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Soane: ‘India must go its own way down the road to sustainable development’

Project Orange’s James Soane reports on his trip last week to India as part of prime minister David Cameron’s mission to the subcontinent to drum up UK trade

How does a country decide what it wants to become? An odd question maybe, but on my recent visit to India with UKTI and a host of politicians it seems increasingly relevant.

During the trade mission there was a lot of talk by our prime minister David Cameron of the need for partnership between the two countries to help deliver 40 million new university places in India by 2020 and a new network of primary healthcare.

In particular Cameron set out how British professionals could contribute to the $1 trillion (£660 billion) infrastructure spend that the Indian Government is looking to invest over the next five years.

Our practice has been working for the past 10 years in the hotel sector and has recently signed up to a UKTI training programme for SME’s, which is how we found ourselves representing the UK.

My visit began with a cavalcade through the specially cleared streets of Mumbai

An impressive series of visits and meetings began with a cavalcade through the specially cleared streets of Mumbai, a cinematic journey worthy of Bollywood, reducing our journey time from the usual two hours of chaos to 15 minutes. In many ways this is a metaphor for the moment – the power is there to create apparent miracles – but for what and at what cost?

In the papers the next day were a myriad of complaints saying the closed roads cost business, caused inconvenience and even prevented a wedding taking place. Similarly, when the Infrastructure Delegation went to meet the chief minister of Maharashtra, Prithviraj Chavan, we were very formally received and sat round a big doughnut of a table (inexplicably with a raised, carpeted centre) and shown a film about the success of the state’s industries and infrastructure. It was like travelling back in time to the mid 1970s: road building took centre stage, sparks flew off lathes operated by eager youths and signs outside corporate headquarters were symbols of world domination. Everything had a grainy, warm technicoloured hue that spoke naïvely of potential.

Mumbai - UKTI trade mission - February 2013

Mumbai - UKTI trade mission - February 2013

The reality is much different. The state has a growing population currently standing at 112 million. They need new houses, roads, infrastructure and jobs. There is a UK-backed manifesto coining the acronym BMEC (Bangalore-Mumbai Economic Corridor), a heroic joining of dots along the 1,000 km that separates these two thriving cites. What is needed is a heavy dose of critical thinking – before the building starts.

Infrastructure is only a solution once the problem has been defined. In India this means looking at where development has gone wrong and the few cases where it is going right.

Surveying Mumbai from the unique privilege of an empty road, one can only be struck by the sense of decay that overtakes everything. The new and shiny all too often degrades to the dusty, cracked and broken. This is harsh, I know, but having built a few projects in India, I have seen it at first hand.

The message surely has to be for India to eschew the glossy masterplans of the desert nations, the cosy domesticity of UK cities, the bling of North America and develop a vision based on truthful and sustainable development: building components that can be repaired; materials that, once cracked, do not break; systems that are intelligent but not necessarily high-tech.

Tellingly, the chief minister of Maharashtra explained the difficulty of delivering joined-up-thinking due to the fragmented nature of government, the lack of mayoral powers and the problems of land ownership. If the UK is to help, it requires an enormous shift in paradigms, new thinking on urban development and, above all, collaboration with home-grown talent. Innovation is evident on modest scales but, without a new vision, there is a danger we will be exporting a version of ourselves. We have done this before, and I think it can safely be said that is not going to work this time.

I return to the words of Charles Correa in his 2003 essay Chandigarh is 50 and Young: ‘…we have to come down a different road altogether, one which commences from quite another starting point. This is the challenge that the architects of the non-Western world must face.’

James Soane is director of
Project Orange

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