No one knows where the proposal for building a new mall in BARIK point of Shillong, similar to Saket’s Select in Delhi, first began. What one knows is that there was a design competition that initially intended to develop recreational open and iconic space for the residents of Shillong. In the past few months, the objective has drastically changed to one that would require massive destruction of the land parcel on which the PWD complex currently sits. Urban planning in Shillong has long been unintelligent, inhumane and against the local cultural interests. We are now witnessing exponentially rising rents and market-induced displacement of traditional and local businesses. Shillong thus faces the double-threats of gentrification and poorly planned urbanisation in the style of metropolitan megacities, with which it shares no geographic, cultural or historical similarities or realities.
Urbanisation—as the governments of different state governments in India understand it—threatens social and traditional uses of land by local residents. States like Meghalaya, which are touted for their ‘tourist value’, also risk over-developing and exploiting all natural and real estate for tourists who do not have to face any of the negative impacts of an urban policy that is purely driven by the needs of non-residents. The gradual alienation of all land into propertied parcels from which to extract capital, particularly through tourism, will force a future on Shillong that will be impossible to reverse. We see increasingly how corporations, industries and elite businesses appropriate and monopolise all city real estate in powerful centres such as Delhi or West Bengal —smaller cities with weaker defences will face greater hurdles in challenging such anti-people hegemonies.
‘Yet, while large-scale infrastructure projects have led to considerable displacement, the expansion of India’s secondary circuit of capital has taken place primarily through the urbanization of periurban, rural, and protected land. Consider, for example, recent developments in Delhi. Millennial Delhi’s highest profile development project was the Commonwealth Games (CWG) Village, built on land reclaimed from the floodplain of the Yamuna River through a public–private partnership with the Dubai-based developer, Emaar. Once the CWG ended, the Delhi Development Authority purchased 711 of the Village’s luxury flats that had been used to house athletes during the event. It successfully auctioned off the first 80 of these flats in June 2012, leading to estimates that it would generate over US$500 million in profit off the 711 flats.(2) Here, capital found productive investment not in the rehabilitation of disinvested land, but in land that had never before been capitalized.’ 1
The politics always presents false dichotomies and zero-sum games that force citizens to choose between two mostly bad options. This is further proof of the lack of imagination that plagues urban planning in Shillong. The purported economic benefits of malls are only that—purported economic benefits that ignore all the potential ways in which degenerative effects will be felt across the city and primarily within the vicinity of the proposed mall. One should also consider that structures such as malls are not spaces of social gatherings, but ‘enclosures’ characterised by what has been termed the ‘middle-class invasions of working-class quarters’.2‘The structure or “materiality” within the architecture of malls, as well as the technologies utilised by mall owners amounts to a form of exclusion as they forcibly deny access to some sections of the population’. There are further ambiguities regarding the operation of the proposed mall: Much has been said about the need for creating formal spaces for hawkers to trade their wares. However, hawkers are often poor, which is precisely why ‘organised real estate’ is unaffordable to them. Will the proposed mall rent its modern units to hawkers and small Khasi stalls and shops that have so far made delicate profits precisely because their rental costs are low? If this is not possible from the business-side, will the government subsidise rents for traditional small businesses? Further, what kind of parameters will the government use to decide which is a traditional small business and which is a traditional small business whose owners already have extensive capital to finance their trade? If the rents for a modern mall are not subsidised, it can be assumed that already-established businesses and brand retail shops will be best equipped to occupy the proposed mall. Does this service the larger public or simply introduce a new line of revenue for the already-wealthy? What, indeed, is the concrete evidence to prove that malls will not lead to a decline of the ‘main street’ markets in Shillong and further side-line hawkers and small businesses?
There is no collective imagination in the politics of Shillong that clearly defines what is expected of Shillong, how it needs to evolve, and how its old cultures can flourish against cultural homogenisation and economic monopolies. The city’s planning seeks to mimic a balance between American consumerism, where the ‘mall experience’ is integral to American culture, and the Indian metropolis. Should every major city in every state emulate the same model of economy, culture, and urban aesthetics, and thus allow its own multi-ethnic and environmental cleansing?
Making solely malls into spaces of social gathering reflects the civilisational smallness of consumerist societies. We are already seeing the slow transformation of Laitumkhrah main street into an urban hub being populated by higher-end restaurants and American fast food chains. Many infrastructural aspects of current markets are already risks for the survival of these very markets as well: main streets markets and bazaars of Shillong need massive renovation, preservation of small heritage structures, greater space creation, demolishing of unsafe earthquake-sensitive buildings, safety audits, improved sanitation and hygiene, etc. A large part of the city’s markets are unorganised. The near-unanimous opposition to a mall at the said location also evokes a sense that the residents of Shillong, though lost for a better imagination, still have a clear idea of how they do not want their city to become another polluted, congested and corrupt petit metropolis with increasing gaps between the poor and the rich. Malls are ‘sealed enclaves’ and, by their architectural nature, will not allow mass gatherings beyond what can be physically accommodated. They offer the (false) ‘aesthetics’ of development, as understood by narrow-minded interests. Former open spaces are now being aggressively developed under substandard, often nepotistic, projects, and already existing spaces are being eroded to create an illusion of urbanisation. Thus, community interests in Shillong take a back seat against predatory real estate practices.
Importing the Failures of Megacities
Even if the proposed mall is successful in generating revenues, one can question why the government can only propose economic solutions that could have such detrimental effects on the environment and culture of Shillong? This assumes that only certain forms of capital that reinforce monopolies are promoted over others forms of revenue generation that are respectful of indigenous needs and spaces. There are few locations in the city that are spacious and green. Outside of reserved forests, there is rapidly dwindling green cover in the city, which is not being resolved; there is increasing traffic which Shillong cannot accommodate and road-widening cannot alleviate; solid waste management is in non-existence; building regulations are flouted as the city aggressively concretises. A mall has been proposed without putting forward a developer’s impact report that honours community demands and, most importantly, consent. There are many social impacts to be considered, some of which included: effects on existing markets in surrounding areas, recreational amenity, traffic congestion and air pollution, water use, reduction of accessible green space, and potential degradation of reserved wild forests into public parks with non-native ecology to compensate for green loss in other parts of the city.
There is greater need for sustainable resource management of indigenous lands—not for tourism, not for the Centre’s coffer, not for the State’s glory, but for the common amongst us to simply exist with self-respect. This can only be possible if sub-standard urban planners, civil engineers and other civil servants, and architects are eliminated to give way for thoughtful planning that can benefit more than one generation. Currently, we see no concern for cultural or environmental well-being in city planning—of note is how indigenous architectures and related artisan crafts are coming to extinction. Then, is it wise to mould Shillong in the image of Bengaluru, a city that boasted 1,000 lakes less than half a century ago, but now has lakes that catch fire; Mumbai, where mangrove forest destruction has led to more and more dangerous floods and the proposed capture of Aarey forest is set to displace its tribal communities and wholesale remove its only ‘lungs’; and Delhi, where rent-seeking, environmental degradation, and loss of native trees has led to high temperatures, droughts and poverty? So why import a model that has already and thoroughly failed and made these cities unliveable?
On a final note, there are no large libraries, amphitheatres, sports arenas, and rewilded public ecological parks in Shillong. Healthcare and basic education reforms often take a backseat. The sewage system is broken, with so much of the city operating with open drains. There is no proper solid waste management,3no large-scale water harvesting against perpetual and critical water scarcity, and almost all streams that were once pristine are toxic. This is visible degradation of Shillong that can be directly attributed to poor, haphazard and hurried planning that unintelligently tries to mimic what megacities in India have done.
Few realise that every public space in the city is a space for recreation and leisure—whether it generates revenue or is free. And this should inform further development plans in Shillong, especially in the time of a pandemic that scientists predict will not let up for another two years or so.