By Juzar Shabbir
We no longer live in the era of city-states, and cities no longer enjoy political economic sovereignty that it used to. In the scheme of nation-states, cities, although economically independent, are politically dependent on the existence of a state. Dominated by global market of people, land and money, even the existence of the state is undermined. This global market dictates the terms of a city’s development. In a way cities are created in order to expand the market for land, labor and capital.
Whereas the city states had a clearly defined boundary, city-walls demarcating the city from the adjacent landscape, cities today, have no clear boundaries. Cities expand and become sites of over accumulation. Land and money are a commodity, so are people.
While building ring roads were a way to increase land and property prices along the peripheries of a city, rapid transport system were a way to manage the ever increasing distances between the city centre and its peripheries. But expanding cities in this manner was no longer profitable for either the real estate developers or the municipal corporations. Building and managing a large city requires huge amounts of debt financed money to be spent on city’s physical and social infrastructure.
Beginning with the industrial revolution until now, the old city centers suffered mostly neglect. People who had money moved out to the peripheries and the ones who didn’t, stayed back. Because living there was cheaper, a large population of working people came to live in these areas. Today, cities around the world have increased spending on redeveloping the heart of the city, as that was also the part of the city which was yet untouched by the real estate developers and finance capital. Those who had an old city, turned it into a heritage product for tourist consumption. Those who had none, built a Guggenheim museum or beautifying a lake front or a river front or a sea front. It is in this context of things that a critique of any conservation project or its afterlife must be based. This critique, is as much a critique of power, as of the people and their everyday lives.
History and conservation, like the city and the village, are empty signifiers, the question is who gets to fill it with meaning. Hence questions like, whose right to the city and the village, whose right to the history of that city and that village, and whose right to the conservation of that history, become more relevant. Especially, in the wake of neo-liberal urbanization process and its tendency to reduce a urban historical landscape and its people to the status of a commodity. Its focus not being use-value, but exchange value. Hence also, its tendency towards erasing diversity of useful works and creating instead, homogeneity of exchangeable products.
A people in whom have been suppressed any sense of belonging to a place cannot be forced to love its history or its monuments. Any such endeavor is bound to evoke in them a contrary feeling. Lack of decent living conditions, lack of decent work, lack of good education, lack of genuine health-care and lack of self-belief has condemned a people to live in Dante’s purgatory.
Although the hangover of the Imperial state is difficult to overcome, yet overcome we must, if at all a people-centric approach or a decentralized approach to history and conservation of a historical landscape is to find any fruition. Hence the following questions, how can history and conservation become tools of empowerment in the hands of the people oppressed by history, and now by conservation and tourism? Can these tools of empowerment lead them towards self-belief and self-betterment?
A tourism driven heritage conservation project is prone to idealize history. Life is reduced to an idealized image, to which reality must confirm. Any sort of Haussmannian idealization works on the principle of, exclusion of the many to the leisure of the few. Idealization demands that space be emptied of everyday life and filled with idealized people and idealized objects.
Money is largely spent on beautifying a historic site for tourist consumption. Daubing the monuments with lime plaster and paving the squares with granite is an integral part of it. Hardly any money is spent on elevating the living conditions of the everyday people living there. Hardly any spent on developing the human resource. Hardly any spent on developing strategies of building physical and social infrastructure for the local population inhabiting an urban historical landscape.
In a poverty stricken economy like India, with no employment even for the highly educated, any intervention must try to engage people unto the last, into the endeavor of rebuilding the city. Beautification of buildings and plazas, of lakes and rivers, not only require large sums of debt financed money initially, but also become impossible to maintain them later.
Money should be spent more on providing people with sustainable means of livelihood. On creating social infrastructure like decent housing, schools, healthcares, maternities and public parks. On creating physical infrastructure like water supply, electricity, internet and drainage. All these things require a newer approach. Because centralized planning and execution methods won’t work in this sort of a scenario.
Any conservation project, despite the scale of it, needs to be approached differently from an architectural project. Even architectural projects do not happen in an empty space, there is an existing topography of a place. To build something on a historic site already filled with buildings and appropriated by people, will require sensitivity as well as imagination.
Practice of conservation calls for an active engagement with the everyday life of ordinary people. The daily life not only observed but also experienced. Experts are generally trained into describing places through a visual medium and they think visually. But a place is not only visuals. It is also sounds and smells and tastes and touches. Even that too must somehow be recorded and described.
Old city conservation and redevelopment requires social co-operation. It requires that people participate freely in the process of their own emancipation. Everyone is an equal stake-holder because everyone is an important organ of the society. Everyone has a necessary role to play.
Without people being involved in the process of conservation, any project must fail sooner than later. An appropriate practice will involve people. To include people unto the last, in the process of decision making, should seem mind boggling to the eye of an expert prone to idealizations. Yet what matters most are not buildings or places, but people and their everyday lives. The intricate organization of the temporary markets held at the public squares is truly the people’s genius. People do not act according to a divine plan drafted by experts, but on the logic of survival through accommodation and co-operation. People work on small pieces. People collaborate. Every composition is tentative. Every idea needs to survive the test of everyday life observations and experiences. It’s a practice where thought and action cannot be divorced from each other.
‘For ordinary men, everyone of the innumerable little judgments required in life implies a risk and a wager. We are so used to making mistakes about our fellow man that good sense tells us to be wary of passing judgment, disapproves of hasty verdicts, and, quite rightly, denounces prejudice’ (Lefebvre Henri: Critique of Everyday Life).