3 years

Open Essay

A House for Mr Gandhi

Bholenath Vishwakarma is an environmental policy professional. He is currently working on a short story collection set in New York
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The architecture of Nehruvian failings

THE FIELD OF architecture is all about money. There are no architects for the poor. At the conceptual stage, most of them assume that money is no constraint because they abhor the idea that their creativity is subject to the availability of finances.

In a country like India where aesthetics is typically the last of all considerations, except for some government buildings and corporate offices, almost every construction is ugly and crassly utilitarian (most houses of the middle-class, for example, leave alone the poor). When money is plentiful, Indian architects place Doric and Corinthian columns in apartment towers. Projects of distinction are rare. Can one imagine a free hand given by a wealthy Indian to an architect to design and erect something like New York’s Rockefeller Center?

Elsewhere in the world, the poor do come in contact with an architect via government mediation, but not in India. So it’s ironic to find that in 1954 Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurated a ‘Seminar and Exhibition on Low-Cost Housing and Community’ in Delhi, the only one of its kind held in independent India. It was held under the aegis of the Central Public Works Department (CPWD), which has still not learnt how to make simple pavements for pedestrians. That seminar was perhaps the last time that elite architects spoke on the need of design for slum dwellers and lower middle- class inhabitants of urban India. Its focus was on Delhi, a necropolis dotted with mausoleums of dead Mughals that has expanded to its surrounding villages, though it may have been more relevant to Bombay, with its shanties and lack of space for expansion.

An exhibition at Delhi’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art titled Stretched Terrains, tracing the history of modern art through famous painters and architects in the 60s, had pictures of Nehru, prominent works of architecture, and architects fawning—or frowning— over his taste in it. From this, it would appear that most Indians had such elitist concerns, but it makes one wonder why Nehru could not see the dichotomy between his own personality and that of those he fought for and was ruling. Was he disconnected from more than three-quarters of the country that lived in its villages?

In his book of essays A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking and Feeling, VS Naipaul writes about the visit of thirty-something Aldous Huxley to an Indian National Congress meet in Kanpur in 1925 and his impressions of Gandhi. He describes the influence of Gandhi’s peasant movement on Nehru, who came from an upper-class, highly educated family and had no connection with the poor of India. ‘Halfway through his book Nehru, always seeking to understand the Gandhi enigma, and his own attraction to the mahatma, arrives at the idea that Gandhi is really a peasant but on a heroic scale,’ writes Naipaul. ‘He has some of the peasant’s limitations, the lack of the aesthetic sense, for example: Nehru says that Gandhi, faced with the Taj Mahal, would have thought more of the forced labour that had gone to its building. But always in his essence Gandhi is infinitely more than a peasant; he has intellect, vision, an ability to attract; and his asceticism is real; his suppressed passions run naturally to spirituality.’

It was Gandhi the peasant who influenced Nehru to leave his luxuries to spend time with villagers and farmers to not only understand, but connect with them so as to get their support in the fight for freedom. Nehru, with all his wealth and knowledge, was already free in British India. To many rich Indians like him, the idea of freedom or the condition of subjugation was abstract, unlike for the poor who were exploited as labour by the Empire. Naipaul further writes that, ‘And if two hundred of the desperate peasants, ragged and starving, hadn’t thought one day of walking the fifty miles from their villages to Allahabad, to put their case to public figures they had heard about, Nehru (the son of a famous lawyer and politician) would not have known about their movement, and his life might have taken a different course.’

Nehru’s idea of development was top-down, in contrast with Gandhi’s idea of Gram Swaraj, which would’ve had village councils setting policy and allotting resources. If Gandhi was alive for a decade longer, we would likely have had the development of India’s rural heartland

The Nehru who envisaged India as a composite nation with a great diversity of people and its disparate provinces united under the national flag got back to his cocoon in Delhi after becoming the country’s first Prime Minister. His idea of development was top-down— in contrast with Gandhi’s idea of Gram Swaraj, which would’ve had village councils setting policy and allotting resources. If Gandhi was alive for a decade longer, we would likely have had the development of India’s rural heartland and not seen mass migration to the cities (and their growth of slums).

But let us recap the development of India over the past three centuries or so. The Mughals created no institutions for perpetual growth, unlike what rulers in the West were doing, largely because the industrial era was yet to come. They rarely envisioned a city or a town larger than a fort and spent vast resources on grand tombs of no practical use. The British, on the other hand, were enterprising and industrious, for they had the advantage of industrial-age advancements at their disposal. They set up the framework of a modern country on which a beautiful country could have been built by Indians if they were really progressive. The British built cities, towns, roads, railways, administrative systems, industries and commercial institutions. Much of this is still in use. They created roles such as district collectors, magistrates, forest rangers, etcetera, aimed at reaching out across the land.

Gandhi and Nehru had argued over what was to be built on that legacy. Gandhi, despite his English education and barrister’s profession in Durban, was a peasant at heart. He lived close to the soil, worked with humble people ignored by the well-off. Yet, he was profoundly intellectual and a rare visionary, his keenest attention reserved for the worst off. He wanted a rural focus. In comparison, Nehru was urbane, less aware of the poor’s needs, and keen on an urban-centric agenda. In a sense, he was worrying about the design of a building’s dome whose bricks and mortar were selected and shaped by Gandhi. India was lucky that their approach proved complementary to each other’s.

Nehru did reach out to peasants. As Naipaul writes, ‘He stayed for three days with the peasants that first time. Later he went back and found that for this visit the peasants had built roads for him. He had taken a “light car” (the date is 1920), and when it got bogged down the peasants simply lifted it out. He ate with the peasants and slept in their huts. Everything would have been new to him. He would have noted a hundred details. He wouldn’t have been able to take anything for granted. He would have learned to look. His sensibility would have widened, with his compassion and his political growth; it was with these peasants that he lost his shyness about talking in public, even in front of ten thousand people; and later, when he came to write, this developed sensibility would show. He would be able, for instance, to describe his jail cells in gripping detail; he would be able to do the more difficult thing of describing the ever-changing mahatma, understanding at the end that the man who was truly a great soul was also in a part of his heart a great peasant.’

After Gandhi’s death, following whom Nehru had gone to the far corners of India, the Prime Minister never left the comfort of urban spaces. Unconsciously, he fostered a rigid hierarchy among civil servants, a significant part of the British legacy

Yet, this Nehru failed the people of Gandhi. He moved from his swanky mansion (formerly Anand Bhavan, later to be named Swaraj Bhavan) to Lutyens’ Delhi which was even more grand. This is where he was absorbed in building the dome of India on a foundation of his own choosing. He built things that served less than 20 per cent of Indians. Of course, he built heavy industries and dams and started the green revolution on the Soviet model of planning, but that was all. After all, with irrigation water and cheap fertiliser, a farmer can fill his belly but will remain forever a peasant, will never grow intellectually if not assisted in the same way in other aspects of life. But then farmers didn’t need to be anything but farmers.

After Gandhi’s death, following whom Nehru had gone to the far corners of India, the Prime Minister never left the comfort of urban spaces. Unconsciously, he fostered a rigid hierarchy among civil servants, a significant part of the British legacy. The poor, the uneducated and villagers remained outside the charmed circle.

The civil service was created by an empire for a master-slave exercise of authority over its subjects, and that structure is still preserved today in the hinterland where a poor villager has no way of getting in touch with a district collector, let alone enter his office building. How could Nehru and other politicians in his coterie not see it?

Government works on a large scale and individuals do not seem to count in its view. In buying space and services for itself, its first priority is to take care of itself. While people are classified by groups in the search for political power, the administrative machinery sees only the rich and poor. It makes policies for both, but rarely evaluates the impact these have on them. The attention a citizen gets in a city is far more than what a villager can expect. Even in this, there are variations. An educated urban citizen may be a social peer of the educated government employee, but the average villager finds that the local collector’s disposition towards him is like that of a king. Empathy is missing. So is respect.

Gandhi’s rural concerns were well founded. He knew how badly the poor are neglected and how a little help could change their lives. Nehru was involved with big government and grand thinking, spending valuable time over the design of a ministry building while architects and rich intellectuals would fawn over his fastidiousness without seeing the futility of it.

The reason that thatched houses of villages have turned into eyesores of concrete and corrugated sheets all the way from Srinagar to Kanyakumari is that the poor and uneducated have never been assisted by anyone, let alone by government architects whose attention was taken away by urban projects. Compare India’s shanties with America’s trailer homes of the underclass that are cheap but have all modern amenities. This is not because the US is wealthy but because Americans at the top level have looked after everything.

India has failed miserably on housing its needy. Large parts of the country look chaotic and filthy not because of its poor and uneducated, but because of the apathy of the rich and educated. Slums are allowed to grow organically and are never noticed till they become an irreversible problem. Again, in urban areas of the West, slums have been converted into low-cost housing complexes. These countries have created a mechanism for the transition, rather than letting such settlements take their own course.

What explains Nehru’s fussiness over urban India’s architecture style? Was it because visitors from abroad were neither going to visit a village nor judge the country by its neglect of villagers? The latter were part of exotic India, preserved in misery and poverty.

If Gandhi had lived longer, we would have had a different India, one with better villages that their residents would not be leaving in such large numbers. But Nehru was content with one housing conference in Delhi that was probably of benefit to no one.

India has millions of people who get on with their lives without any help from the state. They exist for the state but the state doesn’t exist for them. Government notices have been overwhelmingly in English. In a country where a vast majority did not know the language, Nehru spoke in the colonial master’s voice. What he said was elegantly structured, no doubt. “Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially,” he had said at the stroke of the midnight hour on August 15th, 1947, in his most famous speech. But even today, more than 80 per cent of Indians do not know the meaning of those lines. In the same speech, he referred to Gandhi, saying “…We have often been unworthy followers of his and have strayed from his message”. It did not take much time for Nehru himself to stray.