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Urbanisation in Guwahati: bottlenecks

By Samhita Barooah

Guwahati has been listed as a priority city to be developed into a smart city. This will indeed be a welcome shift for a B-grade city. The constant transformation which the city has gone through over the years has been drastic. Urbanisation is a novel concept in India which reinvents itself in diverse forms � through infrastructure, people, institutions or disasters. Guwahati is a unique city in India which has the perfect blend of hills, rivers, ponds, lakes and forests within its natural ecosystem within the rising sketch of its urban architecture.

We have seen how the architecture of Guwahati city has shifted from tinned Assam-type small houses to high-rise flats in the residential spaces. Earlier, only the rich and elite people could afford to build bungalows and two-storeyed houses with lawns, garages and outhouses. People planned their retirement stay by building medium to small independent homes which were aesthetically upgraded with innovative architecture and airy interiors. Use of bricks, traditional reed called ikora, clay, wood, cane and bamboo, along with tin or asbestos to withstand rains, earthquakes and floods in Assam, was mandatory. These ingredients also matched with the natural environment of Assam, which was full of thick forests and layers of clay soil. But with time, the natural ecosystem has eroded to a sandy mass without many trees and hence, the architecture has also shifted. It was no longer affordable and durable to construct traditional Assam-type houses. Only a few rich families could afford to maintain their traditional homes. So the urban landscape went through a huge transition in terms of construction of multi-storeyed flats, which are slowing becoming the pattern. Builders gain land ownership rights and transform old property into new blocks of concrete with free custody of restricted spaces depending on the land holding size of landowners. Many families in Guwahati have fought with their siblings, parents and spouses to transform their independent houses into sleek and trendy flats to be shared with diverse people in lieu of exorbitant property rates, which have turned out to be a lucrative business proposition. Thus, the urbanisation pattern of Guwahati has equalised the social class with the concept of residential flats irrespective of power, position and resources. But it has also taken away from people their rights over ancestral or acquired land. Concepts of home gardens, kitchen gardens and water resources within households have become archaic. In these shifts, real estate has become a very crucial business for local and other non-local residents who have lived and owned this city as their own through their skills, toil and trade.

Urbanisation does not necessarily ensure urban mindsets. People have raised flats, saved enormous bank balances and owned huge property; but they have not learnt to live with progressive viewpoints. The struggle for space in Guwahati is extremely disgusting for working professionals, students and women who like to live independently. Hostels are often degrading spaces where women are exploited consistently and are confined to suffocating rooms crammed with complete strangers. When single women try to live on their own in independent residential spaces, they are subjected to discrimination with peeping neighbours, voyeurism, unrealistic entry and exit conditions, restrictions on visitors from the opposite sex and substandard meals. Working women, women students and independent women who need a space for themselves in this city have constantly been discriminated against. Sometimes caste, colour, race, religion, ethnicity and age are also grounds of discrimination. Sometimes people are denied tenancy because they are non-vegetarians or they belong to a different linguistic background. Some households in the elite localities of Guwahati do not provide rented accommodation to girls from ethnic communities, foreign countries, pork- and beef-eating communities, or those who are single and not working in State, banking and corporate agencies. Some localities are averse to women having many friends, attending or hosting parties, smoking in public and even inside their homes and going to bars, hotels and pubs for socialisation. The culture custodians of Guwahati city are constantly controlling women�s choices and mobility.

Urbanisation in Guwahati is lopsided as the city is in a disarray with every monsoon. Incidents of manhole deaths, flash floods, drain blockades and health epidemics hit the news headlines. In my experience of the urbanisation process in Guwahati, I have lived through more than 10 bomb blasts in the city in the past 12 years, and hundreds of strikes and bandhs which often paralyse the city. Both natural and human disasters have shaken the city on a number of occasions. Public spaces which adorn the city�s landscape have been created with the hard toil of migrants and marginal workers from across India. But there seems to be a complete divide when it comes to claiming indigenous rights to an urban space. Urban spaces are always multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and cosmopolitan. The concept of urban sanitation has changed after policy shifts and sudden realisation of business in human waste. Urban planning has created public toilets in various corners of the city like near hospitals and railway stations, and under flyovers. But all these spaces have to be paid for; so for the commoners, such services are still unaffordable and inaccessible. In Guwahati, market spaces, open grounds, parks and river banks do not have public toilets to be used by vendors, street dwellers and commuters. While surveying small shops in different localities of Guwahati, I found that women workers, salespersons, workers and vendors do not use any toilet space during their work hours. Even women officials in State Government offices find it inconvenient to use official or public toilets on their office premises. The main reason is poor maintenance and non-availability of water in such toilets. In fact the Guwahati Press Club premises also do not have separate toilets for women. Street food vendors, small hotels and chai shops do not have any access to sanitation in the urbanisation pattern of Guwahati. Not every person in Guwahati city can afford to step into expensive food joints with toilet and handwashing facilities.

Somehow, urbanisation in Guwahati still has a long way to go.

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Urbanisation in Guwahati: bottlenecks

Guwahati has been listed as a priority city to be developed into a smart city. This will indeed be a welcome shift for a B-grade city. The constant transformation which the city has gone through over the years has been drastic. Urbanisation is a novel concept in India which reinvents itself in diverse forms � through infrastructure, people, institutions or disasters. Guwahati is a unique city in India which has the perfect blend of hills, rivers, ponds, lakes and forests within its natural ecosystem within the rising sketch of its urban architecture.

We have seen how the architecture of Guwahati city has shifted from tinned Assam-type small houses to high-rise flats in the residential spaces. Earlier, only the rich and elite people could afford to build bungalows and two-storeyed houses with lawns, garages and outhouses. People planned their retirement stay by building medium to small independent homes which were aesthetically upgraded with innovative architecture and airy interiors. Use of bricks, traditional reed called ikora, clay, wood, cane and bamboo, along with tin or asbestos to withstand rains, earthquakes and floods in Assam, was mandatory. These ingredients also matched with the natural environment of Assam, which was full of thick forests and layers of clay soil. But with time, the natural ecosystem has eroded to a sandy mass without many trees and hence, the architecture has also shifted. It was no longer affordable and durable to construct traditional Assam-type houses. Only a few rich families could afford to maintain their traditional homes. So the urban landscape went through a huge transition in terms of construction of multi-storeyed flats, which are slowing becoming the pattern. Builders gain land ownership rights and transform old property into new blocks of concrete with free custody of restricted spaces depending on the land holding size of landowners. Many families in Guwahati have fought with their siblings, parents and spouses to transform their independent houses into sleek and trendy flats to be shared with diverse people in lieu of exorbitant property rates, which have turned out to be a lucrative business proposition. Thus, the urbanisation pattern of Guwahati has equalised the social class with the concept of residential flats irrespective of power, position and resources. But it has also taken away from people their rights over ancestral or acquired land. Concepts of home gardens, kitchen gardens and water resources within households have become archaic. In these shifts, real estate has become a very crucial business for local and other non-local residents who have lived and owned this city as their own through their skills, toil and trade.

Urbanisation does not necessarily ensure urban mindsets. People have raised flats, saved enormous bank balances and owned huge property; but they have not learnt to live with progressive viewpoints. The struggle for space in Guwahati is extremely disgusting for working professionals, students and women who like to live independently. Hostels are often degrading spaces where women are exploited consistently and are confined to suffocating rooms crammed with complete strangers. When single women try to live on their own in independent residential spaces, they are subjected to discrimination with peeping neighbours, voyeurism, unrealistic entry and exit conditions, restrictions on visitors from the opposite sex and substandard meals. Working women, women students and independent women who need a space for themselves in this city have constantly been discriminated against. Sometimes caste, colour, race, religion, ethnicity and age are also grounds of discrimination. Sometimes people are denied tenancy because they are non-vegetarians or they belong to a different linguistic background. Some households in the elite localities of Guwahati do not provide rented accommodation to girls from ethnic communities, foreign countries, pork- and beef-eating communities, or those who are single and not working in State, banking and corporate agencies. Some localities are averse to women having many friends, attending or hosting parties, smoking in public and even inside their homes and going to bars, hotels and pubs for socialisation. The culture custodians of Guwahati city are constantly controlling women�s choices and mobility.

Urbanisation in Guwahati is lopsided as the city is in a disarray with every monsoon. Incidents of manhole deaths, flash floods, drain blockades and health epidemics hit the news headlines. In my experience of the urbanisation process in Guwahati, I have lived through more than 10 bomb blasts in the city in the past 12 years, and hundreds of strikes and bandhs which often paralyse the city. Both natural and human disasters have shaken the city on a number of occasions. Public spaces which adorn the city�s landscape have been created with the hard toil of migrants and marginal workers from across India. But there seems to be a complete divide when it comes to claiming indigenous rights to an urban space. Urban spaces are always multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and cosmopolitan. The concept of urban sanitation has changed after policy shifts and sudden realisation of business in human waste. Urban planning has created public toilets in various corners of the city like near hospitals and railway stations, and under flyovers. But all these spaces have to be paid for; so for the commoners, such services are still unaffordable and inaccessible. In Guwahati, market spaces, open grounds, parks and river banks do not have public toilets to be used by vendors, street dwellers and commuters. While surveying small shops in different localities of Guwahati, I found that women workers, salespersons, workers and vendors do not use any toilet space during their work hours. Even women officials in State Government offices find it inconvenient to use official or public toilets on their office premises. The main reason is poor maintenance and non-availability of water in such toilets. In fact the Guwahati Press Club premises also do not have separate toilets for women. Street food vendors, small hotels and chai shops do not have any access to sanitation in the urbanisation pattern of Guwahati. Not every person in Guwahati city can afford to step into expensive food joints with toilet and handwashing facilities.

Somehow, urbanisation in Guwahati still has a long way to go.