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N Chandra Mohan: The city and the world

Local meets global in Ahmedabad to chart a new urban destiny

N Chandra Mohan 

The economic reforms of the 1990s triggered vastly new opportunities and new challenges like the need to be globally competitive. These opportunities and challenges find concentrated expression in India’s leading metropolises that are agglomerations of economic activity. These cities boomed with the opening up of the economy to global flows of trade, capital and labour. New Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, Pune, Hyderabad and Kolkata recently figured among the top 120 global cities for their competitiveness, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Like the others, Ahmedabad had its place in the global system of cities much before the reforms era. After all, it belongs to Gujarat that has historically been a “pulsing, region-state athwart Indian Ocean trade routes,” to borrow an expression of Robert Kaplan in his book Monsoon. The influence of the global on the local was considerable since the state’s textile output – with Ahmedabad being a major locus of that activity – for long had markets that extended from the Arabian Peninsula to Southeast Asia. Cloth was, in fact, sold to Yemen during the era of British imperialism.

Urban historian Professor Howard Spodek of the US-based Temple University, however, emphasises three distinct eras for Ahmedabad’s relationship with the outside world. The first was when Mahatma Gandhi lived in the city, 1915 to 1930, when the British ruled India. The second era starts with World War II and the beginning of Independence in 1947. Enormous industrial profits were generated during that period and the local economy diversified into the world of multinational business relationships. All of these intensified Ahmedabad’s connections with the wider world.

In an unpublished paper titled “Local meets global: establishing new perspectives in urban history: lessons from Ahmedabad, India” – an earlier version of which was delivered at the annual meeting of the World History Association, Beijing – Spodek mentions that during this era international frameworks for labour were also forged as the Textile Labour Association made alliances with counterpart institutions around the world. Several new educational and research institutions that established new global cultural and intellectual linkages were also established during this time.

The third era is associated with the 1990 reforms that de-licensed, decontrolled and deregulated economic activity. Ahmedabad’s situation changed drastically during these eras. From 1915 until 1960, it was dependant almost entirely on its textile industry that began to collapse from the 1960s onwards. The 1990s triggered a process of economic renewal with Ahmedabad’s new entrepreneurs expanding their business relationships with the world through investments in industries like pharmaceuticals, chemicals, polished industrial diamonds and denim, all of which competed successfully globally.

The metropolis happens to be the headquarters of India’s sixth-richest person whose personal wealth is $10 billion. His enterprises are global with a private port along Gujarat’s coast. He owns coal mines and a major port in Australia, an Indonesian coal mine, two Korean-built cargo ships for transporting coal (with two more on-order), and the electricity plant that provides the power for his port.

The process of globalisation has its downsides as well. During the global economic crisis of 2009, about 58,000 of Ahmedabad’s diamond workers were laid off. Many of the small workshops converted to other economic functions such as embroidery and the production of clothing and costume jewellery. “This boom-and-bust vulnerability of the diamond cutting and polishing industry is typical of global markets today, especially in the developing world and further marked Ahmedabad’s integration into the global economy,” argued Spodek.

As Ahmedabad is fully networked with cities around the world, what happens there, both the positive and negative, does not go unnoticed. Attracting the censure of global human rights organisations and some western governments has been the communal violence that broke out in 2002, when about 1,000 people in the city were murdered and about 100,000 were rendered homeless, the overwhelming majority of them Muslims. The city has the reputation for being one of the most violent in metropolitan India. The aftermath of that pogrom was felt when 25 bombs exploded across Ahmedabad four years ago.

A closer study of Ahmedabad’s relationship to the broader world, thus, yields richer insights into the significance of the city. It also yields new understandings of global processes and their local impacts. Establishing such new perspectives between the local and the global, the city and the world, underlines one of the most valuable functions of the study of world history, stated Spodek. With a population of five million citizens, 20 times the number in Gandhiji’s day, it is India’s seventh-largest city. In a recently published book, he calls it a “shock city” since it has reflected in an intensified form most of the major developments that have convulsed the nation. It is also a city that exemplifies the linkages between the local and the broader world in an era of globalisation.

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First Published: Tue, July 10 2012. 00:21 IST