Times Square in Mumbai: Ludicrous plan, mimicking USA

In a press release in September 2014, the government of India announced its plan to develop the Kala Ghoda junction in Mumbai as “a hub of heritage and culture, mostly open air, the equivalent of Times Square, New York.”  Some thinking had clearly gone into the plan as evident from the steps listed in the press release. These include a lit flag of India, benches with lighting under them, large billboards for corporate advertising, and film and cartoon characters walking around – all inspired by the Times square. Rs 5 crore was sanctioned for the first phase of the project with a promise of “similar amounts for every subsequent phase,” with no limit specified.

The plan is somewhat ludicrous, to put it mildly. The New York Times questioned the practicability of making Kala Ghoda into an image of Times Square. Predictably, the article carried a picture of a cow walking in the middle of Kala Ghoda. The plan for Mumbai Times Square underscores the problems with the development models chosen by the government since independence, in particular those since India joined the globalisation bandwagon in the early 1990s.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister, grew up in England in early 20th century – the period that saw the rise of the Labour Party and socialism. He was clearly swayed by the ideas. Lacking training in Indian traditions and practices, he was ready to adopt what he had seen in Britain and the fashionable ideas of the times.

The central planning and socialism paths adopted after independence were prime examples of a failure of original thinking. Winds of change appeared in the mid-1980s, on Rajiv Gandhi’s watch. There was a shift in favour of downsizing government’s role in the economy and encouraging private enterprise. These were inspired, at least in part, by contemporary developments. These were Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika programme of restructuring in the Soviet  Union and the effective abandonment of the Maoist model in China under Deng Xiaoping.Globalisation was formally accepted in the early 1990s in the Narasimha Rao regime. In this model, foreign investment, considered anathema since independence, transformed into the gospel. It has been presented as the cure for all problems afflicting the country. The new paradigm of globalisation has thrown up its own challenges. 

An important offshoot of globalisation is an urge to mimic America. To be fair, this is equally true of other Asian countries – China and Vietnam - for instance. But that hardly makes it right. In any case Indians, middle class and above, are tantalised by their impression of America – its wide expanses, multilane highways, flashy malls and large suburban homes with manicured lawns. It is apparent that the influence has inspired efforts to replicate these features and adopt the lifestyle in the Indian landscape. The plan for a Times Square in Mumbai is a clear reflection of this tendency.

Without denying the attractiveness of the features of life in North America or belittling the aspirations of Indians for a better quality of life, it is yet necessary to temper them with a dose of realism. This warrants attention to several factors that are missing from the debate. For one, the American way of life is resource-intensive with great dependence on energy and consumption of materials. For another, the lifestyle in America developed in a setting of abundant natural resources – land, water and energy – and a relatively small population. Third, several parts of North America have significantly cold weather which means that people need more clothing and furniture for reasonable comfort and security.

Drastic differences
On all the scores – namely, resource intensiveness, abundance of land, water, and energy, and weather, it is not difficult to see the drastic differences between India and North America. Greater sensitivity to these differences can help in reshaping developmental policies and making them more suitable to India. For large sections of the Indian society, in particular the younger generation, it is important to realise that there is simply no way of making India into an image of America – regardless of the merits of the project. The basic resources – land, water, and energy – just don’t exist.

By the same token, greater sensitivity is also needed about India’s blessings. Almost three quarters of the relatively small land mass of the country is cultivable, a feature no other major country has. This ensures that India is able not only to feed its huge population but even export food. It would be more realistic to develop an Indian version of the American Dream. To be clear, the American Dream is more than just about living standards. It also includes the ideals of justice and equality, which are values equally relevant to India. In any case, it is not clear how efforts to simply import the ingredients of the American Dream, in a purely materialistic sense, can succeed considering the ground limitations in India.

True to character, Mahatma Gandhi was acutely aware of the resource-intensive nature of the western development model and cautioned against its blind adoption in India. It is heartening that Prime Minister Narendra Modi cherishes Gandhian values and refers to them quite often. This is, perhaps, an opportunity to make a holistic review of the development model India is currently pursuing and to revamp it with greater sensitivity to the issue of suitability for the country.

(The writer is Associate Professor, University of Ottawa, Canada)

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