The Good, the Bad and the Aesthetic
Avani MIttal | 31st March 2022
Visuals from the video proposal: a. Bhopal at present. B. transformed Bhopal
Visualise the word development.
Does an aerial view of the modern city come to your mind, all glass and steel and concrete? Colossal skyscrapers with light glinting off the glass, the row of tall buildings, a towering flex of the city’s might and power becoming the horizon of the city, broad roads and topsy-turvy flyovers meandering through the buildings, ever
buzzing with cars? Do these indicate a city that never stops, a city with wealthy citizens living a lavish life? Bang on!
A Google search of ‘development in a city’ brings up thousands of these images, which is what the Bhopal authorities envision as well while proposing to build the Bhopal Smart City under the broader Smart Cities Mission of India. This makes me wonder – what have we come to, how do we want to describe the very materials that are choking this earth as the means to create this fabricated capitalist dream of an ever-alive, wealthy, prosperous so-called developed city? The development agenda doesn’t really aim to, but rather appear to, solve the city’s and the people’s problems.
In this article, the city’s dreams, aspirations and ambitions are analysed through the Bhopal Smart Road project, which comes under the Bhopal Smart City Development Project. It also looks at whether the city is creating its own unique identity through this, or is it merely and blindly following the Western vision of a corporate-driven, concrete-studded city.
The Smart Road Project uptil now has had two smart roads built – the Boulevard Street, running from Mata Mandir to Jawahar Square, and the Smart Road, running from Polytechnic Square to Bharat Mata Square. The names themselves reveal their intention. The term ‘Boulevard’ takes one to the Boulevards of Paris, from where this Western Imagination of the urban landscape seems to be derived from. The ‘Smart Road’, well, it’s a smart road, what else do we name it as? Plus, an English name bodes well on how modern the city is. It’s the language that makes all the difference, you see.
The Bhopal Smart City’s vision, mission and values – apart from being a jumbled jargon of keywords like education, research and smart all dumped into one sentence – states that the four pillars of building this model are ‘World-Class Infrastructure,’ ‘Investment Opportunities,’ ‘Employment Opportunities’ and ‘Transit Oriented Development.’ The Bhopal Smart Road Project comes under Transit Oriented Development and aims at ‘making localities more pedestrian-friendly, which would reduce vehicle congestion, air pollution, or in preserving and developing open spaces—in turn reducing heat effects and promoting ecological balance.’ The roads
are provided with stormwater management systems, street lighting that efficiently uses solar electricity, service lanes for bicycles and broad footpaths. The dividers and the sides of the roads have huge planters and trees planted. The Boulevard Street has utility ducts running underground and an integrated command and control CCTV surveillance centre, along with, that’s about it, the barest requirements for having a road.
The development agenda – one that is driven by the money-minting ambitions of a capitalist economy mandates a developed city to provide ‘world-class’ (and by that they mean, ‘Western-class’) infrastructure, broad roads and metros so that corporations are attracted to invest in the city, and therefore, but obviously, enable the economy to grow. This is why, in a video proposal submitted by Bhopal Smart City to the Central government, you see an aerial view of Bhopal at present, and then the view of a transformed Bhopal. This aerial view of transformation reveals how the authorities view development in their minds, that the city can afford to make these kinds of powerful buildings, whether it be necessary or not; this is what development looks like. Moreover, the background music in the video – akin to the theme of power, either projected as nationalistic pride during Republic Day parades, or a false illusion of superiority in a radio broadcast in Nazi Germany; further seems to glorify the project as if saying that this proposal is the end to all of the city’s woes.
Visuals from the video proposal: a. Bhopal at present. B. transformed bhopal
The visuals of the Boulevard street in the video proposal show a very clean, aesthetically appealing city; busy men all suited up, carrying briefcases, waiting for their bus to arrive and young, slim white men and women using public areas. The ‘smart’ roads have forgotten to incorporate the needs of its differently abled citizens, its differently aged citizens, and its differently coloured citizens. Whom does this development cater to seems to be also derived from the Western Imagination that happens to include only corporate men and ideal citizens since the smart city doesn’t entertain visual poverty.
On both the streets, what is put in the forefront and what is hidden says a lot about how the city wants to appear.
The small line of cafes at the entrance of Boulevard Street is a chaotic youth hotspot. But because of the fact that it is disorderly with vehicles parked in any fashion, the authorities reach a but-obvious-conclusion that the view of the area from the road should be covered up by a vertical partition so that it doesn’t disrupt the aesthetics and visual cleanliness. Apparently, The Smart Street very obtusely ‘cleans up its mess.’
Copper coloured vertical partition hiding the cafes behind it.
On the other side of the road is an area occupied by a line of small shops and single storey houses, but largely covered with trees. This area again is being uprooted to be able to build more concrete roads and buildings. The video proposal shows what the vision of the road is, and clearly, it is one whose elevation looks ‘high-tech,’ ‘world-class’ and ‘developed.’ It shows the might of the city and the economic power it wields. The road seems to stretch to infinity, looking almost like a virtual simulation. There’s nothing wrong with development and moving forward as long as there is a need for it and done in a manner that benefits the citizens as well as the planet, but how these buildings develop in this case remains to be seen.
The problem on the Smart Road is somewhat bigger though. The side of the road has a steep, sloping hill that connects to the heart of the city, but this area is covered with a big slum and the residents have been there for decades. In 2017, half the slums were bulldozed in order to provide space for the road and the residents were relocated to low-income housing built on the fringes of the city as well as to small four-wall tin sheds along the same road that can only be considered as the most primitive form of modern-day housing. An interview of one of the residents revealed that the road was elevated 6 feet from the original road so as to hide the nearly dilapidated houses from the view of the road. Moreover, any building that tried to rise above the road was demolished, all because of the perceived uncleanliness and the visual pollution that these slums seemed to create. This was done so that people have a direct view of the corporate buildings at the foot of the slope, so that they see a ‘developed’ city, one where the buildings hide the horizon because it’s all about the elevation.
But, right opposite this, the Smart City authorities have started constructing huge concrete buildings that not only rise higher than the road, but also higher than the hill that they sit on, because once again, the taller the important-looking concrete buildings, the greater the glory of the city. The Smart Road puts active effort in hiding the disorderly, poor, unsanitary and visually polluting slums and puts to the forefront the concrete buildings indicative of an economically wealthy, ’developed’ city, that all the private investors seem to come to. Also, the fact that the most polluting material (concrete) is used to create these supposedly clean buildings continues to show that the main agenda of a developed city is merely a visual agenda.
Other provisions that came alongside the road are the ‘Selfie Point’ and the ‘Smart City Park.’
The Selfie Point, though, doesn’t harm the road or the area near it. It was an attempt at the beautification of the city, and a creative one at that. It has also become a good tourist and hangout spot. The walls on the sides of the roads are also painted. Visual cleanliness and aesthetics is our goal, isn’t it?
The project seems to imply a set definition of what development means – using city infrastructure to make an appearance of what the city has, rather than what the city actually does have. The Smart Road and the Boulevard Street do provide a pleasant ride and help in reducing traffic congestion on the streets. The trees and plants planted on dividers add to the pleasantness of the drive, and also make cycling there pleasurable, but it’s what happens on the peripheries of it that dictate urban life. Since it has been built embracing Western Imagination, the Bhopal Smart City Project fails to create its own identity and evidently, very consciously, emulates the Western meaning of a ‘world-class’ developed city.