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India’s Evolution vs. China’s Revolution

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Austin Williams, teaches architecture and urban studies at XJTL University in Suzhou, China and in his article “India, China: Talk of the Town” he compares and contrasts the urban development of the two countries.

The classic view of Shanghai’s towering waterfront may not represent great architecture, but it’s impressive all the same. In most cities across China it is the same story: high-speed construction activity, modernization, transformation and skyscrapers everywhere. While many Western commentators point to the failures (the accidents, the pollution and the corruption) with an unremitting Schadenfreude, China marches on. In contrast, Indian cities sense of urban cohesion seems to reflect desperation to hold things together rather than any real conscious urban strategy. The real changes are happening on the fringes, the satellite cities and the new town developments such as Gurgaon, Navi Mumbai and Pune.

Urbanism in China is clean, sanitized and blasé whereas India’s urbanism is grimy, raw and exciting. Undoubtedly, China’s “ruthless” ambition to build the future comes with caveats, but so do India’s bureaucratic, fragmented ambitions. In both places, construction standards are low, workmanship is poor (and so are the working conditions), air quality is bad and the architecture leaves a lot to be desired. But that is the price of progress and a huge range of urban transformations.

Many people point out that where China has the power to remove populations, impose its central mandate and eat up small towns to create new cities, India prefers to leave existing town centres alone, avoid confrontation and shift the development elsewhere. As a consequence, some commentators have likened these urban differences to the political polarization between India as the world’s biggest democracy and China, the world’s biggest autocracy. According to Daniel Brook,an American urbanist, historian, journalist and author, cities like Mumbai and Shanghai were founded on the promise to build the future. India’s “evolution” versus China’s “revolution” means that there are issues of land use, property values and urban identity to reconcile in India as opposed to the Chinese model, which is a completely different social construct.

The World Bank estimates the urban population in India to be around 31 per cent and in China 50 per cent. The United Nations considers a modern society to be one with around 70-75 per cent of its population urbanized, so it seems that both China and India still have a long way to go. But what’s more important than statistics is that in both China and India there is at least a visionary desire to achieve improvements in the urban condition. In these two developing nations, the model is “the future”, so they should be forgiven much. In Britain, by contrast, no city has been built since the end of British Empire. So whatever mess China and India make in getting there, at least they have an eye on the future. The West is happy merely to recreate the past.


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