Lake of lost hope?

Tank BundHussain Sagar, or Tank Bund, as it is known more commonly is an artificial lake in the center of the city of Hyderabad. Built originally as a water reservoir almost 400 years ago, it is mainly a receptacle of sewage water and industrial waste from the neighboring areas. Tank Bund is an important urban space, it is historically significant besides being one of the spaces in cities that is public, open, inclusive, democratic. It was one of the important places of Telangana separation movement, and continues to be a place for demonstrations and protests. The building of malls, making of the Necklace Road drive and Eat Street shifted the momentum of public activity to other areas, the significance that belies it as a public urban space remains. The city of Hyderabad itself is identifiable with the lake as much as it is with the icon of Charminar.

Tank bund is in the center of discussion again – but for the number of people committing suicide by jumping into it. However, Telangana itself is the state with the second highest rate of deaths by suicide. It is not surprising that the majority of people attempting suicide are women (56%) and minors (17%) belong to the vulnerable group. The reason being either financial difficulty or family quarrels, and by women mostly belonging to the neighboring slum who are victims of domestic abuse. In order to stop people from attempting suicide a proposal was made to the authorities to install a fence around the lake. Though, so far, the civic authorities have not taken action, putting fence will not help people who are actually committing suicide. What it will possibly change is the statistics around the lake on the number of people attempting suicide, and dying as a result of which. Such a move is unlikely to be of any help in actually mitigating the deeper and graver societal problems that underlie such extreme acts taken by people. On the surface it does appear to help in reducing the options, in the large scheme it is almost redundant. For example: access to the terrace of Charminar was restricted after someone committed suicide by jumping, however, the number of suicides have increased over the years. To further extrapolate it doesn’t make sense to stop manufacture of cars because people are dying of road accidents.

This brings out an interesting limitation of urban governance in issues that have deep sociocultural and socioeconomic impact. Putting a fence is reductionist approach to providing solution that can divert the larger issues of the suicide itself, even though governing such a subject is engaging in a difficult domain. Nonetheless, fencing is not the solution. In all growing cities it is a common practice to put fences at the pretext of ‘protection’ which gives access to some people and exclude most. It achieves very little as people must have opportunity and access to common natural resources in the city – be it for work or leisure etc. The protection of lakes using fences around it while blocking the natural drain and channels doesn’t really help in sustaining its water level, quality or ecology associated. As is the usual practice, high-rise buildings are built to tap into the potential of having a natural feature and after sometime lakes become the receptacle of sewage waste (For example: Durgam Cheruvu in Hyderabad has literally become sewage disposal space).

Even as there are no easy or simple solutions to issues of urban governance – various aspects intersect that need to be addressed are problematic. It highlights other issues contingent- the water entering Tank Bund is supposed to be recycled before being released into the lake, the monitoring body doesn’t have protective equipment for the life rescuers at the lake, and the work of life rescuers is fraught with difficulties. Installing fences will only help in deflecting the problem of suicides in urban areas and doesn’t really address the underlying cause.

Written in response to – http://m.thehindu.com/news/cities/Hyderabad/hussainsagar-for-many-the-lake-of-lost-hope/article8953588.ece

 

Old-New City

_DSC0174Written for UFP application

One of the issues that really concerned me in the recent past is the estrangement of the older cities from the success of new urban developments. This is pervasive in all Indian cities, and Hyderabad is yet another example of abject apathy of the government, and its lack of will to integrate it with the rest of the city. There is no doubt old cities are complex entities to which change cannot be brought about easily and without mighty challenges. However, their complete abandon by not just local planning authorities but even the civic authorities is disconcerting. The older cities have a rigorous underlying order by which they function, at the same time they are apparently chaotic in their appearance. The semblance of order that makes them efficient can be attributed to the people that adapt and work within them. The chaos is the result of organizational changes in the built environment to accommodate the increasing needs of the people far exceeding its capacity.

There are two major projects that come under the old city of Hyderabad. The first one is the Charminar Pedestrianisation Project that was initiated in the year 1999 because the movement of vehicles around it was said to have been causing structural damage. It was floated in the year 2000 at the cost of Rs.139 crore, but even after 16 years, it is nowhere close to completion. A month ago the minister for urban development visited the site and declared that the CPP will be completed in the next 6 months but since then nothing substantial has happened. The second major project is the Musi River Cleaning project that was proposed in 2005 to be completed within 30 months funded partly by center and state. Briefly after the installation of rubber dam, sewage treatment plant, laying grass, the project was discontinued and renewed subsequently but has missed several deadlines. The latest proposal is to redevelop Musi River inspired by the Sabarmati River Front in Gujarat, despite the fact that it is a non-perennial river. It can be easily argued that either of the proposals come under the purview of heritage and ecology, in spite of the little progress made qualitatively on ground, than because of their relative location in old city.

Hyderabad outgrew from the old walled city to the new city gradually, whereas the now extended city developed way too rapidly in the last 5 years, and has remained the sole focus of development authorities. A relentless construction activity is under way fast changing the natural landscape and urban form. The rocks formations that are peculiar to the geomorphological activity dating billion years ago haven’t been spared from the levelers and spouted buildings upon buildings in the recent past. New roads, flyovers, malls, hotels, offices and residential towers constructed at an ever increasing speed are neither democratic nor inclusive. This new economic center for the city is not without its own set of urban issues as a result of indiscriminate planning. Neither is it the only part of the city that deserves sole focus in terms of physical or economic planning. It is rather the allocation of resources that will create interdependency amongst different parts of the city that reduces the need for self-sufficiency, increasing accessibility to different people, and help to keep it undivided.

In the recent debates about urban inequality, the role of old cities is hardly ever addressed. If the first step is to understand the functioning of the old city and its human adaptability, the next step is to recognize that effective measures and resource allocation will not just bring economic benefit but also improve the quality of life. It is ironic that Hyderabad cannot by itself attract investments without tapping into the cultural heritage of the city. Yet a visit to the old city is a tell-tale of the neglect by state authorities to provide the basic facility and services to the people; instead, the city police are investing in the installation of 4000 cameras for mass surveillance. It is important that we do not forget to integrate old cities with their new counterpart to take our cities a step closer to being equal, and inclusive.

Festival and Urban Space

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Every year I get asked by some new friends and colleagues, ‘It’s a holiday on Eid Milad but what is it?’

For those not aware Milad-un-Nabi is the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed[Peace be upon Him] which falls on the 12th day of the 3rd month according to the Islamic calendar. There are proponents for and against the celebration which also marks the day of the death of the Prophet. There is no historical evidence for Milad-un-Nabi or Eid Milad, and the practice started 400 years later by the Fatimid Empire in Egypt inspired by Christmas Day venerating the birth of Christ. However, it is celebrated widely in South Asian Muslim communities. This background is necessary to understand the context of celebrations in the midst of people questioning the legitimacy of the celebration, and it being politicized in the recent years.

Milad-un-Nabi in Hyderabad has taken altogether a new fervor and zeal. A little less than 7 years ago this day would be a small private and somber affair. Small neighborhood gatherings, if at all, local mosques filled with songs sung by children in praise of Prophet would be heard.  An evening dedicated to seminar narrating the stories and lessons from the life of Prophet, and quiz, elocution competitions, and from which prize distribution followed. Businessmen, shopkeepers, and householders pitch in money for the communal kitchen where poor people are served food without discrimination. This was observed in the old city and mixed neighborhoods while the rest of the city went on business as usual. The scale of the events was still local and not yet mobilized to make grand pompous processions in the city.

One incident that brought about a dramatic overture to this is the communal tension the city was plagued with briefly during 2010.  That year eid was followed by Hanuman Jayanti witnessed the celebrations competing in their show of pomp and fervor.  Both celebrations are marked typically by decoration on religious buildings, prayer and puja, communal kitchens, and sounds blaring from speakers religious or Bollywood numbers. At the time, a number of people from an organization were mobilized from various parts of the country in Secunderabad area armed with swords etc. to create communal tensions, in an otherwise calm city with small infrequent altercations among the two communities, were preempted by the city police. The people of old city Hyderabad are a mixed population and contiguous areas of concentrated either Hindus or Muslims.

The following years have seen a lot of changes in the way these celebrations happen. In response to the attempt to disturb the communal harmony and threat to their security, some religious groups consolidated to make the event grander and several processions are taken out in the city every year during eid.  To assert the right to city and public space grandiose statements are made during the celebrations. Bigger, brighter, larger, louder – lights, sounds, sights, places are to behold. The festivals follow each other and so do their attempt to make it larger than life. These activities happen precariously within close proximity of space and time. An imminent fear lurks as a slight mishap could be blown out of proportion, and provoke people negotiating the same public domain.

It is a known fact that the old city area has been estranged from the growth and development’s relentless activity in the newer and extended city. The celebration marks a day beyond an everyday necessary to make their presence felt in the public sphere and show of community spirit. It is an assertion of a right and a political statement as several politicians are invited in night long events that take place in the open grounds of the college run by the organisation. David Harvey defines the Right to City: ‘ far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is the right to change ourselves by changing the city.’ The old city is built too densely and events such as these are a testimony of people claiming the city space outside its immediate boundaries from which they are excluded. The administrative side is another story exhibiting abject neglect and apathy. Recent proposals were made to rebuild the Osmania Hospital, a listed heritage building. Decisions such as this only prove counterproductive and disturb the integrity and sense of place. Examples from other cities emphasize that neglected urban areas divide the city and make its resources inaccessible. Such a plight is often evident as one takes a ride from the new city to the old city, a keen subject of study of marginalization of people socially, politically and economically.

The festival celebrations in such a scenario serve twofold for the people. Firstly, in claiming the public sphere far from the edges of a local neighborhood and demand the right to public space as its (ignored) citizens. Second in fostering a community spirit and solidarity as a collective response to elements that disrupts the harmony of the city. In times of the tolerance debate, one could only hope the succession of the festivals happen as peacefully, and that urban development follows a far more insightful and sensitive course.

HydRockabad

Guardian Rock overlooking Peerancheru Lake

Blast, break, flatten: often the words used to describe the process involved in leveling rocks to make way for urban development. The natural rock formations are an integral (often overlooked) aspect of the narrative of Hyderabad’s rich history which lies on the Deccan Plateau. The age of the rocks date as far back as 2,500,000,000 years (2.5 billion) one of the oldest rock landscape that was created. As a small city, Hyderabad lay nestled amongst the rocks whose history began with the Golconda Fort city sitting atop a hill.

Apartment buildings at Nanakramguda

A relentless construction activity is fast changing the natural landscape and urban form. In a span of 20 years, the area under metropolitan limit has increased from 170 km2 to 625 km2 and proposed to be further expanded to 928km2. Large tracts of agricultural land, small villages, and intermittent rock landscape were added to the city limit along with many peripheral urban conglomerations. The process of redrawing of their extents is not new to urban centers. The city outgrew its fortified limit and spread to the north, built over an uneven terrain by cutting rocks and falling trees. This was sporadically done following the then ownership pattern and land grabbing of the adjacent areas relying on private vehicles for the commute. As population and demand of housing increased the areas in between them developed. The centers of business shifted from the old to the new city and the extended city in the recent years.

Proposed Masterplan 2031, HMDA website

Today the city of Hyderabad is showcased as the place of Charminar and Cyber Towers juxtaposed together. Literally speaking Charminar symbolizes the heritage and culture that is for consumption for those doing business in the clinical precision of the technologically advanced Cyber Towers and the foreign investments it promises. This mutually exclusive idea of Hyderabad overrides the many layers of identities it contains. There’s more to the city than what meets an ad campaign designed to invite national or an international audience. Nostalgia lurks, for the locals, witnessing a sea change in the city’s development. For the migrants, it is the search for their belonging in the city. ‘What place is Hyderabad?’ is the question that both of them ask.

Cities by their relative placement in a geographical setting offer natural respite from the urban conundrums. For example, Delhi has urban forests (fast depleting), a wide variety of flora, fauna and bird species because of its strategic location at the foothills of Aravalli mountain range, the coastal city of Mumbai or Chennai have a unique ecosystem, the edge of the shore doubles as a large public space. Hyderabad lies on the eastern Deccan Plateau (called Telangana), between the two mountain ranges – Eastern and Western Ghats and on the north by the Vindhya and Satpura mountains, made of vast sheets of massive granite rocks. Anyone familiar with the city knows of the peculiar natural formation of clouds and rocks that are reminiscent of the seasonal shifts. The rocks and blue sky lie at the heart of the city that connects people to nature. The sky undergoes infinite changes in the cloud shape, structure, and patterns through the year – flat, puffy, wispy, high up etc. Full blue, cluster of clouds wafting, stationery clouds of myriad form and size, heavy clouds pregnant with rain, against the backdrop of yellow-orange, red-purple, blue-grey sky filtering sunlight is a sight to behold. The cloud formations are out of human reach and control but the rocks do not enjoy such state anymore, and their loss is irreversible.

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One of the foremost reason to conserve the rock formation is that they are one of the oldest geological formations on earth and very peculiar to the geography and its subterranean volcanic activity. Secondly, it sustains an ecological cycle that cannot be overlooked or denied, the recent flood in Chennai is a live example of the disaster that occurred because of which. This formation is made up of humongous to small size rocks, sometimes so precariously balanced that it seems a gust of air is sufficient to make them tumble down. Some time spent amid the rocky landscape can inspire an ode for their lyrical construct. The Society to Save Rocks is a group of artists, photographers, and environmentalists from Hyderabad working to protection the rocky landscape since 1992. In 1996, they formed themselves into a registered society, and since then, the Society to Save Rocks has expanded to include many other citizens, from students to housewives to businessmen and bureaucrats. The Society to Save Rocks aims to preserve and protect the spectacular ancient granite formations of the Deccan Plateau, India – a natural wonder of stony ridges and hillocks shaped into picturesque balancing forms. A constant effort by the society made authorities recognise their natural heritage value and 9 such rock precincts were listed under Regulation 13 for protection in the year 1997. And in 2009, another 15 rock sites were notified as heritage precinct by the then government of Andhra Pradesh. Hyderabad is the only city in India where rocks are protected as a natural heritage.

The rock landscape is a hard, impervious and undulating terrain converting low-lying areas into water bodies replenished by small channels.The crevices between rocks filled with water during the rainy season are home to seasonal aquatic and reptilian life.  Bats feeding on mosquitoes, help to control their numbers, are commonly found in moisture laden fissures. The vegetation is peculiar as the wild plant species found can grow without water for extended period of time. The water bodies, large or small, thus formed are home to migratory birds every winter with birds migrating as far from Russia. The rocks, water bodies, vegetation, fauna are deeply connected to each other in sustaining an ecological cycle. Incautious planning and development activity in the urban areas is disturbing this natural cycle and rendering it irreversible. The rocks are cut to use as building material, low-lying areas are filled, channels are dump filled, trees and plants fallen in order to develop land parcels. This inadvertently disturbs the natural drainage of the place, making it susceptible to floods. The constant construction of infrastructure, buildings, the pollution from the vehicles emit particulate matter into the air reducing its quality starkly. Increased temperature, extended summer, a dearth of rain, numerous deep bore wells are reducing the water table resulting in acute shortage of water.

Satellite images from 2005, 2010 and 2015 of the development along old Bombay Highway

2005
2010
2015

The case is not against urban development as it is the only way forward for cities. An objective approach is required that can address the issues of development and urban ecology together. It is necessary to respond to the needs of the city and also the need of the existing natural heritage. This is not possible without the will of the governing authorities that takes the decisions for the course of future growth and development. Civil societies or citizens collective have a limited role in proposing, creating awareness, or sometimes even pressurising but it is the competent authorities that can put it to implementation. There are examples, recent and old, that teach us that destructing a natural ecosystem hasn’t proved to be beneficial in the long run. And we rely on human resilience to overcome a state of emergency when disaster strikes instead of planning with foresight. We need better planning and design in order to create better cities and better future.

 

TOPO HYD
Topographical Map of Hyderabad

 

The following are some recommendations to protect natural heritage:

1. Planning

i. Identify key areas of influence of rock landscape and ecological cycle it sustains as a system.
ii. Change the direction of growth from sensitive zones.
iii. Introduce buffer zones that are specific to each area identified to reduce the negative impacts of development.
iv. Identify key elements of the system: rocks, water bodies, watersheds, drainage pattern, vegetation, fauna and avian species for different seasons.
v. Create a regular monitoring body to keep the system in check.
vi. Land use should be compatible with its surrounding area and not exceed optimum pollution level as prescribed.
vii. Create awareness among the official decision makers, local community and stakeholders, in addition to students, professionals and participants from across diverse fields.

2. Urban Design

i. Incorporate rock formations in creating public space where it doesn’t disturb a natural habitat.
ii. To make intermittent areas of development accessible a network of terraces and steps can be introduced.
iii. Buffer zones can be designed to create spaces for community and public interactions.
iv. Foster an active recreation for the city by designing natural rock trails, walks, parks etc.
v. Create a network of open spaces that facilitate walking, cycling, or new forms of sports like parkour etc.
vi. Create a system of rock, water bodies, open spaces that can act as the lung space of the city.
vii. Where necessary spaces must be built of temporary materials.
viii. The roofs built on terraces can be designed to interconnect public recreation space.
ix. Use of smaller rock outcrops as a community, breakout, picnic, or interaction spaces.
x. Engaging local people in design and guardianship of spaces that benefit them.

3. Architecture

i. Minimal cutting of rocks.
ii.Encouraging building on slopes and stepped terraces.
iii. Designing with rocks as an element of space in built areas.
iv. Use of courtyards and verandas in building as open elements.
v. Use of rock outcrops in indoor garden and pools as the core of design.
vi. Feature walls of rocks to display art etc.

The list is not complete or exhaustive. We can only hope that some action will be taken before we render the blast, break, flattening process irreversible and the entire landscape disappears from our eyes.
Note: This post is an outcome of a year long observation of a commute I undertook as a visiting asst. prof at an architecture college. The rock walk with the Society to Save Rocks really inspired me to consolidate my thoughts.

Art Alfresco | Place for art, Art for place

Project : ART ALFRESCO is ‘art outside’ buildings to provide a thorough visual experience in an urban setup. A gallery without walls gives people an opportunity to respond to art in relation to its urban fabric. The project distinguishes the area around the river highlighting the historic buildings in continuous relation to the spaces around it. Form a network of connected pedestrian paths with plazas, proximity to bus shelter, amenities while providing place for activities combining retail/small hold ventures in central urban space.

Site: The River Musi was the lifeline of the city of Hyderabad the chief source of its water. The flood of Musi in September 1908 changed its character forever, the ravaged city was rebuilt and a flood control system was introduced by creating two large lakes – Usmansagar, Himayatsagar. Today the river is dry most of the year and a dump of untreated sewage from the pipes that terminate in it. There are several bridges on the river that divides the old walled city from new extents.

Context: As a result of the flood in 1908, a City Development Trust was set up that build some of the civic buildings that flank the river site today. High Court on the south bank of the river built in 1919, opposite to which Osmania Hospital was constructed in 1927, in 1936 the Asafiya library was shifted less than a kilometer from the hospital. One of the earliest school built in 1865 was upgraded to college in 1929. The Salarjung Museum is the latest building on the south east built in 1967.

Topography:

Built Spaces : Unplanned urbanization has led to an indiscriminate building use pattern. Encroachments along the river bank are as old as 50-60 years as a result of lack of space in the dense fabric of old city and the issue of affordability. Mixed use buildings, housing units, clusters of houses with central courtyards have intense activity day long in and around them.

Vegetation: The edge of river has small cultivation, and planting. It is the source of livelihood of small farmers and landless households. Wastewater is a major source of livelihood for households practicing agriculture along this river in the urban areas of Hyderabad city.

Across street there’s unplanned planting pattern apparent with trees along the stretch of the main north south axis to frame space. Landscape in the open annexe of the civic building follows the simple geometric pattern.

Circulation and Traffic Pattern: The bridges are the main link from the old city to the new city. The east west road is the connecting link to the national highway network. The promenades across the old section have given way to the quick access road that gave a distinct character and a sense of connection to it.

The ease of pedestrian movement is an important aspect of an urban setting. There is a lack of connection in the pedestrian activity that goes around the place. The pavements have irregular widths and the pedestrian refuge lack an identifiable character. There are existing old pavilions that offer seating and a view of the river bank from one side.

Visual Connections:

Art for public defines the public realm and distinguishes the fine points in a city. Civic art stimulates the cultural life of the region giving places back to the people; it leads visitors as well as inhabitants into the discovery of a city.

Masterplan: 

  1. Distinguish the river area as a place of art alfresco.
  2. Highlight the existing landmarks.
  3. Maintain freedom of movement in pedestrians and connecting plaza or bus shelters.
  4. Create a safe urban environment for all the users.
  5. Provide for shelter from the varying weather conditions.
  6. Active civic art to create a civic dialogue for a community identity.
  7. Retain the wilderness areas near the river bed.
  8. Provide alternate to encroachments and create public space along the bank.
  9. Create an economically vibrant urban area by allowing informal activity.
  10. Create inter-connectedness in the open spaces.

Pedestrian Plaza and Open Gallery:  The site of the grand plaza lies between the Afzalgunj and the Naya pul, selected because a. central location b. visual connectivity c. access from both sides d. vantage point

The main aim of the proposal is to connect the network of footpaths and open spaces in the study area.It can serve as the central place activities going to ease the vehicular movement and relax the pedestrian activity near the road abutting river, hence paving a way for the art intervention.

The design proposal considers safety as the major issue and offers solution such as slanted railing, unapproachable ends.  The contour seating and benches alternate at intervals and provide strategic views of the place. It is raised to a height of 2 meter above the adjoining vehicular bridges. The built area is conceived as a typical shopping extension that stretches through the Charminar area.