Like Berlin surrounded by Russians, Chandigarh often has to be defended like an island of sophistication from the marauders surrounding her.
The city was master-planned in 96 hours, reflecting the urban philosophy laid down by the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (a highly influential organization propagating the development and formalization of Modern Architecture – “Le Corbusier” being a founding member), which still has lessons for new builds being planned around India.
During the short span of 65 years of its existence, Chandigarh has emerged as the role model of urban development, locally and globally, says local architect Jit Gupta. It is known for its state-of-the-art planning and architecture – giving a new identity to urban living and quality of life.
In addition, Chandigarh has the distinction of having achieved several key milestones – reaching its projected and targeted population of 5 lakh, four decades after launch, in 1991; providing a sufficiently high order of amenities and services; ensuring a much better quality of life to its residents; setting high norms and standards of planning and development; creating awareness on the importance of planned growth; and finally proving that good urbanism can make good money.
Chandigarh has the advantage of all its land being owned by the government, meticulously planned as a three-phase project by a knowledgeable and committed initial team. Swiss architect Le Corbusier and his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, were influential and powerful. Far from being dictated by political compulsion, they even butted heads with India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to preserve their planning principles.
The choice of brick and exposed concrete foresaw the need to keep maintenance costs down. Stringent controls over each structure, especially buildings on important roads, renders the city amongst the most livable in India.
In his incisive wisdom, Chandigarh’s designer, Le Corbusier, whipped a 5-mile green belt around the city, later revising it to 10 miles. But no sooner was his back turned, this area encroached upon by the two states – Haryana and Punjab – when in 1966 Haryana was carved out of East Punjab (now the state of Punjab). The initial fear was that the newly built city would not attract more than 150,000 people, based on a density of 17 persons per acre in Phase 1. But now, civic administrators of Chandigarh struggle to keep the Swiss architect’s vision of “espace, lumiere and verdure” (loosely translated into space, light and greenery) alive, in the south and east of the city.
The heritage of Le Corbusier is strong and Chandigarh, built at an initial cost that matched that of the UN HQ building, is one of the few territories that recognised that more flyovers and underpasses, far from adding to the prestige of the city, are an open invitation to more traffic, predominantly from the suburbs of Punjab and Haryana that parasitically cling to its eastern and southern edges. The townships of Mohali and Panchkula add 1 million vehicles which barrel through the city en route to the airport and across the rest of the state.
But as the administration has discovered, it is the untrammeled growth at the edges of the territory that poses the greatest threat to the city. The Periphery Control Act, while it had teeth, allowed only agriculture, floriculture and horticulture in the periphery to preserve the character of the city and to avoid haphazard and substandard development.
At some point the government lost control of land use and of population density. There were no mechanisms in place to check what states were doing with the parts of the periphery in their possession. With the reorganisation in 1966, Chandigarh as a union territory only retained 3% of its periphery, while 75% was quickly grabbed by Punjab, which, among Indian states, stands out as the uncrowned king of unauthorized colonies, evident by its ill-planned, dense and filthy neighborhoods.
Under the emerging Chandigarh Interstate Regional Plan, states are required to cooperate on issues such as garbage disposal, water supply and storm water drainage. High-level state committees have been constituted since the early 70s to arrest the effects of uncontrolled growth. So far, the two states have shown scant regard for heritage.
Masterplans are normally associated with cities, but the great threat to urbanization is the lack of masterplans for villages as well as technical knowledge to implement such plans. While urban building bye-laws came into effect, there are no rural building bye-laws, which makes construction a free for all. The latter only came into effect in 2016 to regulate zoning, width of roads, ventilation and so on, making building plans mandatory before commencement of construction. But there is no executing agency for these bye-laws, so it is left to village corporations to implement them with varying degrees of rigor.
Satellite imagery and geo-referencing has identified 17 pockets of different land use in the Chandigarh. Phase 3 for which space was earmarked by the founders of the city is the last opportunity to house more people and on Chief Architect Kapil Setia’s shoulders falls the responsibility to implement without raising the height restriction. In view of its landlocked situation, Chandigarh is seeking to lease land from Punjab and Haryana for meeting the central quotas for affordable housing.
To implement its newly-drafted Masterplan for 2031, the city needs to raise more money. Property taxes were non-existent in Chandigarh for 50 years, only enforced by the central government a couple of years ago. Belying the quality of life and the sense of space enjoyed by the residents, the taxes here are historically low by Indian standards. There is resistance to even paying 2-2.5% of the value of the land. Even the owners of sprawling estates are paying only INR1/sq yd, amounting to barely INR5000/acre. “We are not even retrieving the cost of collection,” says Setia.
As the city advances towards its vision of becoming a knowledge capital and a health care hub, Jit Gupta believes Chandigarh still requires a large number of interventions from the administration, institutions, communities and residents to transform it into a truly ‘‘smart’’ city. Here is his wish list:
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