Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Time to build a new capital for Karnataka

Brasilia and Chandigarh come obviously to mind when you think of purpose built capital cities, created de novo to realize, in both cases, certain national aspirations.

Brasilia was the realization of a long cherished dream, written into the Brazilian constitution, to open up the country's sparse hinterlands to development by moving people from its overcrowded coastal cities.

Chandigarh was more a child of necessity, born of the loss of Punjab's historical and historic capital Lahore to the whimsy of the Radcliffe line. Nehru took this opportunity to make a seemingly bold break from received colonial wisdom, inviting Corbusier to create a new town based on modernist ideas, a scientific approach to urban design that was to be a grand repudiation of our colonial legacy.

The recent decade have seen two more such projects, this time built from the gushing wealth of the oil well. Both are blighted by serious legacy issues.

Abuja is Nigeria's new capital, an effort bythat cursed nation to build a capital on land that belong clearly neither to the Christian North or the Muslim South, an uncontested space for a conflicted nation. That noble ideal has been tainted by the rampant corruption that is a way of life in Nigeria (ranked at or or near the bottom in recent survey by Transparency International).

Astana is Kazakhstan's new capital, a gift to the huge Central Asian nation by it's long ruling dictator, Nursultan Nazarbayev, of a grand memorial to himself. It is his Persepolis and Daulatabad rolled into one. Grand in a very kitschy way but who knows, posterity may yet be kind.

But why does Karnataka need a new capital? It is blessed with the cosmopolitan, technology savvy, salubrious climate endowed Bangalore, located at the very heart of South India. Is Bangalore not good enough, you ask! It is good enough and more. And I would like it to stay that way. Let me explain.

Bangalore is a great town metamorphosing into a sordid city. This will in time lead to greatness, for what great city has not seen overcrowding, unsanitary congestion, crime & pollution, dying many little deaths to be reborn grander, scrubbed to a shining new.

From the ferment of these difficult places has come great literature and art, large leaps in philosophy and political thought, evolution of new economic models and, not least, those magnificent structures - the Eiffel Tower, Westminster Abbey & London Bridge, the Opera House in Sydney - that are the familiar and beloved icons of our world.

What would Dickens have written about in a pastoral London! What need a french revolution in a manicured and genteel Paris! Would Central Park have been conceptualized in such a grand scale but as the shining opposite of the airless slum tenements of lower Manhattan. From the theories of Marx to the ideas of Corbusier, all were a response to and an escape from that gritty misery.

But this road is a long one, a lot of it still to go downhill before the exhilirating climb to the top can begin. Perhaps not in my lifetime will the depths have been plumbed. It's going to get a lot worse before it gets any better.

Mega cities come with mega problems.

The civility that we see still in Bangalore has no place in a mega-city, where people are consumed in the daily grind, rushing from one place to another for fear of being left behind. Life is nothing but an all consuming effort to escape the misery of such a place.

Furthermore, as growth inexorably continues, there will follow an inevitable period of contention for limited resources by ever growing numbers. Such situations are fertile breeding ground for parochial, sons of the soil politics, divisive ideologies united in their hate of a common enemy, usually poor immigrants who speak different language or have a different skin colour or a strange religion; who are not us but them.

Is that really where we want to go. Doesn't sound like a good place to be. I say let Bombay have all that dubious greatness.

Let's hold on to the Bangalore we love. Hold on to what gardens and bungalows of her's remain. Cling mightily to the charm and civility of a
life were we have time to stand and stare at the beauty that surrounds us and accept the generosity of the community that makes us.
We can't do this by adopting the railway compartment mentality, where all those inside try keep out all those outside from getting in. It simply doesn't work.

Bangalore has been capital barely 60 years, and its choice saved Mysore the fate I mentioned above, leaving it a still gracious town of culture and heritage. So it would be no tragedy for the capital to be moved once more.
There are precedents for this - Islamabad was built as an alternative capital to the overcrowded previous capital - Karachi. Bhubaneshwar was built since Cuttack couldn't take any more people. So, to an extent, was Nigeria's new capital Abuja.

Make no mistake that Bangalore would still remain the most important city in Karnataka, even all of south India. It would be New York, not Albany. It would be Paris, not Brussels. It would be Hong Kong, not Beijing.

How do we go about building a new capital.

De novo cities are ambitious and challenging endeavors. New cities are blank canvasses, the best of them get filled in over time with vibrant colours and fascinating shapes by succeeding generations to become masterpieces. However they involve large commitments of time and effort and require daunting obstacles to be overcome. They also have a long take off period as people are unwilling to relocate to these places in the absence of adequate social infrastructure (schools, hospitals, markets, entertainment) and social infrastructure development is hampered by a lack of patronage - a classic chicken & egg problem.

A via media is to build the capital adjacent to an existing settlement, a small sized township which can provide the base facilities of human habitation as the new city develops.

An example in the neighbourhood is the development of Islamabad on the door steps of Rawalpindi. Such an approach has other drawbacks such as dealing with legacy issues and the need to strengthen the capacity of the existing town to handle the influx, but these are minor compared to the jumpstart benefits.

China has ofcourse built many cities overnight within or adjacent to its existing towns. Even Shanghai, which once rivaled Bombay as a commercial center for this part of the world, has a new city within its folds built on the swamps of Pudong across the bay.

So what are the options? Let's first set down some parameters for the choice of the new capital.

1. It should be atleast a 100 Km from Bangalore, preferably more. Any less and there is a danger of it turning into an extended Suburb (exurb) of Bangalore - a New Bangalore. That would make things much worse - people would live in Bangalore and commute to the new town, pushing up commute times. The area in between would gradually get populated, creating a sprawling urban conglomerate, a megapolis with mega problems.

2. It cannot be too far from Bangalore. At worst it should be an easy overnight journey (8hrs max), preferably less; for a simple, compelling though transient reason. During the ramp-up period, a lot of bureaucrats and other pioneers will leave their families behind in Bangalore and do a Monday to Friday commute to the new city till the social infrastructure builds up. Build it too far and the hurdles to easy adoption become very high. It will remain a bridge too far to cross.

3. It should be somewhat more centrally located than Bangalore with reference to rest of the state. That is an easy bar - Bangalore is more or less at the centre of South India, but that places it at one corner of Karnataka.
This criterion will out one strong candidate, Mangalore. Also two peripheral ones, Kolar & Bidar.

4. A reasonably equitable climate. Ofcourse nothing can come up to Bangalore's standard here, but perhaps the regions with the greatest extremes can be avoided. That rules out many part of Hyderabad Karnataka (Raichur, Bellary) with scorching summers.

So what are the options? I believe there are 3 schools of thought here.
  1. Move the capital to the north of the state. Being much less developed than the south (old Mysore and Dakshina Kannada), the region would benefit from the boost in investment and spending that a capital city attracts. If you subscribe to this school of thought, Hubli-Dharwad is a logical first choice.
  2. Locate it as centrally as possible so it is accessible from all parts of the state. This would suggest either Shimoga or Davengere.
  3. Keep it near Bangalore so people can commute in 2-3 hours. This would impose a lower cost in the transition, besides having access to a significant international airport (BIAL). Keeping the centrality criterion in mind, Hassan is a strong candidate. It is equidistant from Bangalore, Mysore and Mangalore, 3 of the 4 most significant population centers in the state. Climatically also, it is not too different from Mysore.
Those are my ideas. I'd love to hear other points of view. Let a public debate start. We need to start talking now if we hope to start building it in the next 5 years.