India’s Gurugram remains a model of how not to build a new city — India

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Gurugram, a bustling tech and finance center on the outskirts of New Delhi, encapsulates the fast-paced capitalism and bourgeois aspirations of a new town. Nicknamed the Millennium City, it stands in contrast to Delhi’s old neighborhoods with their sarkari (bureaucratic) offices and centuries-old monuments.

But come monsoon season, the paradox of Gurugram plays out on its streets. Year after year, rain water floods spanking new roads and underpasses, causing immense traffic snarls, and leaving wealthy residents locked inside their condominiums.

“Gurugram is the most recent model of a very old format of city-building,” says Rahul Srivastava, a Mumbai-based urbanologist and co-founder of design planning and research collective urbz. “It represents the harsh, capitalist vision of taking over space.”

He points towards Mumbai, which was built on reclaimed land with a similar vision by the British. The city then called Bombay was built as a challenge to Surat, a port town and thriving mercantile centre in the western state of Gujarat, he says. “This meant defeating nature and traditional ways of land use,” Srivastava adds. And like Mumbai, Gurugram, too, has slums, hidden from plain sight and away from the multi-million dollar homes that face the sprawling golf course.

Even the most gleaming Indian metropolises are rooted in colonial origins and foundations built on inequality. Gurugram may represent India’s future, but its poor infrastructure, segregated housing, and unreliable public transportation mean it can never escape its past. Instead, it has become a beacon of how not to build a modern city.

The lack of any master plan at all—blueprints for a city and its buildings—has played a major role in this inequitable growth. And this gaping hole in city planning has roots in how Gurugram developed as an urban center.

How Gurugram came up

Just over 30 years ago, Gurgaon, as it was then called, was just large swathes of land. These land parcels were either owned by the state government of Haryana or by wealthy farming families. The first time it appeared on India’s socioeconomic map was in 1981, when Maruti Udyog, then a government-owned automobile company, set up its first factory in Gurgaon.

A year later, Maruti Udyog would turn into a joint venture with the Japanese automobile giant Suzuki, marking Gurgaon’s first official entry on the global map. And yet, it was still what present-day Gurugram residents see as “old Gurgaon.”

“It wasn’t until 1995, ’96 that the Gurugram we know today began to be developed,” says Manish Aggarwal, a managing director for JLL India, a real estate services company. This was the time that DLF, one of India’s largest real estate developers and instrumental in the creation of this modern city, built the first large office space for General Electric.

This was a new city, one that DLF envisioned as a space where people work, live, and play. The real estate company began developing Gurugram in phases. In the national capital region (NCR), which includes Delhi and its satellite towns, it was the first time high-rise apartment buildings of good quality were constructed. Delhi’s other satellite town, Noida, would not allot land to private developers at the time, so for nearly a decade, Gurugram had a niche for itself in the market. Today, because of that head start, Gurugram has nearly 60% of the 10.9 million square feet commercial space in the region, according to JLL.

“Seeing this progress and the possibilities, other private developers like Unitech also started buying parcels of land and developing them in the early 2000s,” Aggarwal explains. Gurugram’s high rises  made it the shiny new thing compared to Delhi’s low-rise housing and commercial buildings. It was also the first to tap into India’s newly liberalized consumer sentiment with large shopping malls.

“I remember while growing up, Gurugram was always the first for many things. People from Delhi would come to visit the malls here,” says Amrita Singh, a 24-year-old PR executive with an Indian startup. To her mind, Gurugram was the city of modernity, way ahead of the cities around it. Singh’s family was one of the early investors and residents of Gurugram, and she grew up and went to school in this new city.

After a slow start to building, Singh suddenly witnessed an explosion. “All of a sudden, every part of Gurugram was being developed. There was never a time there was no construction in Gurugram,” Singh says.

And yet, Gurugram’s municipal body had no master plan. “All this construction was happening at an independent level by the developers and was completely haphazard,” Aggarwal explains. So much so, that entire condominiums were built without an active sewage connection, or a centralized power grid. This meant property developers had to account for this infrastructure in-house, including arranging waste treatment plans inside the complex. “As a result, the maintenance fee in Gurugram apartments was very high,” Aggarwal says.

The master plan finally came into existence around 2009, and now the infrastructure comes under the purview of the Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon. But the 15-odd years of development that preceded this regulatory change had already wreaked havoc on the shared infrastructure in the city.

The roads, for instance, have historically been a problem. “I remember once my sister and I were the last to be picked up from school because our parents were stuck for hours on a rainwater-filled road,” Singh says. That story hasn’t changed today, and only keeps repeating itself every rain storm.

Singh, who saw New Delhi as an inferior neighbor of Gurugram as a child, has come to enjoy the green and historic spaces in the national capital. But others are still lured to the glamour of Gurugram, potholed roads and traffic snarls aside.

The city of migrants

Gurugram is a destination for Indians looking for jobs, and as such, it is a city with few “original” residents. Everyone is a migrant, even if their hometown is just 25 kilometers (16 miles) away in Delhi or nearby towns like Manesar in Haryana.

Gurugram’s initial boom, which rode on the back of the global corporations setting up offices in the new complexes, also made it not just a city of Indian migrants, but a robust expatriate community. For instance, a Gujarati event organized by GurgaonMoms, an online community of 30,000 mothers, saw Korean, Japanese, and Malaysian expat women dancing to garba tunes, says Upasana Mahtani Luthra, director of PR, events, and the book club at GurgaonMoms. “It is a city that makes you feel welcome at once,” she says.

Even those who find Gurugram to be a concrete jungle often relocate for the convenience and amenities. “A friend of mine from Delhi was never a fan of Gurugram, said Neela Kaushik, the founder of GurgaonMoms. ”But once she had a child, she found the infrastructure and safety much easier to manage. As was the availability of good schools.”

But these conveniences are, of course, not universally shared.

An unequal city

The gentrification of Gurugram has an obvious consequence in the lack of diversity in the city. “Most kids who I went to school with were either kids of landowners, businesspeople, or corporate executives,” says Singh. The city, she says, is very segmented.

The new Golf Course Road has some of Gurugram’s most expensive luxury properties. That part of Gurugram is home to the DLF trifecta of the Aralias, Magnolias, and Camellias—three condominiums with designer interiors, concierge services, club houses, and access to the golf course. And then there is old Gurugram. “Some parts of Gurugram look almost rural. Others are practically clones of Singapore or Dubai,” she says.

Gurugram is not a walkable city, and has very limited public transport connectivity for the masses. While it is connected to Delhi by the Metro, and its own Rapid Metro is meant for movement within the city, its scope is limited. A car is almost a necessity for even short distances.

Thousands of blue collar workers—guards, gardeners, domestic helpers, janitors, construction workers—all live in the unorganized and hidden slums of Gurugram. While Gurugram cannot move without them, they rarely are a policy focus in the city.

It is also attractive as an antidote to the “old memory of an earlier middle class, tired of socialist rule and Delhi’s sarkariness,” says Srivastava of urbz. “As a private-sector dominated space, Gurugram is a futuristic site. It can be the backdrop of a dystopian fiction 20 years from now. Ugliness and harsh aspirations sit over there,” he says.

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