The Politics and Economics of a city

Future Ideas caught up with Ms. Anubha Kakroo, Director: Design and Cultural Insights with Future Brands. Below are the thoughts shared by Anubha on the question, “What is it that drives people to congregate in and around a particular space that slowly becomes a city?”

Human beings have always been driven by power and cities are power centers. The power pulls of the city have been many. Be they religious or political or be they economic. So Benaras or Jerusalem as important religious centers; and cities like Delhi as political centers have attracted people for millennia.

The important point to note here is that while religious or political functions may establish a city, they cannot sustain it forever. It is the economic prowess of a city that sustains it and makes it grow. Thus economic power becomes the mainstay of a city and one of the prime examples of this is New York, which has been a city because of its economic power and will continue being so as long as that stays. Other than New York some other such cities are London, Hong Kong, Singapore and Mumbai.

 

If we look at characteristics of these cities, we find they are cosmopolitan, multi-cultural, liberal and to a large extent and generally democratic. Economics and commerce thrives on opportunities and that pre-supposes a certain openness of environment. Commerce is always about negotiation, so the cities learn to adapt, to bend, to accommodate. There can be no rigid boundaries in successful economic environments and interests of all parties involved have to be met. This makes these cities places of intense human activity and also helps it thrive culturally.

That said cities do fall prey to political and cultural upheavals even when economically robust. Some are able to withstand this, some succumb. History is littered with examples of both. Let us look at one such city in India which has time and again risen from its own ashes like the veritable phoenix – Surat.

Surat has been an important trading port for both the silk route as well as the spice route. It was the main port of entry into India, especially North India. The essence of a city has always been trade and like any city propelled by trade and commerce, Surat has been a meeting ground of many races and cultures, be they indigenous Indians, settlers like the Mughals and the Zoroastrians, early European traders like the Armenians and Greeks, other Asians like the Persians, Arabs and Chinese, or later the colonizing Europeans like the English and the Dutch.

There were many reasons for Surat becoming the important node that it did. Its physical characteristics, mainly the estuary of River Tapi and the sheltered bay at Hazira made it a suitable port on the Arabian Sea trade route of the ancient and the medieval world. Roads from the port in Surat led to Agra via Ahmedabad, Ajmer and Jaipur and other Mughal strongholds and thus ensuring a safety of passage for goods and people.

The other critical factor was ofcourse the indomitable spirit of the Surtis, the people of Surat. These are a people with trading and enterprise in their blood. It is of course possible that this instinct developed due to centuries of exposure to trade and commerce. Whether it was an inherent skill they were born with remains open to debate. Suffice to say that Surat was a robust, thriving trade-city of significance in the medieval world and continued doing so for a long time.

What eclipsed this stronghold of Surat is a political upheaval that the city and citizens could not have imagined. The early forays of the European merchants were for trade but this soon developed into colonial ambitions. They acquired control of almost all trade in India and with it the governance of major trading posts like Surat. Surat was the administrative centre of the western settlements under the East India Company. Soon the Company wanted to rid itself of the nominal acknowledgement it paid to the local rulers, like the Nawab of Surat and shifted its centre form Surat to its independently administered territory of what was then called Bombay in the 17th century. This move took away with it all the trading influence and importance that Surat had. Thus a thriving city slowly faded to a pale shadow of its vibrant self.

 

This was a political decision that affected the trajectory of a city. But the story of Surat does not end here. As a city it has constantly picked itself up and rebuilt itself. After the British, the city did take a while to recover and yes, it did not quite gain the stature it had previously held, but it soon became the center of Indian textile industry and keenly contested Ahmedabad for that position. It also developed another industry which it discovered holds currency in the current market and for the development of which the Surti had an innate skill – the rough-cut and the polished diamond industry. Both these industries flourished and it seemed that the city had regained a foothold of some sort.

 

However, Surat was struck again, this time by the lack of proper infrastructural development and the floods of 1994 resulted in a plague epidemic. Surat as a city and community, tightened its belt and cleaned up the city, developed infrastructure and was soon on the path to recovery and development. Today once again Surat is poised to gain prominence as an industrial hub and be a player in the economic story of India as it always has been.

The study of Surat gives us many pointers to city development. The physical location and characteristics, the economy that sustains it, the governance that administers it but above all the people who constitute it. One of the critical factors in the resurgence of Surat time and again, has been its people. People who have never given up on their city and rebuild it as and whenever required. It is citizens who worked hard to ensure the development of their city because they realized that their development is intrinsically linked to the cities growth.

So yes, the city can be defined as a sum that is greater than all its parts and its citizens are the force that makes it work. But this sense of citizenry follows from an identity that is aligned with that of the city. This identity is the critical component that a city needs to develop, either organically or strategically, because on it depends the robustness and growth that determines the success of any city.

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