“niiti”, a Sanskrit word means, in different contexts, policy, ethics, tenets. To us, who belong here, it is our raison d’etre, our touchstone. So we constantly turn to our ethics and tenets when we re-examine the basis of what we do and how we do it over and over again. This is our space to engage with our core, with you, our readers and companions on the path towards an equitable society in the deepest meaning of the word. Over the past years, there are several social issues and organisations that we have engaged with and been enriched with both experience and knowledge along the way. We believe that in creating a conversation platform for those engaged in the field, including some of our clients, partners, all of you out there who have reached this site wanting to be the change and others who have expertise to comment and critique, we can actually crowd-source actions and solutions for some of our most pressing social issues.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2012


The formal announcement of the new 16 lane freeway proposed to slice through the city of Gurgaon aroused serious concerns with many of its residents. 60mins to 6mins is the USP for the freeway connecting two parts of the city which already has a wide enough road to deal with peak time traffic. While many worried about pedestrian access, cyclist routes, etc … some worried about the awkward disconnections that deepen as the city is fragmented further.

Freeways by definition are controlled-access highways designed exclusively for unhindered high speed vehicular traffic with no signals, at-grade crossings or property accesses. All pedestrian/vehicular crossovers are either over or under passes.

The predatory nature of freeways is manifested in a spatially and socially fragmented city. They do not connect with their sheer size and speed, they divide. They reject the very city they mean to bind because they knowingly relegate the quality of human life thriving in the neighbourhoods: they displace, divide and re-define.

We never learn, do we? There are innumerable instances of terrible things freeways have done to their cities and there are ample ‘been there, done it’ cities who have burnt their fingers only to reverse their own acts. The early 20th century built freeways to counter rapid increase in traffic volumes and to reduce travel time. The fallouts in the past few decades led to widespread public opposition. Proposals were abandoned, significantly scaled back and freeway removal policies were adopted to rip off and reclaim taken spaces in the city. These cities gained both economic and environment revival and have become models for alternative planning thereafter.

Again, freeways are often self-defeating and they inevitably trigger what is called 'induced demand.' The phenomenon is consistent with the economic theory of supply and demand and is often used as an argument against freeways. They are known to generate more traffic over the years as the number of cars and trips go up and in turn clog the same freeway which was brought in to reduce travel time!

That is not all, various other negative externalities compound the same problem. Freeways bring change in land-use distribution patterns – urban sprawl which is directly proportional to higher energy consumption. They are seen to lower abutting property values because of their spatial disconnect topped with air and noise pollution which besides leading to urban blight, has been shown to cause autism in children. An increase in accident fatality rates comes built-in, as does an unaesthetic and inhospitable cityscape with crisscrossing tarred scars, cutting the city's fabric into smaller enclosed pockets of isolated land parcels.

Neighbourhoods remain detached even after bridging them with under and over passes, especially impoverished ones where residents are less likely to own cars or alter ways to improve their quality of life. Over-passes even with escalators are not popular pedestrian preferences over under-passes but the latter are dungeons by night fall unless they have physical/electronic surveillance. Finance limits the number of these passes and leave huge walking distances between them. Walking or cycling past zipping cars on one side and high boundary walls with thick tree buffered development (to cut noise and air pollution) on the other, can't be a pleasant experience by any standards. It can only be boring and yet more boring.

Pro-development governance with its vested interest has supported the freeway without considering local interests. Citizens need to question the very need of a freeway running through Gurgaon. It only adds value to a group of car users and in no way guarantees public convenience or mass utility. Effective traffic intersection engineering and management at the local level coupled with city level traffic planning should counter congestion issues of Gurgaon on the given route. Authorities should invest in building mass transit modes and attempt to implement smart growth policies which support transit-oriented mixed use development, walkable, cycle-friendly neighbourhoods, and encourage mass transit ridership.

Maybe years from now we will tear down these freeways and replace them with parks and boulevards, streets and squares, which truly connect and bind communities together, which make attractive, engaging and memorable public realm, which is pro-people. But must we learn the hard way in a resource-poor and congested country?

RwiteeMandal is a practicing architect and urban designer. She is also a visiting faculty at the Post Graduate Urban Design Programme at her alma mater, School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. Rwitee can be contacted at


  1. Rwitee: The technical arguments (Demand & Supply / change in land-use pattern / energy consumption etc) mentioned by you are a little sketchy for my uninitiated mind and would need more details for me to comment, however, I would come straight to what I believe is the genesis of this rather well-written post ... Aesthetics & community life ... reminds me of an interesting movie I saw, Two Weeks Notice (Hugh Grant, Sandra Bullock) about a corporate lawyer fighting against pulling down a community center to build a shopping mall (Sic ! Cliched !) ... Though personally I am all for the old-fashioned walk in the park, a nice club to spend the evenings, a market with a character full of street shops & junkets, pavements full of beautiful girls cycling in hot pants (!) etc, but over the years I have come to believe that each city / town / colony has its own character which is defined by the purpose it wishes to serve and very importantly takes the character of the people it serves … Concrete Jungle is also a character (!) … therefore, for one Gurgaon is a “new-age” city which serves a very specific “Manhattan-like / Shanghai-like” purpose, which is of economic vibrancy and not cultured-living, the choice was made for the people & not by the people and that underlines the argument that economics & speed of delivery underlies the choices and not charm & character … Second, the individuals residing in Gurgaon have 3 things in common … One, a large part of them are migrants from what are classified as tier-2&3 cities and therefore consist mostly of the economically ambitious section of that town … Two, the exposure of individuals residing in Gurgaon to “Manhattan / Shanghai” is far greater than anywhere else in the country and therefore the desire to ape the western symbols of success rather than their communities which are hardly ever visited … three, the average age is much lower than other parts of the country and therefore preponderance for material pursuits over ‘spiritual’ ones … Due to these factors, I do believe that Gurgaon (especially “west” of NH-8) is “beyond repair” for people like you & me, for it serves a very different purpose and serves a very different set of people and truly I believe that is how it should be (including an intra-suburban freeway). Tyson’s Corner (a small suburb of Washington DC about 1/3 the size of Gurgaon meant purely as a shopper’s delight & as a corporate centre) is a jam of freeways, shopping centers, corporate offices in total contrast to laid back political by-lanes of Washington DC with wide roads and a different character to each building, that is what adds to its diversity and is the character of the young ! What we could possibly ‘save’ is east of NH-8 however that is another story …

    1. Rock, thanks for your insightful comment.
      You said it - "the choice was made for the people & not by the people" and that's the basic difference between old & new (west & east of NH-8) Gurgaon. Old Gurgaon to my mind is doing fine. Sure it needs some organising and some of new Gurgaon's sophistication will wear off on the old part sooner or later and we can have leisure walks and cycling girls in hot pants (!? : D) but it's the new Gurgaon which is an urban mayhem. Our cities are complex and heterogeneous (read messy and fine by me to some extent) but the new Gurgaon is nothing but a city of walls ... again not by choice but by default (privately developed parcels coupled with city wide governance negligence). Don't think you would like to call it a young character, would you?
      I agree, new Gurgaon is cosmopolitan, ambitious and nouveau-riche but does that mean that we should be denied a safe, friendly, delightful city just because its populace has economic freedom? Yes, its speedy unprecedented growth is its defining force and may be it will never be an inclusive city to accommodate all economic backgrounds alike and will always behave as an up market chic urban district but yet it feels the absence of a city life, it regrets the absence of accessible, safe, friendly public realm - for all to relate and react, to bind together as citizens, to build a sense of belonging.
      Don't think new Gurgaon is beyond repair, we have not resigned to our fate yet. There is hope and I see it everyday in people like you and me and many many more likes of us who do their bits to make it a better place for all.

  2. Rock: Gurgaon is no-way Manhattan-like or Shanghai-like.... The only similarity Gurgaon shares with the two is that it has high-rises (which again are much lower that the high-rises in Manhattan/ Shanghai). Now why I say that also has a reason...... It is the life on the streets in Manhattan/ Shanghai which is very much contrasting to that in Gurgaon..... There is mix-use there.... ground floors have public functions that also generate activity on the street.... upper floors have offices...! Hence Manhattan can;t be truly called a concrete jungle..... whereas Gurgaon is definitely one and these freeways are just another step closer to becoming a better concrete jungle. Yes, the people living in Gurgaon are younger, their aspirations are to live in places that are Manhattan-like, lead a life of a sophisticated professional. But that no way means that these people like to live in a city like Gurgaon where after 7 in the evening, once it gets dark, you cant even really walk down to buy milk and bread, where you can only drive to the nearest market because it is not at a walking distance and also it is unsafe to walk. I am sure when young people like us aspire for Manhattan, they even aspire for Central Park which is actually the main charm if Manhattan! Gurgaon doesn't have a Central Park and that is why it will never become Manhattan-like which is all the more impossible to happen once these freeways are built.