Cultural landscape transformations in the peri-urban fringes of Gurugram
Shinjini Saha
Written by
01/01/2022
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The Gurugram millennium city model was viewed as the ideal and sought-after scenario for as long as one can remember after it’s conception. Its’s story from an erstwhile sleepy village to a real estate hub with expatriate investments has been told often, optimistically and admirably. Till of course the city choked in its own manner […]

The Gurugram millennium city model was viewed as the ideal and sought-after scenario for as long as one can remember after it’s conception. Its’s story from an erstwhile sleepy village to a real estate hub with expatriate investments has been told often, optimistically and admirably. Till of course the city choked in its own manner of make and proceeded to acquire the peripheral suburbs only to subject then to the same fate a decade or two later. The township I reside in is hardly a decade old and much like its predecessor promises the “suburban city life” without having to overburden oneself with the unavoidable troubles of the core city. The township was conceived, like almost every other township, after devouring on agricultural lands and relying on the multiple policies which legitimises its formation.

A community that was dependent on land for its sustenance and agrarian lifestyle eventually gave way to a ubiquitous conglomeration of unfamiliar faces. And the housing hence followed suit. The village cores remained and the peripheries gave in to the demand for suburban farmhouses, townships, gated societies and “secure” community living enclaves. Gurugram’s rapid urbanization was no success story for the landowners who remained in the exempt urban villages. the “Gurugrammodel” of urbanization, which has transformed 35,000 acres of agricultural land into urban property since the 1980s (Gururani 2013), has been fundamentally underpinned by an uneven process of agrarian transformation, involving the exemption of residential abadi land from urbanization, the designation of “urban villages” as rural, and the differentiated integration of landowning communities into emerging networks of urban rentier accumulation. This highly differentiated process of agrarian transformation in the region has mediated dominant landowning communities’ opposition to rapid agrarian change, unevenly integrated well-placed villagers into urban land markets, while constraining others like to petty rentiership and speculative investments in land and property across the city (Cowan 2018).

This unchecked and in most cases desirable shift has transformed the housing scenario from singular ownership to developer induced enclaves which questions the idea of ownership, access and ephemerality on an everyday basis. The concept of household, which was envisioned and an aspiration and sometimes took generations worth of mettle, contribution and pride was reduced to something as trivial as investment and land security. With the majoritarian group giving up their lands to the real estate demands of peri-urban Gurugram and having no other skill to fall back on apart from agriculture, the restrained plots are increasingly getting converted to rental accommodations for income generation. The villages which were the socio-cultural heart housing the indigenous population are now a heterogenous mix of population migrating to the gentrified centers in search of better opportunities. The landscape is hence fragmented by a multitude of demands, capitalists and escapists. Socio-spatial segregations were deflected to socio-economic segregations. This mode of urban segregation, dividing the planned and unplanned, the financially superior and inferior and emphasize the before-after dichotomies of the Gurugram model. 

Dichotomies

The unequal disposition of social capital, territory and interests articulate spatial distributions that are visible throughout the cultural landscape of suburban Gurugram. Drawing on these differences the broader classification visible to the eye is that of planned and unplanned stretches. The unplanned settlements are remnants of the agrarian economies that once dominated the Gurugram region completely. The settlements are still predominantly organic with a prominent core that becomes the culmination of most social activities. Hence the convergence point is of a certain degree of prominence to the villager acting as an urban marker. The heart of the village that can either manifest itself as a market or temple or open green space acts s an anchor and binds the identity associated with the community at large. It generates a sense of belonging and familiarity amongst the residents of the villages both permanent and temporary. The activity cycles conform almost to the diurnal and seasonal variations. Even in the case of household activities. Hence the residents are planned to reflect the occupational imbibition of the residing generation. They are mostly low rise with common walls and central or south facing courtyards to respond to the climatic condition of the region. The open spaces double as containers of occupational work as well as family life which may spill over to the streets abutting the resident. Leisure time is about reminiscing the old days with friends under the shade of a tree while watching the kids take over the streets with cricket, cacophony and laughter.

With time and increase in land value of course the roads became narrower, the open spaces diminish and every available piece of land gets utilized for revenue generation. The housing typology changed to external staircases and higher floors to generate income for the void left behind my lost farmlands. The spatial extent remained the same but the surge of incoming migrants retained the pre-existing ambient quality of bedlam. The village neighborhoods resonate with a vibrancy that the gated societies have yet to achieve. The zonal purity of these enclaves leave little or no scope for street life. The discipline with which the streets, residents and green spaces are segregated do not psychologically permit blurring of the activity lines. There is a designated zone for every activity, be it commerce, leisure or movement. And this unnecessary rendition of destinations suck out the opportunity of these gated societies to function as neighborhoods. The maintenance of this segregation is so disciplinary that one hardly gets the chance to harbor incidental community activities. Interactions do not take place unless they are intended or forced. The residents themselves are inward facing entities prioritizing privacy and creating bubbles of intimate spaces. Backyards, balconies and private terraces dominate the picture and the usage common spaces are reduced to bare minimum. The residences are all built the same and appear the same with very slight permissible modifications. The language of difference in understood predominantly by the area (square feet, meter or yards) they occupy and numerical designation of street, locality and house number. Even the access amenities are kept in controlled and regulated segments of plots making them more utilitarian than expected. 

A third category of settlements fringe the residual spaces between the organic village and cartesian developer models. These are temporary banjara shelters that rely on minimal cover from climate spring up wherever space is available. These group of people are predominantly traders and set up their colourful pottery and ceramic wares using formal commercial zones as magnets. Their compact area of residence encompasses their daily live-work-play scenario till they exhaust their period of stay and move to another destination only to set up the same mode of life, lifestyle and livelihood. 

Fragmented realities

There is an inherent blame game that oscillates between the three settlement patters previously discussed with respect specifically to environmental degradation. The residents of the township blame the Banjara settlements for creating unhygienic conditions due to their nomadic lifestyle. The farmers and previously residing population blame the developers for deteriorating environment through unprecedented civil work. This results in conflicts, verbal disagreements and a division of interest that does not eventually benefit either.

The developer model, the shrinking agrarian economy model and the nomadic model have nothing to offer as individual receptacles of urban life. But while there is some interdependency formed between the urban villages and gated societies, the banjaras are still seen as a peripheral group of mistrusted population. This suspicion has prevented the development of any long tern linkages established between the marginalized and the near-permanent residents and is denying them the chance at fair trade. The banjara settlements are also the ones leading to an avoidable portion of terrain degradation unknowingly. Hence the conception of a sustainable model that takes into account social validation and semi-formalization of their economy will result in a more sensible approach towards the situation.

The village cores and already existing gated communities are too permanently set in their ways to accept alterations. But an upgradation of infrastructures could aid a socio-economic transformation induced by the ephemeral settlers of the region. The developer model has given us enough reasons to assume a formidable future failure. The village core is already saturated with the influx of supportive activities accessorizing the developer model. Hence the need to utilize an alternative model as surgical interventions seem imminent. 

Interweaving familiarity through strategies

The township master plan takes into consideration the construction of LIG and EWS housing as part of the Deen Dayal Awas Yojana Policy but is treated more like a formality instead of a philanthropic move. Unless the houses of the marginalized class is integrated with the developer model itself and is made a seamless part of the master plan they shall remail peripheral both spatially and socially. The three populations should be brought at a common ground through social capital linkages.

The bonding-bridging-linking method should be established between the communities. The population is visibly deemed to be a collection ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. The ideology that each segment has something to contribute has to be reestablished. Common spaces should be rejuvenated taking into consideration the aspirational and recreational needs of the fragmented population. The gaushala for example has always been considered as a place of reverence in the Haryanvi history. The locals believe in worshipping and feeding the first produce to the cows and then family. Gaushalas are mostly aligned with a nearby temple and a temple pond for rituals. This entire complex if reinstated consciously can act as a social magnet for people from all walks of life. It can retain its sacred ritualistic quality while catering to informal economy set up and recreation facility for the other two population spheres. Thus the bonding arena can be established.

Bridging and linking would take some more time and familiarity. Capacity building and skill exchange forums can motivate the masses to further alternate livelihood options. This would act as a step towards resilient and sustainable living. The banjaras can teach pottery, the farmers farming and the software engineers programming to name a few, eventually leading to the beginning of self-sustenance. This networking would not only provide opportunities but would also bring about a social stability that would pioneer the entire model forward. This social acceptance could then be harnessed towards a long-term provision that would be infrastructure driven.

Integrating the infrastructure, housing and amenities with the developer model is a crucial part towards achieving social sustainability. This initiative would reduce peripherality, mistrust and make them a part of the suburban model. Semi structured infrastructure would also increase the sense of ownership and civic pride and hence reduce environmental degradation to an extent.  Increased interdependency is the way forward for a landscape fragmented by socio-economic differences. The lines need to be blurred by making each group realize its shortcomings and ensure that the adjacent group can fuel its reduction. Production of value through formation of social relations would drive the differentiated landscapes towards sanding the unevenness. 

Shinjini Saha
Written by
SHINJINI SAHA architect | urban designer | urban researcher I identify myself as an impulsive writer before anything else. Bridging silence with words and words with ideas is my preferred mode of communication. An aimless traveller and incidental photographer at heart, my interest in observing the everyday-ness supersedes my passion for Urban Design. I believe an urban designer is a story-teller through people, places and spaces. Making sense of the pandemonium (read- cities), communicating and advocating for a better tomorrow, if not a perfect one.
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