Transforming Indian cities

How India can learn from Surakarta, Indonesia.

Despite being proud descendants of civilisations that have created great cities, and citizens of the country that has one of the oldest living cities on the planet, Varanasi, it is quite remarkable that we Indians have let our cities go to seed the way they have. Politics and administration have to shoulder most of the blame, as also social norms, mindless modernisation, which swallows up heritage and shrinks public spaces, law and order, lack of facilities.


To be sure, every Indian government in recent times has paid lip service and made budgetary allocations to improve the lot of our struggling urban areas. Yet, the slide continues. It is accepted wisdom that politicians neglect Indian cities because their focus is on their rural vote bank. Taking this at face value, the principal problem that Indians cities face is a lack of attention from the powerful. If we take Varanasi, the oldest Indian city, as an epitome of Indian urbania, lack of attention does not seem to be the issue any more, with the Prime Minister as its representative and ambassador. Preserving heritage while propelling modernisation seemed to be the mantra of his recent trip to Japan. With the Kyoto-Varanasi twin cities initiative as well as the DMAIC, this is perhaps the moment that Indian cities have been crying for.

Interestingly, the other Asian politician, who like Narendra Modi came from the fringes to work his way up the slippery slope of democratic politics, offers lessons in how to transform a centuries old city beset with a multiplicity of problems. Indonesian president-elect, Joko Widodo, affectionately called Jokowi by his countrymen, was a carpenter, a furniture business owner who then became a remarkably successful Mayor of Surakarta, or Solo. Surakarta is the cultural centre of Java. A densely populated city with few avenues for employment, Solo has been a political hotbed, suffering coups, politically motivated kidnappings, and assassinations, crowned by large-scale riots and ethnic violence in 1998. Jokowi came to lead a violent, tense and degenerating town as its first directly elected Mayor. In 2013, weeks after he had moved up to be the Governor of Jakarta, Jokowi was awarded the third place in the 2012 World Mayor Project, which says in its citation “During his time as Mayor of Surakarta, Joko Widodo (Jokowi) turned the crime-ridden city into a regional centre for arts and culture, which has started to attract international tourism”. While Jokowi and his handling of Solo, rather well described, are interesting and the lessons that Indian cities can draw from them are instructive.

First, India needs to co-opt and consult. Indian cities, have multiple stakeholders, ranging from officialdom, big business, institutions, general public, students, all shades of political opinion and religious leaders. Recognising that each group has a legitimate stake in improving conditions, creating platforms that bring people together and holding regular consultations, is necessary. This will reframe the civic environment – from being a jostle for scarce resources to people working together to expand the pie, creating a better life that offers greater opportunities. The re-settlement of street vendors in Solo is a case in point, where consulting the main stakeholders involved and arriving at solutions, defused a tense standoff into a major achievement.

Second, India needs to restore the public spaces. Public spaces are shrinking across India, through a combination of neglect, encroachment and outright demolition to make way for commercial uses. Making these spaces spectacular, whether parks or monuments, through Public–Private–Partnerships, or through adoption programs using schools-businesses as axes, represent quick wins. These initiatives work to galvanise communities, create competitive pressures within the bureaucracy to replicate success. One of Solo’s spectacular successes was attained by reclaiming spaces for the public, creating magnets for local and domestic tourism, paving the way for elevating the cultural heartland of Java to its rightful place. Culture and vibrant public places then attract marquee events, which propel local business and earn revenue.

Third, celebrate wins. Jokowi worked on a successful plan for the resettlement of street vendors from the Banjarsari Park area to a newly constructed and well-designed market. The celebratory procession, which accompanied the shift, underscored the fact that the vendors were getting a new lease of life.

Fourth, instill pride. All ex-colonies nurse deep wounds. For any country, it is easier to celebrate cultural achievements rather than religious. Witness the success of the dance and music festivals across India and those that have taken place even in places such as Solo. Indian cities can learn a lot from celebrating their culture and arts. A corollary to this would be to rejuvenate monuments, restoring them to their original aesthetic and thus propel these communities forward.

Fifth, investt in branding and marketing. India excels in its tourism campaigns and then fails the tourists who arrive. India needs to invest in creating a brand that belongs to its cities instead of the tourism department and create spaces, which attract well-heeled travelers. These initiatives along with their publicity are what made Solo “The Spirit of Java”.

Sixth, galvanising the grassroots. Jokowi benefited from the massive civic mobilisation that took place in Indonesia, first to overthrow Soeharto, then against corruption and to create a new mood across Indonesia. Social media and youth offer a heady combination to catalyse change. The 2014 elections in India, too, saw massive mobilisation of grassroots and the energy in urban areas was palpable. India needs to channelise this energy and seize the moment to transform its cities.

Photo: Thomas Hawke