Imperial life in the gated city

We all dream of leaving the chaos of our cities for a place without garbage, clean air and breathing space. Come to Magarpatta City, but beware, your dreams may come true.

BY SRINATH PERUR
INSIDE ILLUSTRATIONS BY SHASHANK ACHARYA
COVER AND TITLE PAGE ILLUSTRATION BY DEEPAK

I

Bura mat maanna, main Musalmaan hoon,” says the auto-driver, glancing half backwards. We are mid-way between Pune railway station and Magarpatta City, and deep into a discussion about the cost of living. He is apologetic not for being Muslim, but for bringing up the matter of his religion at all. He was eligible for a government job, but feels he was discriminated against. He has since worked hard, and can now even rent out a spare auto. He is around fifty earns almost `40,000 a month, but still lives in a  jhopadpatti. It’s the five children, he tells me. He can either spend on their education or on living in a comfortable house.

“We’ve given ourselves a bad name,” he says. “If we followed the teachings of our religion correctly, no one can point a finger at us. But we don’t.” What does he mean, I ask.

“Look at what I’m doing right now,” he says, turning to face me while the auto hurtles on. “I’m taking more money from you than I should. But I need the money, and you can afford a little extra.”

The fare he has quoted is 50 per cent over the usual, and despite the confession, he shows no qualms in collecting the entire sum. His confidence that I can afford to pay a little extra stems from my destination: if you live or work in Magarpatta City, chances are you are upper middle-class or above.

I was intrigued by the place when I first came here a year ago to visit my friend, Rahul.

After turning left on the Pune-Solapur highway and proceeding half a kilometre along the Mundhwa Road, the difference between the left and right sides of the busy road becomes striking. On the right, separated from the road by a dusty, uneven lip is a jumble of shops, small stand-alone houses, flats, office buildings, aimlessly open spaces. On the left is a neat band of green separating the road from a compound wall. The wall curves left by a sign that announces Magarpatta City, its entrance framed by two giant gray boxes. Underneath, security personnel raise the traffic barrier to allow entry into a place that doesn’t in the least resemble the outside.

Inside, it seems perceptibly cooler. The road is less congested and lined by trees. It isn’t as dusty. There isn’t rubble lying around. The road soon leads to a large grassy roundabout where the haze of a mist fountain for a second gives the impression of being in the mountains, with the fanned-out clutch of palms in the immediate background serving to quickly bring one down to a coastal idyll. A board proclaims: Welcome to the Oxygen Zone.

Clean and even roads spread out from here to various parts of Magarpatta City. Along the footpaths are sharply trimmed hedges and trees planted in rows, all this greenery reaching its peak at the enormous park at the very centre of Magarpatta City.

At the gate of Rahul’s apartment complex, a security guard asks me for ID proof and painstakingly enters my details in a register.

After some wandering about the several buildings of the complex I find the right one, take an elevator to the eighth floor, and am at Rahul’s house.

I later learn that inside the compound are restaurants, a shopping centre, a hospital, a school. A person could live here a long time without having to venture outside—the “city” in the name is no exaggeration. But for all the order and efficiency of Magarpatta City, I couldn’t ignore the niggling feeling that there was a strange bareness to this world too. If it is less haphazard than the world outside it is also less organic, and it somehow has the frictionless texture of a city inhabited in a dream.

Walled city

People have always formed clusters within larger human settlements. The earliest instance in India might date back to the Harappan civilisation, excavations of whose cities show evidence of an upper town and lower town, a distinction present to various degrees even in today’s cities.

Urban populations have since formed pockets based on economic class, occupation, religion, caste, and even diet. Cities have Sindhi and Parsi colonies, cantonments, neighbourhoods associated with communities or trades. Educational institutions and government organisations have had large and more-or-less self-sufficient campuses. Industries have spawned entire cities—Rourkela, Jamshedpur—as their townships.

Despite this history, many of the enclaves, townships and gated communities that have come up on the periphery of every large Indian city in the last decade are proving to be different. These are places where the sole criterion for inclusion is economic class—the ability to buy into the community. While there have always been upmarket residential areas, they have seldom been completely closed to others. But these communities maintain a firm exclusion with security cameras, guards, compound walls and gates. Unlike campuses or industrial townships where the highest and lowest designations shared communal spaces, gated communities give their residents the choice of being surrounded by people of similar economic stature on an unprecedented scale: a few towering buildings to villa communities to entire private cities. This also means that these communities can circumvent the problems of the city outside their compounds: crime, traffic, pollution, shortages of power and water.

The reasons for the recent spurt in the number of such communities in India are not hard to find. Cities are getting more crowded, income disparity is increasing, and the middle-class and affluent expect security and a quality of life that governments and city corporations are unable to provide.

The Planning Commission’s Human Development Report released in October 2011 states that in urban India 90 per cent of assets are owned by the top 40 per cent of households. At the same time, urban population, according to Census of India reports from 2011, has grown by 31.8 per cent in the last decade, while rural population has grown by only 12.18 per cent.

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  • st

    I have to confess, I think Amita is a special person and also this is Valentine’s Day so I’ll try to be not so harsh but her comments that “Indians are bad” and “they rip you off” were a bit disappointing, it’s like saying “all Amercians are good” which is equally wrong. Like Amita, I too am a re-pat (a term used to describe persons of Indian origin who grew up in a foreign country but have now re-settled back in India), in my case I grew up in the Bay Area and moved back to India (Bangalore and Kolhapur) to take care of my elderly father. Six years ago, when I had just arrived in India, everyone asked me, “How do you like it here?” I always replied, “Just as I liked it there.” The Buddhist proverb says “Wherever You Go, There You Are”. There are no differences between people, no matter whether they are in India, America, or Europe. As it is written in our scriptures, all our potential greatness comes from this common humanity, and when we constantly keep our eyes fixed on it, we discover the unity of life which is divine.

    Sirf ek qadam utha tha ghalat raahe shauq mein manzil tamam umr hame dhunti rahi!

    BTW, interesting article and comments in the NYT on the same theme echoed by Amita – http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/22/why-i-left-india-again/

    And even better, an illuminating response by Chetan Bhagat (I liked this much better) – http://www.chetanbhagat.com/blog/2011/10/24/happy-diwali-and-why-i-am-still-here/

    • amita

      this is Amita & i wish I was given this article to read before it was written. 95% of my friends are Indians. So I would never say Indians are bad. Politicians, corruption & the way of life in India is bad due to overpopulation & corruption from lower level. Sometimes it has to be done.
      Even purchasing deaily vegetables – one gets for a different price. No equality. So to the author, please revise the article.

  • disqus_sgDYJNnWgS

    Superb story.

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