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Goodbye, urban oasis: The end of the "gated community" dream

"This is a city. A big little City, 125 acres wide near Hebbal in Bengaluru. Children walk to school here. They run back home, fling their bags and then run up trees… Simple, yes. Idyllic and little other-worldly, sure… Furniture crafted in Italy. Street lights that multitask as surveillance cameras and wi-fi ports. It's a City where the past meets the future and together live happily ever after. This is the City of Joy."

My morning newspaper came wrapped in a familiar dream, sold in countless real estate ads spread across billboards, magazines, and newspapers. A dream of a gated paradise, far away from the madding crowds, filth, and chaos. A fantasy of insulation that the upwardly mobile buy into in the name of aspiration. And not just in the big, big cities. As the real estate special in the latest India Today makes clear, the dream is spreading like a virus across middle class India. Page after page is illustrated with glossy photos of upscale homes in Mohali, Lucknow, Jaipur, Indore, Bhubhaneshwar, Coimbatore and Bhiwadi. Vast communities with open spaces, 100 percent power backup, swimming pools, wi-fi, zero pollution and noise. And they're all selling like hot cakes, if the so-called experts are to be believed.

What none of the advertisements or the experts acknowledge is this: what we're buying into is every bit as unreal as a dream.

 Goodbye, urban oasis: The end of the gated community dream

Representational image. AFP.

In her India Ink column, Saritha Rai writes of the residents of Yash Enclave which too looks like a "City of Joy": "[T]he streets are squeaky clean, homes have lush gardens, and there is seldom a honk heard from the cars as they cruise through, stopping to make way for kids riding bicycles, gliding by on rollerblades or chasing after cricket balls."

Except there's no water in the borewells.

Just four years ago, the news media were touting the great middle class escape to real estate paradise.

"Emigre, which means political exile, really is the right word," declared a 2008 Outlook article titled, "Free From India?", " By turning their backs on power outages and water shortages, they probably took the most political step of their lives. Other residents also radiate pleasure. It is the pleasure of being in a warm room after a blizzard."

Money and private contractors would provide what the state could not. The "warm room" promised freedom from the great miseries of living in India: Water shortage, power failure, crime, dirt, and corruption. The promise, much like the fabled 'urban oasis,' turned out to be a mirage. Looking back, 2012 may well go down as the year when the bubble popped.

The failed monsoon this year brought with it a bitter lesson on the limits of immunity, and not just to Yash Enclave in Bangalore. The chi-chi apartment complexes in Gurgaon were forced to ration water supply to 4 hours a day. But, as Rai notes,  gated community residents in drier parts of Bangalore have never had city supply or groundwater to tap, relying instead on private water suppliers for their everyday needs. In Faridabad, Gurgaon and Sonipat, development continues apace even a thousands of flats lie empty because there is no water supply.

Apartments, apartments everywhere, not a drop to drink.

But, hey, there's still the bliss of uninterrupted electricity right? Yes, but not for very long. The hike in diesel prices will inevitably push up the price of that 24X7 generator. The future will inevitably bring ever spiraling maintenance charges, and inevitably power rationing. Even the more exclusive gated communities now limit the amount of backup power supply guaranteed to its residents.

No paani, no "100 percent power backup." But there is indeed lots and lots of garbage. As garbage collection and disposal becomes an arena for political battle, we can soon expect the rise of a garbage mafia, as well. And all the money in the world won't protect the residents from the mountains of garbage right outside, breeding dengue and malaria mosquitos who roam freely on their clean streets.

And those streets maybe clean, but they are not all that safe, either inside the complex or without. The gang-rapes of Gurgaon proved that creating isolated and disconnected residential zones makes public spaces all the more unsafe. As Firstpost reported at the time, "So while the space within an apartment complex or gated community is sanitized and secure, the exterior spaces that connect them – to each other, mall, metro stations, or the nightclub — are neglected and unguarded."

The 35,000 security guards matter little when there are only 3.286 cops in the Millenium City. That we are now increasingly afraid of the very guards paid to protect us is a different story entirely.

Water shortage, check. Power crisis, impending. Garbage, yes. Security, no.

How about corruption? The gated community was supposed to save us from our compromised, rotten-to-the-core state, ensure we were no longer at the mercy of its leaders. Well, that didn't happen either.

The long, dry summer also spelt out the perils of privatisation. As it turns, money can't buy everything, including protection from corruption.

Price gouging by water suppliers became routine. In DLF City, the price shot up to Rs 1500 per tanker -- with no guarantees about quality or potability. In Bangalore, scarcity has birthed a new term, "water mafia,"  Indian Express notes, "[T]he private water supply to water-thirsty neighbourhoods is controlled by water tanker operators backed by the local corporator, the legislator or a powerful politician." And they work in perfect tandem. The politician ensures that the building doesn't get city water, leaving the private suppliers to step in to fulfill what is soon a a desperate need.

Here's the kicker: fancier the neighbourhood, the more attractive they are to the mafia. And their control now is expanding to other "essentials like milk supply, cable TV connections, internet connectivity and newspaper delivery. The Express article quotes a Bangalore resident who plaintively asks, “How do we end the goonda raj of the water mafia in Bangalore? Why doesn’t the government stop this loot?”

And we're right back to where we started...

The moral of this sad story? There is no escape. There is no bubble. There is no insulation. We can't retreat into pristine spaces while leaving the rest to wallow in the muck -- because the muck will inevitably find its way in. If we want to live in a better community, city, state, society, we have to clean it all, ourselves, together. While that may be hard lesson, it's a valuable one.

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Updated Date: Oct 31, 2012 23:04:07 IST