitting Indian professionals to approximate a
Western standard of living without emigrating, Contractor’s residences can
lure Indian executives back to world-class businesses in Mumbai and
Bangalore instead of New York and Silicon Valley.

Discussing the blackout, Amartya Sen told an audience in Jaipur last
January that the media neglected an important fact. “Two hundred million
of those 600 million people never had any power at all,” he said. Equally
notable, though, is the converse: That for the privileged few working on
an Infosys campus or living in one of Contractor’s residential compounds,
the generators kicked in and the lights stayed on. The Indian poor live in
perpetual darkness, and the Indian rich live in perpetual light.

Sen concluded by exhorting his countrymen to “start making intelligent use
of the resources that economic growth generates” to close India’s
unconscionable social gaps. It is a sensible prescription. But it is not a
politically pressing one in the world’s largest democracy, because the
nation’s problems are no longer an issue for its most fortunate citizens.
They live in a different world now, even when they are right next door.

Daniel Brook is the author of “A History of Future Cities.” This is his
first article for the magazine.

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