The endangered city

Monday 09 May 2011

One man's plea for Gandhinagar

A recent census analysis indicated that whilst population growth in India has slowed from 21.5% to 17.6% over the last decade, the overall size of population is set to overtake that of China by 2030. Now home to 17% of the world’s total population, India is undergoing a dramatic architectural transformation as new residential developments and infrastructure expansions are put in place to meet an ever-increasing demand.

WAN recently received an anxious email from Prakash M Apte, one of the lead designers of the city of Gandhinagar, expressing the need to publicise his heartfelt reaction to the ‘wanton destruction of the plan of the city’. Commissioned in the 1960s alongside fellow urban planner H.K. Mewada, Prakash M Apte embarked upon a phased construction project to create a new state capital for Gujarat following the division of Bombay state into Gujarat and Maharashtra.

The architect explains that his appointment was met with ‘great opposition...by a very influential group of architects from Ahmedabad who wanted the job to be given to them and had put up Louis Khan as the ‘Front’’. In a lengthy email to WAN, Apte detailed how those opposed to his design have ‘succeeded in convincing the political powers of the need to ‘re-plan’ Gandhinagar’, dramatically altering the traditional concepts behind the city’s structure.

In the following article he outlines his case for Gandhinagar...

A Capital’s Plan Dismantled

Either by design or imbecility, the re-planning of Gandhinagar by the Consultants of Gandhinagar Urban Development Authority (GUDA) has obliterated its identity as a capital city. It’s consciously designed and planned axial plan & egalitarian Gandhian ethos has been dismantled. The juggernaut of unbridled capitalism has led to its debasement and inorganic extension resulting in Gandhinagar becoming just another suburb of Ahmedabad.

The city was planned and implemented between 1965-1970 by two Indian Planners, H.K.Mewada and P.M.Apte. An influential group of Architects from Ahmedabad with active support from some industrialists had tried then to usurp the job by bringing in American Architect Louis Kahn who was in Ahmedabad to design the buildings of the management institute. The state government was however determined to have the city designed by Indian town planners in the best traditions of Gujarat’s rich heritage of town planning and principles of Mahatma Gandhi who had his ‘Ashram’ just south of the proposed site of the city on the banks of river Sabarmati. The government therefore persisted with its choice of Mewada to plan the new capital city.

Unlike Chandigarh, designed on barren lands with no sizable existing human settlement near about: Gandhinagar’s site is just 23km north of Ahmedabad, a flourishing city. Hence, to establish and maintain a separate identity of the new city, an area of about 39 villages around was brought under a Periphery Control Act (as in Chandigarh) that permitted new development of farm houses only. The area later constituted a separate administrative district of Gandhinagar.

The city is planned on the western bank of river Sabarmati. Due to a constant military confrontation with Pakistan, whose borders are close from the city, a large military presence was required here. The land acquired on the eastern bank, adjacent to National Highway no.8, was therefore allotted to the Border Security force and military cantonment. Considering the mostly south-west to north-east wind direction, the land to the north of the city was allotted for the then biggest thermal power station and the adjacent areas were zoned for industrial use. This area was distanced from the township by a 2000ft wide green strip of thick vegetation. Being planned as the administrative capital of the state, current and future population employed in state government offices was distributed in 30 residential sectors around the State Assembly-Secretariat complex. About 50% of the population accommodated in each residential sector is/will be employed by government. Plots on the periphery of each sector are meant for private and supporting population that constitutes another 50%.

The city was planned for a population of 150,000 but can accommodate double that population with increase in the Floor Space Ratio from 1:2 in the areas reserved for private development in all residential sectors. The river being the border on the east, and the industrial area to the North, the most logical future physical expansion of the city was envisaged towards the north-west. To retain the identity of the city as a new town and the capital, the planners provided for its growth AWAY from the city of Ahmedabad which is to the south. Hence as a rational extension of the grid, to the north-west the planners had envisaged 30 additional residential sectors that could accommodate a population of 450,000. Thus, the growth potential of the city by densification and area expansion to the north-west is for a population of 750,000. The consultants appointed by GUDA want the expansion of the city to take place to the south so that the lands between the two cities that had a great market value could be exploited by private developers and in the process everyone gets a share of the pie!

The consultants neither reviewed the original city plan in the context of a new capital, regional economic/industrial development or growth matrix of a new town, nor did they consult planners of the original master plan, thus eliminating the possibility of informed and constructive criticism.

The proposals of the consultants, driven by profit motives raise serious doubts about their honesty, integrity, and professional competence. Would they have dared to make such proposals if Gandhinagar was designed by Louis Kahn or Le Corbusier?

A southward expansion proposed by the Consultants will merge it with Ahmedabad and finally become its SUBURB destroying its separate identity. The consultants aim at this objective. If the city is to be expanded and extended, it can be done as originally envisaged. It will be rational, in keeping with the original concept, retain the urban design and the central vista and yet can absorb new design ideas without destroying the basic concept.

This extension to the south has completely destroyed the most important and the monumental concept of the central vista (Road no.4) that focuses on the capitol complex and was naturally to be extended to the north-west maintaining the axis and expanding the city physically in that direction. The location of a Gandhi memorial on this axis, originally provided, has been removed!

The consultants while extending the city to the south have designated a 5 km long and ¼ km wide belt of land on both sides, of the Koba-Gandhinagar expressway (an area of 2.50 sq km) for commercial uses with an FSI of 2.00. This, despite over 50% of the designated commercial area in the city still remaining unsold! Over 6000 acres of green cover to the south west of the city has been designated for residential use in an attempt to join with the city of Ahmedabad. All this land, when developed can accommodate a population of over 600,000. With the connivance of the consultants, the vested interests have bought these lands in advance of the proposals. It will be revealing to know who bought these lands! The consultants thus seek to destroy the identity of the new capital city and make it a suburb of Ahmedabad.

The ‘Gamthan’ (built-up land in a village) areas of 7 villages just abutting the city limits of Gandhinagar are increased arbitrarily (much beyond their natural growth requirements) to allow private residential development (who have bought these lands?). These enhanced Gamthan areas together may accommodate a population of over 150,000 thus totaling 750,000. Ironically the original plan of Gandhinagar did provide for similar expansion of population and the city area yet retaining its identity, concept and urban design.

The Consultants, thus dealing a death blow to the organic growth of Gandhinagar, have helped private developers to get cheap lands to develop commercial & residential apartments with access to free physical infrastructure (roads, water supply etc,) health, education and cultural facilities provided in Gandhinagar by the State Government.

Not content with this abuse of the basic concept, the consultants have dismantled some important urban design features of the plan. A major area for cultural facilities, in the city square in sector 17 (city centre) is proposed to be converted to commercial use killing Gujarat’s traditional concept of a 'city square' and destroying a major element of 'urban design' of the new capital city.

An area along J road (along the river Sabarmati) across sector 9 covered by ravines, was proposed for conservation as an adventure park. It is now designated by the consultants for residential, taking away a unique recreational facility.

The open spaces at the junctions of all main roads of the city, left open in the original plan to improve road geometrics in future, ornamental landscaping, road signage, guide maps etc. are proposed to be filled up with roadside petty shops & hutments for the immigrants giving the city a slum like look. So, the ‘original’ city may look like a slum and the ‘NEW’ a jewel!

A plea to the Chief Minister of Gujarat on his website has not elicited any response so far.

Prakash M Apte.
Senior Town Planner: Gujarat New Capital Project.

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