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India's New Private Cities: A Ghetto For The Growing Middle Class?

On the outskirts of Delhi, Gurgaon is archetypal of the new middle class ghettos sprouting all over the country: a disorganized gated community of luxury condos, shopping malls and golf courses, but that's missing basic infrastructure and public

Julien Bouissou

GURGAON – Is the city of Gurgaon, the symbol of emerging India, about to sink deep into sewage? In 30 years, the population of this satellite town near Delhi went from a few thousands inhabitants to over 1.5 million. Air-conditioned shopping malls and residential complexes are attracting more and more people who are looking to escape the congested Indian capital.

But in the subterranean of Gurgaon, a catastrophe is about to happen. With over 30,000 illegal wells, the ground-water level is decreasing at an alarming pace, by about one meter each year. Water tables are also contaminated by the infiltration of untreated wastewater stagnating in hidden sight. "The city is drowning in its excreta," claims a report published in April by the Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment (CSE), whose experts fear an outbreak of water-borne diseases such as cholera.

Although it has glass towers and luxury condos, Gurgaon is now facing the same problems as a slum. Roads are full of potholes; the electricity works intermittently and there are no pavements- and would be the point of having them anyway? The city doesn't have a single public park, only vast shopping malls surrounded by car parks. In Gurgaon, the only life that matters is in gated communities.

If you believe the advertisements, these gated communities are guaranteed to bring happiness. They have their own water systems, electric generators, parks, community centers, as well as their markets protected by fortified walls. They have names like "Digital Green," "Conquerors' Park" or "Deer Hunt."

"Gurgaon symbolizes the advent of privately managed cities, created by Indians who wanted to escape public governance, a system they equated with corruption and dysfunction," explains Sanjay Srivastava, a sociologist at the Institute of Economic Growth (IEG) in New Delhi. In the Aralias complex, apartments are rented at a minimum of 6,000 euro per month, for flats up to 1,200 square meters. For this price, residents have sprinkled lawns, a smell of bleach in the air, soccer games on a giant screen in the private restaurant, and everything that is needed to forget the country's chaos.

Why is this residence so luxurious? "Because all apartments have a view on the golf course," explains the real estate agent. Maharajahs had their private hunting grounds, now senior executives have their own golf course. The problem is that it rains less in Gurgaon then in Britain. The water needed for golf courses is pumped from the underground water tables, and the games are often played at night, under huge floodlights.

Not far from there, in the village of Chakarpur, there is neither swimming pool nor golf course. The only sport for residents is waiting for the electricity to arrive, so they can pump water from the underground tables. Because cheap labor is necessary to supply gated communities with chauffeurs and servants, Chakarpur was spared by property developers. The help live here, crammed in tiny windowless rooms.

Prosanjit Saha, 22, doesn't mind this life: "I earn 17,000 rupees (250 Euros3) a month as a cook: that's double what I would earn in my West Bengal village," he says. He downplays water and electricity problems. On the door of their 10 square meter room, Saha and his three roommates wrote: "Save water – drink beer."

Created from nothing- vision without a vision

Gurgaon could as well have been called DLF – the name of the company that built the city. On this stony land, where peasant farmers were trying to grow crops 30 years ago, Kushal Pal Singh imagined a city tailor-made for the growing middle-class. The story of Mr Singh, as told by a real estate agent, is right out of Hindu Mahabharata mythology: "Once, he came upon Rajiv Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India, in the fields of Gurgaon. He got Gandhi to agree to his project, right there under a tree, and then bought the peasants' lands one after the other; 3,000 hectares in total."

But Kushal Pal Singh is no mythological hero, nor is he a city planner. "He created gated communities one after the other, without any global vision. With the construction of surrounding walls, there is no continuity between public and private space," city planner Rwitee Mandal deplores. Some talk about "the United States of Gurgaon," in reference to the very American life-style it promotes, but mostly to the rampant privatization of urban space.

The Gurgaon model symbolizes the new urbanization of India, led by property developers without any planning and public governance. "The soul of India lives in its villages," Gandhi used to say. Since its independence, urban policy has never been a priority. But since India has become the world's second largest economic growth, big cities have become an unavoidable issue. According to the McKinsey management consulting firm, by 2030, India will have 68 cities with more than one million inhabitants - twice as much as Europe. And 1,200 billion dollars will be invested in infrastructure development. India is definitely lagging behind in this area: public spending per capita in the cities in only a sixth of the amount spent for rural populations. Worst than the lack of infrastructure is the absence of planning, which is the reason behind so many new Indian cities' failure, according to a WWF report published in 2010.

Gurgaon's first ever municipal elections were only held a few months ago, as if, for the first time ever, the fate of its residents was taken into account. In the "Nirvana country" complex, the life of Richa Dubey is hell. "We are like foreigners in our own country. We live in a bubble with no contact with real life," explains Dubey, who moved here with her husband two years ago.

With other residents' associations on her side, Richa Dubey is fighting for the city to develop public spaces, starting with pavements and public lightening to decrease the sense of insecurity among citizens. A community radio was also launched, where residents can share their daily problems.

For the moment, generators, water pumps and fortified walls artificially keep Gurgaon alive. But how long will that last? "The bad management of infrastructures and natural resources, combined with a ghettoization of the population, could produce social tensions," worries Sanjay Srivastava.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo – DLF India

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