Saturday, December 1, 2001

Begetting modernism through
town planning?
M. Rajivlochan

THE city of Chandigarh was inaugurated on October 7, 1953, by President Rajendra Prasad. At that time the government was desperate to people this city. Today, half a century later, the city is bursting at its seams. It was designed as the capital of one state, Punjab. Within a decade and a half of its formation it had the distinction of being the capital of two, Punjab and Haryana. It was then placed out of the administrative control of both states and under the direct charge of the Central Government as a Union Territory. A city with a population of approximately a lakh and a half in 1966, came to acquire the distinction of being the seat of three governments: of Punjab, Haryana and the Union Territory of Chandigarh. Even the next census, in 1971, recorded the population to be a mere 2.5 lakh, which grew to 4.5 lakh in 1981 and to about 9 lakh in 2001. Little wonder that in its early years Chandigarh came to be known as a "government town," full of babus. Whatever that might mean, the crowd of young students who seemed to dominate the cityscape definitely did not mean it as a compliment. There were some 20,000 of them in the various colleges and hostels of the city in the 1960s and 70s.


They were drawn from various parts of the country, but the majority of them were from the states of Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab. "It is a city of the tired, retired and expired" was an oft-made remark made by students about this city. This, of course, is very different from what Pierre Jeanneret, one of the architects who helped design the city and supervised the creation of many of its buildings, had intended. Jeanneret had once commented, "The idea of the creation of this town was daring. Its inhabitants will require the same daring to live in it." Ever since the city has been making serious efforts to live up to Jeanneretís wishes and live down its reputation of being a city of repose.


The idea of Chandigarh took birth in 1948 when the Government of India took the decision to create a new capital city for the state of Punjab, which had lost its traditional capital of Lahore to Pakistan. In 1950, the government began the process of acquiring land for the new city. On April 2, 1952, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurated the construction of the city and made his famous remarks about Chandigarh. He said the city was without encumbrances since it did not have any history and that would allow the city to be the true representative of future India. The occasion was commemorated with a monolith, shaped like an irregular pyramid, planted in the garden near the market of Sector 9. Nehruís statement has been engraved on this piece of man-made rock. The garden and the monolith deserve a visit. It needs to be appreciated if nothing else then as a monument to the archaeology of contemporary history of our country.

Even the so-called statutes of the city, rules by which Le Corbusier wished the city to organise and use its spaces, have been engraved on a cuboid set at the Rose Garden in Sector 16. Apparently the renowned city planner had enough foresight to notice that cities have a tendency to grow away from the plans of their designers. Through the statutes and by imposing three types of controls, he hoped to maintain the sanctity of the original design. Le Corbusier set up three types of "controls": architectural control, advertisement control and periphery control. The first was to control the design and placement of buildings in such a manner that they did not go against the overall planning of the town, the second was to regulate the unabashed plastering of walls with advertisements that was so common to the burgeoning towns and the third was to ensure that the periphery of Chandigarh would be developed keeping in view the vision of the city.


Lest it be forgotten, it must be recorded that the places which hosted these contemporary monoliths, were once settled by agrarian people. Pandit Nehruís statement, for example, is sited at what was once the erstwhile village of Nagla. This was one of the 22 villages which had a composite population of some 20,000 people. These villages had grown over the centuries. Some like Nagla (corresponding roughly to Sector 9) and Kalibar (corresponding roughly to Sector 8) could be located in revenue records 300 years old as fully developed villages along the important trade route connecting the current Grand Trunk Road (also known as the Sher Shah Suri Marg) with the valley passage way, passing through what is currently called Kalka. Other villages like Ram Nagar (corresponding roughly to the area submerged in the Sukhna Lake) came up in the 1880s as breakaway units from their larger neighbours. There were also extensive remains of residential settlements since the Harappan times, which indicated that the people here were basically farmers eking out a comfortable living. Though the absence of any significant architectural structures or artisanal debris or even largescale remnants of burnt brick would suggest that as compared to their neighbours, 30 kilometres removed, at Sanghol, the people in the Chandigarh region were not particularly prosperous. Perhaps the greatest bout of prosperity that people here witnessed was when the Government of India elevated this land to the status of a capital city. That in turn resulted in the ouster of the indigenes, the incursion of new people and the construction of thousands of concrete structures on a land where there used to be only a handful of pucca houses per village.

Living in Chandigarh during the early years was not easy. But then it was a young town with a young population. More than a quarter of its residents during the early years were students, two-thirds of the population was literate, one-fourth had passed the matriculation examination and only 240 persons in a total population of 38,377 were registered as unemployed. In later years the size of the student body grew, but so did the overall size of the population. In the 1990s when the number of students in Chandigarh working for their first degree had reached 20,000, the overall population had increased to 7 lakh.

In this new town, Sector 22 and 23 became prized residential localities. Living anywhere else meant that one would have to travel, what were seen as long distances, to the market, post office, school or college. The government had allowed cycle rickshaw for local transportation but their number was felt to be inadequate. The four taxicabs that plied in the city were considered to be something of a joke. The capital of Punjab, it was argued, could do with a few more.

At the same time it was conceded that Chandigarh was a compact city, the furthest destination possible in the city during the first phase was about 7 km, and it really did not need taxicabs at all. Even among government officers only the Executive Engineers and above travelled in jeeps. All others cycled to work. Yet, a number of years later, Chandigarh began to acquire the reputation of a city meant for fast-moving traffic. The speed limits for cars on the main roads was fixed at 65 kmph and within the thickly populated sectors it was 30 kmph. Trucks and buses were allowed to move at 40 kmph. Considering that other towns in India routinely maintain a speed limit of 40 kmph for light motor vehicles, Chandigarh must have seemed a very fast moving town indeed. Going next door at high speed!

All this was in keeping with the vision of Le Corbusier ó allowing for free and fast movement of traffic between the sectors. Lights to regulate the traffic were to be put at the major junctions. Then the Shah of Iran came on a state visit. His convoy met with an accident at the crossroads in Sector 22 with a rashly driven truck and two of his attendants died. Thereafter the administration decided to slow down the traffic a little by constructing roundabouts at each of the major crossroads. The administration also warned car owners and drivers that they should obey traffic rules. "Severe punishment" was promised in case of any violation of traffic discipline and traffic magistrates were instructed that they should not charge paltry fines of "as little as Re 1" for "serious" offences. Which offence was serious, however, was left unsaid.


Chandigarh was designed as a modern town much before transcending modernism became a fashion. It was conceived by a modernist town-planner, at the behest of a like-minded political leader who was out to lead his country from the darkness of tradition and history to, what was then considered to be, the light of modernity and science. "Let this be a new town, symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past. An expression of the nationís faith in the future", thus spake Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in July 1950. If it was possible to abort traditions and beget modernism through town planning, Chandigarh was expected to do so.