Thursday 13 January 2011

Urbanism Kolkata Style

I recently spent a week at a workshop in Kolkata organised by the British Library and the National Library of India, designed to lay the foundations for a project to digitise early Bengali Books (1778-1914).  In many respects it was a wonderful experience, and the project is incredibly worthwhile (though it will be difficult to implement).  But this was also my first visit to India, and my first visit to what might be called a 'mega-city', and the experience has forced me to revisit some aspects of how I have been conceptualising urban living, and in particular the nature of eighteenth and nineteenth century London.

A couple of years ago I visited Marrakesh and was struck by the essentially orderly character of what is a relatively poor and very crowded urban environment.  By contrast, what struck me in Kolkata was the extent to which urban growth seemed to have outstripped the city's ability to discipline behaviour.  At around seven million people at midday, and four million at midnight, Kolkata is both one of the worlds most recently created cities, and a city occupied by a rapidly burgeoning population drawn primarily from its own rural hinterland.  The city lived up to many stereotypes - crowded streets, fearsome pollution, and traffic that worked like fairground dodgems.   And while there were fewer beggars (either children or the disabled) than I had expected, and while I saw little evidence of malnutrition,  there were ragged shanties and street people around every corner.

But what surprised me was the nature of the rubbish.  It seemed to pile up along every roadside, untended and ignored.  And it seemed to be made up overwhelmingly of small bits of plastic, mixed with dust.  There was little evidence of large amounts of organic matter - no rotting fruit, or vegetables, fly specked bones or industrial by-products.  At one level it seemed the least varied or interesting rubbish I had ever seen - and it seemed to sit entirely unregarded, unmoved and unchanging.

My only explanation for this phenomenon is that, first, everything that could be recycled, re-used, turned to any account whatsoever, had been sifted from the pile and moved on.  And second, that there was no working system in place to remove the last, uneconomic residuum. 

As a historian of the urban environment this seems to me to re-enforce the profound inter-relationship between the economics of city life (its wealth), and the need for cultural controls on the behaviour of each individual urban dweller in order to make a city work.  In essence, what it confirmed for me is the extent to which living in a city requires the kind of detailed social and cultural system that could remove the rubbish; and that such cultural and bureaucratic systems can only be sustained in the face of measured growth - and that they can easily breakdown in the face of rapid migration.

When cities grow quickly as Kolkata certianly has; when behaviours and systems of bodily maintenance fitted for small holdings and low-density living, are practised in a high-density urban environment, the result in this instance seemed to approach the unliveable; or at least a form of urban dystopia.

In relation to the history of London, this observation seems to me to both emphasise the extent to which the city in the eighteenth century was able to maintain a culturally disciplined series of behaviours that both ensured that the rubbish was coralled to the correct place on the street; and that it was not allowed to stay there - poor neighbourhoods seldom tipped irredeemably into chaos.  It also suggests that the evolution of the nineteenth-century rookery formed an outpost of disfunctional urbanism that can be mapped against rural in-migration.  But, most importantly, this experience has re-enforced a belief that 'urban living' can be conceptualised as a distinct cultural phenomenon that takes similar forms across the globe - that being a city dweller is first and foremost about sharing a cultural system built on specifically urban forms of behaviour.