In this city that barely existed two decades ago, there are 26 shopping malls, seven golf courses and luxury shops selling Chanel and Louis Vuitton. Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs shimmer in automobile showrooms. Apartment towers are sprouting like concrete weeds, and a futuristic commercial hub called Cyber City houses many of the world’s most respected corporations.
Gurgaon, located about 24km south of the national capital, New Delhi, would seem to have everything, except consider what it does not have: a functioning citywide sewer or drainage system; reliable electricity or water; and public sidewalks, adequate parking, decent roads or any citywide system of public transportation. Garbage is still regularly tossed in empty lots by the side of the road.
With its shiny buildings and galloping economy, Gurgaon is often portrayed as a symbol of a rising “new” India, yet it also represents a riddle at the heart of India’s rapid growth: How can a new city become an international economic engine without basic public services? How can a huge country flirt with double-digit growth despite widespread corruption, inefficiency and governmental dysfunction?
In Gurgaon and elsewhere in India, the answer is that growth usually occurs despite the government rather than because of it. In Gurgaon, economic growth is often the product of a private sector improvising to overcome the inadequacies of the government.
To compensate for electricity blackouts, Gurgaon’s companies and real-estate developers operate massive diesel generators capable of powering small towns. No water? Drill private borewells. No public transportation? Companies employ hundreds of private buses and taxis. Worried about crime? Gurgaon has almost four times as many private security guards as police officers.
“You could call it the United States of Gurgaon,” said Sanjay Kaul, a civic activist critical of the city’s lack of planning who argues that Gurgaon is a patchwork of private islands more than an interconnected city. “You are on your own.”
Gurgaon is one of India’s fastest-growing districts, having expanded more than 70 percent during the past decade to more than 1.5 million people, larger than most US cities. It accounts for almost half of all revenues for its state, Haryana, and added 50,000 vehicles to the roads last year alone. Real-estate values have risen sharply in a city that has become a roaring engine of growth, if also a colossal headache as a place to live and work.
Before it had malls, a theme park and fancy housing compounds, Gurgaon had blue cows. Or so Kushal Pal Singh was told during the 1970s when he began describing his development vision for Gurgaon. It was a farming village whose name, derived from the Hindu epic the Mahabharata, means “village of the gurus.” It also had wild animals, similar to cows, known for their strangely bluish tint.
“Most people told me I was mad,” Singh said. “People said: ‘Who is going to go there? There are blue cows roaming around.’”
By 1979, Singh had taken control of his father-in-law’s real-estate company, now known as DLF, at a moment when urban development in India was largely overseen by government agencies. In most states, private developers had little space to operate, but Haryana was an exception. Developers built the infrastructure inside their projects, while a state agency, the Haryana Urban Development Authority, or HUDA, was supposed to build the infrastructure binding together the city.