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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ahmedabad Journal

The Butterfly City

Late on a moonlit night, Ashish and his wife Nicole, my niece, drove me along the newly-built embankment on Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati River. Flowing north to south, the river roughly divides the old city with its rich tradition and heritage architecture and the modern suburban development on its west side. As we drove along the river’s edge, I marveled at the sheer beauty of the waterway in full flow. I lived in the city for three years in the 1960s and my parents made their home there. So I have a proprietary hometown interest.

When I lived in Ahmedabad, the Sabarmati held no water. Its banks were slum-ridden. In the middle, you had these wonderful sights of people drying their colorful clothes and donkeys laden with sand to fuel the furious building activity on the west side of the river. Every now and then, the river would become flooded as the barrages upstream released water in the monsoon. By and large though, the river ran dry and the many bridges across it seemed pointless.

All that changed in May 1997. The Sabarmati Riverfront Development Corporation was set up under the stewardship of then chief minister Shankarsinh Vaghela to develop a plan for the riverfront. Twelve years later, Vaghela’s dream is taking shape. The river is full now, fed by the water of the Narmada Dam. When the project is completed, Ahmedabad will join Goa’s capital city Panjim as the only other riverside city in India to develop its waterfront.

The riverfront development in Ahmedabad is a huge and sophisticated urban renewal project. When it is complete, it will transform this city that is already fond of the good life. Traditionally known for its parsimonious ways, Ahmedabad has changed over the years to become possibly the most global city in India; not because of multinational firms as in Gurgaon but mostly because it has a huge connection to the US, where many of its denizens reside. This least Western city in India is curiously its most American city.

As such, Ahmedabad is truly egalitarian. On a recent flight from Bombay, I bumped into my friend Sanjay Lalbhai, scion of the city’s illustrious Lalbhai family and the head of Arvind Mills, traveling with me on an all-cattle-class Jet Konnect flight. His family is, among other things, a benefactor of the city’s famed Indian Institute of Management and the renowned CEPT University.

In an India of new and in-your-face wealth, Sanjay remains an icon of understated old wealth: unassuming and courteous, wedded to larger development causes such as higher education. He does this not as part of some PR-driven corporate social responsibility program; he is convinced, like his forebears, that a publicly-traded corporation has a duty to the community.

People like Sanjay and a relatively enlightened bureaucracy have transformed Ahmedabad from a moffusil place into India’s most dynamic city: its new Bus Rapid Transit System makes its Delhi counterpart look like a third-world system; the city’s airport, roads and its smooth power supply make it closer to global standards than any other city in India.

Historically, the laughing stock of India’s western provinces, Ahmedabad today is the face of new India. Never mind Bombay, people commended even Surat, Baroda and Poona over Ahmedabad. But the city will have the last laugh. It is set to emerge, with its mixture of schlock and exquisite architecture, superb infrastructure and thriving consumerism, as India’s premier city in the 21st century.

This does not mean that Ahmedabad is suddenly a pretty city; far from it. Flat, featureless and dusty, it grew privately. Builders from the north transformed this once genteel city into a treeless monstrosity of ugly multistory buildings. Over the years, conscientious civic authorities decided to take the city back. So you have this unusual combination of ugly private buildings, superb public architecture and now, sophisticated public spaces with a well-designed bus rapid transit corridor and a cleverly designed ring road with flyovers that work.

The expressway that links Ahmedabad to Baroda is a marvelous piece of road engineering that makes the Delhi-Gurgaon highway look like a country road in Burkina Faso. It runs about 100 kilometers, a distance that can be traversed in 55 minutes. The city’s Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel airport makes the new terminal in Delhi look like a provincial airport in some remote African country. The city is abuzz with new and lasting solutions to urban problems. They have no power cuts, a brand new water supply and sewerage system and piped cooking gas.

On the other hand, Ahmedabad remains among the most polluted cities in India. There is no getting away from the ugly commercial and private buildings. Its climate has to rank among the worst in India, thanks largely to the absence of trees and greenery.

Already, though, with water in the river, you can feel the climate is changing for the better. The vastly improved and well thought out infrastructure is bringing pride back to the city. As such, this maggot of a city is about to be transformed into a butterfly, albeit with ugly wings.


Copyright Rajiv Desai 2009

4 comments:

Maya said...

I will take your word for it when you RIDE the Ahmedabad Bus Rapid Transit System and provide a FIRST HAND account. hell - i don't even ride the busses in nyc.

Rajiv N Desai said...

it's not about you and me. the point is it liberates the average person and gives him/her the dignity of riding in a world class mass transit system.

markandey said...

Adil Mansuri has celebrated the dry river in his famous poem "nadi ni ret ma ramtu nagar"; the dry bed was an ecology of a sort that was not obviously prosperous or fertile. the change in Ahmedabad that you mention (understated wealth vs. the good life) is directly reflected in the change in the river, but there are things to consider: 1) rivers flow. in Ahmedabad, there are two dams that control the water at the north end and the south. when water isn't coming in or going out, it is in effect a lake. 2) the land procured from the river-bed is in all probability going to be used for non-public (actually horribly commercial) purposes, and we don't need to guess who benefits. not the city.

so what we have is the glamorous image of a pseudo-river, illustrated as a singaporean utopia in certain whorishly capitalist newspapers, contained by walls that resemble berlin and jerusalem, controlled by money and the ruinous idea that humans need to "develop".

your sense that Ahmedabad is changing is indisputable, even in the ways that you mention. i cannot, however, look at it without a sense of loss. the adanis and and co. will not do today what the lalbhais and such families of yesterday gave ahmedabad: a quiet dignity of human enterprise, useful to all.

Rajiv N Desai said...

Markandey,

Sorry to be so tardy in reply to your thoughtful comment.

Slowly, people are beginning to realize that Gujarat is far and away the best state in the country.

To appreciate Gujarat and/or Ahmedabad is not to condone the events in the state after the Godhra train incident.

It's a crying shame that no one has been brought to book.