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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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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