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Unplanned urbanization and communal conflict

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The series of communal flare up and violence which gripped cities in different parts of India following religious processions of Ramnavami and Hanumant Jayanti was shocking. It once again shook the foundation of our belief that communal harmony is embedded into our national character. In fact, the incidents reaffirmed that religious intolerance and polarisation are becoming more obstinate, and deep rooted. Mutual respect and tolerance are the key to survival and peaceful coexistence.

However, that’s the ideal best-case scenario. Our real-world problems are always more wicked than one would imagine. Hence, they require a much deeper and practical understanding to know the various factors leading to this recurring problem. Besides the socio-political aspects, we must also check if the skewed urban development and ghettoised urban sprawling responsible for such intermittent communal flare ups.

Unfortunately, in rapidly urbanizing India cities are becoming the turf of violent conflicts. They can erupt any moment due to any disaffection; religious, political, economic, ethnic. At every such occasion urban space turns into the battlespace. Ghettoized spaces, gated communities segregated by religious, caste and ethnic identities are becoming more preferred and pronounced with each act of communal violence.

The endless clusters of contiguous habitats, congested alleys, unmarked and undefined structures which often double or even triple up as living spaces, workplace, places of worship occupied by people on the basis of their religious, caste and cultural homogeneity stand out as the common factor at all the troubled areas including Jehangirpuri. The idea of ‘otherliness’ eventually turns these habitats into ghettos completely defying the spirit of inclusivity and accepting heterogeneity.

Allowing the development of such unplanned and often inhabitable clusters is one of the biggest blunders of India’s urban planning and failure of urban design. It becomes easier to exploit people’s emotions of primary group identity when they’re allowed or encouraged to live in ghettoized clusters under political patronage. However, what seems to be politically expedient eventually becomes an administrative nightmare. In the eventuality of any unrest enforcement of law and order becomes difficult due to the chances of collateral damage and its political impact. Therefore, immediate intervention is required at the level of urban policy, planning and spatial design to protect innocent citizens from ghettoized mentality, communal indoctrination and violent mobilization on flimsy issues.

A multi-religious, multicultural society like ours urbanizing at a pace of nearly thirty-four percent must consciously evaluate its urban policy and design in the light of the changing demography and socio-economic landscape so that peace and harmony could be maintained and law and order could be enforced effectively. Successful models are available. To avoid the emergence of ethnic enclaves in residential neighbourhood urban policymakers in Singapore have implemented strict ethnic quotas to stipulate maximum proportion of representation to each ethnic groups. Houses may not be sold to buyers of a particular ethnic group if they have reached their quotas. Though the socio-economic indices of India and Singapore may not be comparable, but it’s a model worth reviewing.

Indian cities are not the only ones susceptible to intense communal conflict and violence. There’re many more in the list such as Jerusalem, Belfast, Johannesburg, Montreal, Algiers, Beirut, Karachi and Brussels to name a few. At all these places there’re unresolved conflicts emerging out of religious differences, ethnic identity, nationalistic feeling. However, India’s situation is somewhat different as it’s going through a rapid yet unplanned urban transition. In 2020, over a third of India’s population became urban dweller. The trend shows a four percent growth in urbanisation over the last decade.

It’s challenging the existing model of urban governance, policy, planning and spatial design. Strange, but true, most of our cities whether Delhi, Mumbai. Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Lucknow, Patna or any other have experienced a steady growth of urban clusters segregated on communal lines. With each communal conflict they are getting further reinforced. It’s not only leading to skewed demographic change but also altering the existing urban planning, design of buildings, common spaces, burdening infrastructure and eventually leading to urban distress, suspicion and discontent. We now need to revisit the objective of our urban policy and planning in the light of these emerging challenges.

It’s well established that the ethnic and communal conflicts are predominantly urban phenomenon. Segregation and concentration of population on these lines have been debated politically and academically. But their impact on urban policy, planning and design have remained conspicuously absent which encourages communities to indulge into acts of encroachment and unauthorised constructions which often become safe heaven for anti-social elements. Today, when we’re making conscious efforts towards making our cities ‘smart cities’, we cannot remain oblivious that they need to be safe and resilient.

Urban policies and design should ensure that the neighbourhoods are homogeneous and boundaries are porous. Ghettoised places become vulnerable to communal hatred, mistrust and xenophobia. It’s ironical that safety and security which remain one of the prime expectations of people from the city are threatened every now and then. One of the principles of urban planning emphasises that households should not be moved just for the sake of obtaining diversity, but even communities should not be allowed to build to further segregation. In the wake of this new development we must revisit our urban policy, planning and design to avert recurrent communal conflicts in India.

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