Ahmedabad/ The City of Tug-of-war

[ The entry is based on the implications of the book “The Pattern of Railway Development in India” by D. Thorner, as well as historical documents presented concerning the period of study.]

The introduction of the BB&CI Railway has stirred up phenomenal changes and shifts within the city of Ahmedabad, whether positively or negatively. The insertion of the infrastructure can be perhaps perceived as a threshold of negotiation between parties including the colonial government, the railway company, and also the largest group, the citizens living in the area.

To the side of the colonial government,  the agenda was to reinforce a sense of political and military control over its colony, which in turn helps fixate a certain degree of communication and respect from the colonial state to the government. The British also saw, as a major benefit of colonialism, the opportunity of magneting economic benefits. The railway linked up other parts of India like Bombay and Baroda, opening up Ahmedabad as a free state of absorbing and outflowing capital and population, which reversed the introverted city state in the past. That brings in business opportunity in export and import of textile goods, and activated the area with more influx of businessmen and migrants.

To the side of the railway company, it was their main concern that most benefit can be extracted from the construction of the railway. And part of it was to fight against the foreign British colonial force as a way of territorial independence. One prominent crack could be perceived instantly, between the colonial government and the railway company, namely the East India Company, in visioning and realizing the BB&CI Railway. As suggested from the book The Pattern of Railway Development in India, “after 1858 the costs incurred in the process of railway construction was checked only by a post-audit system. The way was open for much more rapid and much more expensive, if not extravagant, process.” There seemed to be a loose control over the construction, pushing the government to carried out several attempts to replace the leading construction team, as well as cutting down budgets to ensure a well-regulated process of construction. This major discrepancy in planning and constructing the railway systems, not only increased financial burden to the government, but also, as a result of increased construction speed, posed effects on the third stakeholder group, the citizens.

Ahmedabad_City_and_Environ_Map_1866
Railway network pinching through Ahmedabad © 1866, HOPE, Theodore Cracraft

Due to the fact that barely a consensus was set up among the construction team, the introduction of railway is seen as an “infamous scar on a patch of innocent land” (Thorner, 1955).  There was no communication to the existing tenants living in the area before construction, no consideration of the surrounding fabrics, and yet no resettlement plans made to relocate the affected citizens. The insertion of the railway was seen as one poorly-planned infrastructure, urging for the formation of interstice spaces within the city of Ahmedabad within the next 5 to 10 years.

Urban form in Ahmedabad @ 1970, The South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal
Urban form in Ahmedabad @ 1970, The South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal
Interstice Space in Ahmedabad © 2001, Shirish Joshi
Interstice Space in Ahmedabad © 2001, Shirish Joshi

The under-planned urban form was resulted from the construction of railway, breaking the original gridded plan within the old walled city. By this stage, British Government has completely overlooked the existing housings while putting much capital on opening up the city to other parts of India. Unregulated, an also space-craving housing clusters has been formed which gradually ate up the city as it expanded. They all constitute to characters such as “maze-like lanes and tightly woven residential neighbourhoods that are introvert with respect to the city but extrovert with respect to the neighbourhood” (Rajagopal, 2011). 

Roof-top community urged by the lack of space in Ahmedabad © 1966, Henri Cartier-Bresson
Roof-top community urged by the lack of space in Ahmedabad © 1966, Henri Cartier-Bresson

As a closing statement, it is believed that the introduction of railway, on one-hand brings about explicitly external opportunity and benefits, has, on the other hand, created tension between different groups in the city, which in turn led to adverse effects on both the livelihood and urban form of the area. The unspoken truth of progressing towards modernity in fact lies beneath sacrifices, in particular, sacrifices to the immediate nearby areas around the site of the railway.

References:

Rajagopal, A., Urban Segregation and the Special Political Zone in Ahmedabad:An Emerging Paradigm for Religio-Political Violence,  South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal. Available from: https://samaj.revues.org/3285?lang=fr

Thorner, D., The Pattern of Railway Development in India, Association for Asian Studies, 1955

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