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Economy Apr 24, 2012

The great Gurgaon experiment: Has it failed?

By Pallavi Polanki

It is easier to get into some ministries of the government than it is to enter some of the residential complexes on Gurgaon's MG Road. But the same MG Road is also notorious for what is now dubbed the Rape Mile, the unguarded stretch outside the glitzy neon-lit malls that has become infamous thanks to a number of rape incidents.

These irreconcilable differences between two stark realities, separated by no more than a boundary wall, have led some Gurgaon residents to rise up against the very idea of the Mall City.

"Gurgaon is a place that has pockets of privilege because it is mostly privately developed. So you live in gated colonies, get into a car and drive to a mall. You are hopping from privileged space to privileged space. What happens to women and girls who have to negotiate these spaces outside privilege?" asks Richa Dubey, a Gurgaon resident who recently launched a campaign to draw attention to the city's apathy in dealing with crimes against women. (Read about the Girlcott campaign here.)

Gurgaon has tried to seperate its gated communities from the outside world. NYT

Crime in the city seems to be a symptom of a bigger problem created by the idea that private development can or should be a solution to public needs, be it electricity, water supply, sewage or security. One telling statistic is this:With a population of more than 15 lakh, Gurgaon has only 3,286 cops. In stark comparison, there are nearly 35,000 private security guards.

As Jim Yardley noted in the New york Times, "With its shiny buildings and galloping economy, Gurgaon is often portrayed as a symbol of a rising "new" India, yet it also represents a riddle at the heart of India's rapid growth: how can a new city become an international economic engine without basic public services?"

Is a city that pioneered the concept of exclusive gated communities now facing a social crisis triggered by precisely its most attractive selling point?

The largely private-driven development of Gurgaon and the rapid pace at which that has happened has meant a gross neglect of its public spaces, argues Rwitee Mandal, an urban designer who lives in Gurgaon,

"If you want an evening out in Gurgaon, where will you go? You will go to a closed mall. Is that a way of life? There are no street markets, no parks. The more people walk on the streets, the more people there are on the street. People feel safe by numbers and not merely by policemen guarding them," says Rwitee.

She explains why the streets of Gurgaon have turned into potential 'rape zones'.

"Every street in Gurgaon has housing on one side and private commercial development on the other. Everything is walled up," she says. This means residents in these walled-off communities cannot look out into the streets - leaving the pedestrian alone and unseen.

"As planners we refer to what are called 'eyes on the street', which is the natural surveillance system of every city. If you have shops, for example, they look on to the street. But because of this 'island development,' activity is taken out of the street."

One way to increase the 'eyes on the street', says Rwitee, is to make the boundary walls transparent. "While you can restrict the physical connection you can still make a visual connection between the development and the street outside."

Can transparent walls work in Gurgaon? NYT

'Transparent walls' are a radical and perhaps unwelcome proposition for a city founded on 'exclusivity.' But there is no denying that there is a growing chorus among a section of residents for more public services, such as the presence of a strong public transport system - Gurgaon doesn't have a public transport system to speak of - and more pedestrian-friendly street lighting.

The idea of shared spaces has been marginalised by Gurgaon-style real estate development, says Arunav Dasgupta, associate professor at the department of Urban Design at the School of Planning and Architecture.

"The development scenario in Gurgaon has never focused on creation of quality urban spaces, which are as active, lively or vibrant as the internalized environments that have been created through real-estate mechanisms."

So while the space within an apartment complex or gated community is sanitized and secure, the exterior spaces that connect them - to each other, mall, metro stations, or the nightclub -- are neglected and unguarded. These exclusive bubbles of existence offer the illusion of security that has been exposed by recent crimes.

Has the Gurgaon model failed?

The solution is to bring together the two Gurgaons, says Sehba Imam, who two years ago started a unique community initiative called 'Let's Walk Gurgaon' because walking alone isn't safe in the city. Sehba feels strongly about the need to bridge not just the physical but also the cultural divide that exists between the urban migrants and those who belong to Gurgaon.

"Gated communities create islands that separate people. And this distance creates a lot apprehension about each other. The more you create these distances, the more clashes you will see. The only way forward is interaction," says Sehba, a resident of Gurgaon for almost a decade now.

"The Biodiversity Park in Gurgaon is a good example of a space where people from across classes come... You cannot live in a city and treat it like something that you can take from and not give anything back to. People seem to have an immense of entitlement and no sense of duty, of trying to understand the local culture. If you interact closely with people in the non-urban areas of Gurgaon or in the villages, you'll find they also have a rich culture. We have broken a lot of barriers when we walk into the villages. We have always been welcomed warmly," she said.

But it would be nave to think that the rural-urban or migrant-local divides can be erased by more interaction alone. In many ways, the nightclubs become a battleground precisely because it is one of the few spaces where old Gurgaon meets the new. The transition from 'secure spaces' to a 'safe environment' is not going to happen in a hurry.

For now, the Gurgaon state-of-mind is that of constant paranoia. Richa Dubey explains the feeling: "If I'm driving in Gurgaon late at night I am nervous as hell. I have my pepper spray out. I'm either talking to my husband on hands free or I know that reaching him is only one button press away. It is not a safe feeling."

by Pallavi Polanki

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