The decaying Metropolis , the finally-arrived Regal capital and the eternal-hopeful small town : State of 3 homes

Recently, my friend (and the lead contributor here at Arthshastra.com) Vikas, during his recent home visit, had this comment on the 3 cities which have been home to me – Mumbai, Jaipur and my original home town Ajmer .

Ajmer is changing at snail’s pace while Mumbai seems like a decaying and stagnant city but it was Jaipur that really took my breath away. I was there just for a day but I was able to see huge changes in city’s infrastructure and facilities. 

I agree with Vikas in many ways and here’s my take on the matter – obviously, more passionate yet cynical regarding the city of my birth. 

It’s a shame and a sorrow to see Mumbai decay the way it is with quality of life deteriorating rapidly, primarily due to lack of infrastructure. It’s ironical and sad how we pride ourselves in having a city which is the business and financial capital of the one of the fastest growing large economies but it does not feature anywhere in the list of prospective World financial capitals. You see mentions of Dubai as a capital in Near-East ( between Sing/HK and London); you’d also find mentions of Istanbul ! but no Mumbai.

I have lived in Jaipur for a couple of years, not too long ago, and enjoyed the luxuries of a big city that it has started to offer while retaining the small town charm that its suburbs always had. My recent visit there only confirmed my prediction 2 yrs ago – Jaipur is THE city in North India to watch out for. 10-15 yrs from now, we’ll all be speaking of Chandigarh as a wasted opportunity apt for Retirees, Gurgaon as a city past its peak, of NOIDA still in awe, Ghaziabad as a lawless land that would never reach its potential but of Jaipur as an urban marvel which has handled modern development while preserving its medieval heritage pretty well.

Well, of course, this rides on many assumptions –

  1. Govts continue to see that the best way to develop Jaipur is to keep it as a destination for 3 key areas : a) Heritage Tourism b) Skilled industry ( gem & diamond cutting, hand crafted material, etc) and c) Modern knowledge based industry.
  2. Build infra to support that – a fast and clean intra-city commute option; a faster speedway with Delhi; a devoted fast speed commuter service ( like a bullet train) with Delhi and very importantly, do all of this in a way that accentuates the Old city’s beauty and does not overcrowd it.
About Ajmer : It never had a future frankly, despite producing some of the brightest off springs of humanity (I have never been accused of modesty!). After the Indian Railways stopped being a significant player ( in terms of attractive employment & real business incentives), there was n’t any real hope for the city. The real reason of the past glory was it being the seat of Mughal governorship, and later a British Presidency. In a political environment where the federation was loose, it would serve brilliantly as a centre of power and the representative of the Federal/Central govt – almost equidistant in geography, from  Mewar, Marwar and Jaipur kingdoms. And that’s exactly what led Ajmer be a Central Govt ruled territory with great powers and all the benefits ( like a Union Territory). But if you look back, the reasons for its ascent in Mughal/British period have also become the reasons for its decline in the last 50 yrs – after it was integrated into Rajputana State in 1956/57. It never acquired a strong caste/religion bias one way or the other – meaning in the new political reality of electoral democracy, it had no significant voter section/political leader who derived power from a feudal/caste based politics and could draw resources to the city for his/its own benefit (compare the state of affairs with Jodhpur, where both the erstwhile King and the popular Congress leader J N Vyas were able to draw resources). Nor did it have the rich colonial heritage of its colonial cousins of Meerut, Simla or Kanpur – it never had the Rajputana linkages of its more Regal neighbours – Udaipur, Jodhpur or Bikaner.
The other predicament of this city is also British brought – for 80-100 years ( till perhaps now OR 10 yrs earlier) it served it well to be the city with best English education, seats of education and education administration – serving and producing a large class of well-bred people ready for “Govt -like services” employment ( Right from Hindi medium Arya Samaj or Govt run schools to more upscale St. Anselm’s and Mayur). This meant that till the major centres of administration remained in the city, there would still be opportunity and prosperity, with allied businesses of trading and services flourishing. But somewhere in the last 50 yrs, the power-that-be realised that they had no incentives in keeping large powers of administration in Ajmer. Unfortunately, they were never as bright to keep a Gandhinagar different from Ahmedabad (or Canberra different from Sydney) – atleast, that would have kept the city clean and infra-healthy.
Where it leaves the city is that the bright ones, who are fortunate to find an opportunity like ourselves, flee and lament later at the slow development in their beloved home town ; and those who could not leave but CHOSE to stay back, do enjoy living in the enviable and comfortable surroundings and  raise their children in the eternal Ajmeri hope that some day it would be the brightest city in Rajasthan, besides Jaipur. I am caught in between  – since I carry the eternal Ajmeri hope that now when Jaipur becomes the modern age Metro it always threatens to, ancillary towns like Ajmer would eventually bloom but the realist in me finds myself pleading every year with friends and family with years left in their productive age to “come out”.
In many ways, the tale of Ajmer is the tale of many small towns in Middle-India – towns populated with hard working eternal hopefuls; towns which are a promise unto themeselves – promises, which ironically, would never get redeemed as the children of these people move to make Jaipurs and Coimbatores compete/complement Noida and Bangalore. 
On balance, too bad for Ajmer, not too bad for India (Hopefully ! -see, as I said, people of Ajmer are and only breed eternal hopefuls)

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