Chandigarh row lays bare misplaced priorities: The Tribune India


Rajnish Wattas


Former Director, Chandigarh College of Architecture

LEAVING the politics of the current disputes over Chandigarh by Punjab and Haryana aside – with the local Municipal Corporation throwing its own little hat into the controversy – it’s time to think more seriously about the scarcity of quality cities in the country.

Why does Chandigarh look like a latter-day “Helen of Troy,” hotly contested and coveted by the two warring states? Is this just historical symbolism or something more compelling? It is perhaps a combination of history, geography, political rhetoric and the magnetic pull of the lonely 20th century “urban utopia” amidst a sea of ​​chaotic urbanization. Salivating over what the founding fathers of the City Beautiful gave us with their lofty vision, rather than building something ourselves, is therefore not surprising. Even when Chandigarh was built in the early 1950s, shortly after independence, to resettle refugees from partition and compensate for eastern Punjab’s loss of its beloved capital, Lahore, there was much pessimism . The doomsayers have compared the audacious leap of faith of a cash-strapped and ambitious state to the next historical madness after Daulatabad or Fatehpur Sikri.

They touted reasons such as poor connectivity, water scarcity and the high cost of creating a whole new “green” city rather than choosing an existing one like Ambala, Jalandhar, Kapurthala or even Amritsar. Then there was the quaint and delightfully naive proposal of the then Indian government’s health minister, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, commending Simla with an impassioned letter to the Prime Minister, “Dear Jawahar…the British have bequeathed beautiful hill stations in India”. .. it is our duty to take care of it… the minor problem of poor connectivity of the hill town with the rest of the state could surely be solved with the services of some good mountain railway engineers Swiss and road experts.

But then Punjab ‘Prime Minister’ Gopi Chand Bhargava and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru politely set aside all proposals to convert the existing, overcrowded and decrepit old towns into locations for the new capital and had to heart to usher in a new dawn of India. urbanization, “unencumbered by the traditions of the past…” Chandigarh, the well-planned, ultra-modern new city, was not only to be regarded as a provincial project, but as one which the whole country was to admire as a model of India’s excellence in urbanization. The rest is history.

Why not then use the current political stalemate over Chandigarh to usher in the next wave of high-quality urbanization for Punjab and Haryana? This will not only make political and geographical sense, as the new capitals could be located more centrally in their respective states, but will also inspire citizens to realize their regional aspirations.

New capitals should not be inspired by the skylines of Dubai, Shanghai or Manhattan scripted by glass and steel skyscrapers, but draw their identity from critical regionalism and the ethos of sustainable cities that respect the environment. . It will also engender a cascading effect of high quality planned urbanization in the respective regions. Their creativity will be beyond the repetitive monotony of the myriad “urban realms” that dot existing cities, shaped by Sarkari city planners and their limited imagination.

Chandigarh, with its visionary planning, gave birth to such an attractive “urban product” that today its meteoric success and demand have become its burden. Landlocked in its 114 sq km union territory, flanked by Punjab and Haryana making their imprimatur through Mohali, Mullanpur and Panchkula, it doesn’t even have room for its natural organic growth – let alone a place for settlers from other parts of the country, attracted by its quality of life and civic services.

To the question of what will then be the fate of Chandigarh when Punjab and Haryana create their own respective capitals and empty its administrative content, the answer lies in the reconfiguration of Chandigarh’s identity. It needs to be redesigned as a “national-international city” rather than just a provincial capital. With the halo of the UNESCO heritage label already, it should be envisioned as the convention and cultural city of the country. Thanks to its proximity to New Delhi and its good air/rail connectivity, it can become a real hub for the organization of various international summits, conventions, art biennials and cultural festivals, etc. With the presence of Le Corbusier’s iconic architectural and artistic marvels, further enriched with responsible modernism by his team of Pierre Jeanneret, Maxwell Fry, Jane Drew and the Indian associates, it may become a major global draw. Many Gulf countries market their cities as global centers of art and tourism by inviting iconic brand museums. As the world’s first green city with planned landscaping, tree plantings and sprawling gardens woven into its master plan – it has become the country’s ‘oxygen capital’, as has been so achieved. more significant during the recent pandemic.

Along with these inherent attributes, recent innovative initiatives of smart bikes, waste disposal systems and renewable energy targets – Chandigarh may emerge as India’s showcase city in the field of urban planning, architectural tourism, knowledge center and as a model for post-pandemic urban planning. resilience.

But let our politicians at least talk about urban excellence rather than spew political rhetoric and pass resolutions. Let’s not gobble up the one world-class city we have instead of building more.

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