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A Tale of Two Cities

On Saturday morning we took a creaky, scarred elevator to a top-floor loft in lower Mumbai. This was Studio X, an outpost of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture – a toehold, as Dean Mark Wigley put it, in the heart of a city of the future. “Wherever Mumbai is going, mega cities around the world are probably going too”, he predicted. For that reason, Columbia is sponsoring Studio Xs in Rio, Amman, Jakarta – in all nine cities in the heart of developing world.

Their Mumbai case: The city’s population may double from 15 million to 30 million in 20 years. More than half of Mumbai already works in the black, “informal economy”. Slums in Mumbai are producing second and third generation residents. “They are a permanent way of life” said Sheela Patel, who through her organization, Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers (SPARC), networks with slum leaders around the world on common afflictions: rape, abusive police, water and power, and squatters’ rights.

At the conference, we were told that the underground economy will become disproportionate as India’s rural young flood in to scrape out a living. The outlook: Mumbai’s rich and poor will reside in reinforced ghettos hard-up against each other. “You can’t be doing city planning and not build living with slums into your design. As long as we see slums as things that have to be cleaned up, we will never have a viable city. This is India. Our cities are like India,” declared Mumbai-architect Brinda Somaya. “It may be that the 50% or more living in an informal economy is the future of the world,” added Wigley.

On Monday we journeyed to the hushed conference rooms of the Claridges Hotel in New Delhi, where panels of high-level Indian and Chinese economists hosted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and ICRIER, a Delhi-based think tank, discussed ways for India and China to sustain high quality growth while remaining inoculated from the devastating effects of another Wall Street crash. Like all IMF events, it was a press-heavy 5-Star affair. No one addressed expanding slums and the black economy, reinforcing the view that economists can’t model or measure that which doesn’t exist.

But the session’s concentration on the dire need for jobs in India made the parallel point. What do you do when you have to accommodate the young seeking jobs at the rate of 12 million a year? China, which succeeded with foreign funded manufacturing and exports, is now slowing job growth as it turns to the needs of retirees and an aging population. Its new plan is to create innovators and consumers to buy things within China, said Zhuo Qiren, dean of the development school at Peking University. But India is 15 years behind China, said Pradip Shah of India Asia Fund advisers. “We need manufacturing, a blend of white and blue collar jobs, we need to act now,” he pitched.

China’s disciplined forced-march approach to growth offered little guidance for India’s helter-skelter economy. Even a proposal for South-to-South lending schemes, which would mainly mean loans from China, was overshadowed by a plan Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa will debate at a rival BR

ICS conference in Delhi in one week.

So what was the message from this two-city trek? One is that India has to rely on itself to generate those millions of new jobs. There won’t be any large-scale foreign investment windfall like the one that floated China. As a service economy, finding creative ways to do services — an area of interest to China now that it has mastered manufacturing — has to be India’s forte.

A second is that if India reigns as the world’s largest off-book economy, living with the gritty day-to-day reality of city street life may be the only way to make a difference. Nor will past history help. “The experience in cities of America and Europe will have nothing to contribute to what happens to these mega cities,” said Wigley. In the cool of the Cladridges’s sparkling lobby, the IMF guests lined up for cars taking them to flights for Beijing and Washington. Top down modelers vs. grassroots designers, who do you think will get it right? Then you remember Wigley’s parting shot. “Economists have the luxury of getting it wrong without admitting their mistakes. Architects leave their mistakes behind in structures for all to see.”

Bob Dowling is Editorial Advisor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

This blog post was written after he attended  Studio X, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture planning meeting on Mumbai March 17-18  and “China and India: Sustaining High Quality Growth” a conference held in New Delhi from March 19 to 20, 2012 that discussed China’s and India’s future with policymakers, practitioners, and academics.

This blog was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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