Recording the Past and Writing the Future in Jalandhar

by Srilata Sircar, Research Associate

On a rainy weekday afternoon, we find ourselves sitting across the table from a highly placed official at the Jalandhar Improvement Trust (JIT). He speaks to us affably of the protracted history of the Trust. How it used to be a part of the Lahore Improvement Trust to begin with, how it had to re-establish itself after the partition of Imperial India into the independent states of India and Pakistan, how it has navigated its way through the rise and fall of various planning agencies in the post-colonial period, and so forth. He rattles off the names of the housing projects that the Trust has undertaken in the past seven decades, adding that it was their job to “turn the wastelands into heaven”. I ask him if there is an archive we can access and pat comes the answer “no, there is no such thing”.

Jalandhar is one of the 98 chosen cities under the Smart Cities Mission in India. The Mission is the flagship urban development project of the ruling regime and has shifted shape through various iterations before arriving at its current form. It first emerged upon the nation’s imagination as a promise to create 100 new cities from scratch during the electoral campaign of 2014. Then in 2015 it was announced as a policy vision to develop 100 satellite cities around existing second-tier cities. Finally, in its documented guidelines, it instructs the selected cities to bring about ‘area-based development’ (ABD) within a nominated part of the municipality, that would then act as a ‘lighthouse’ to the rest of the city and in due course to other cities of the nation. As such, cities like Jalandhar and their designated ABDs represent the imagined tabula rasa upon which the urban future of the nation is to be written.

Back at the JIT office, I am left a bit bewildered by the official’s response. How was it possible that he could narrate so much of the history of the Trust to me off-the-cuff in the absence of an actual archive? My colleague, who has far greater experience in researching municipal history, rephrased the question to him.

“Is there a record room?”

“Of course there is.”

“Can we see it? May be read some of the files?”

“You’ll need permission from the Chairman. But how would you find what you’re looking for? It’s filled to the brim with old files.”

“Is there a database of the files? Some kind of list of what files are available?”

“There is a clerk. He brings us the files we need.”

“Could we meet him? Perhaps he can help us sort through the files.”

“No, he is just a clerk. He won’t know anything. He just brings us the files we ask for.”

A letter of request and a few rounds of visits to higher officials later, we were given access to the record room – files and clerk in tow. The clerk turned out to be a very friendly elderly gentleman who was otherwise skilled as an electrician and was often called upon to serve various buildings and venues owned by the Trust. The ‘archive’ consisted of a couple of rooms, packed from floor to ceiling with piles of old documents. The ‘database’ consisted of yellowing sheets of paper pasted on the inner sides of cabinet doors, with hand-written notes in faded red ink. They revealed a system of numbering the files based on thematic focus and area within the city. The clerk had the required knowhow to map these red scribblings into actual shelves from where dusty files packed with worn out paper could be retrieved. In one such file, much to our surprise, we found the beginnings of what had been presented to us as a ‘smart city project’.

Within the Smart Cities scheme, one of the prioritized projects unfolding in Jalandhar is that of ‘Junctions Improvement’. Eleven traffic junctions have been identified across the city. These are to be ushered into smartness by broadening the roads, automating the signals, placing CCTVs, and of course removing the ‘encroachers.’ The files in the record room revealed that the idea of ‘junctions improvement’ has had a long legacy in the city-planning of Jalandhar. In fact, one of the sites called Jyoti Chowk, where the maximum number of street vendors and informal business owners are at the risk of displacement has been the target of such sanitizing endeavours since the early 1950s. As far back as 1952, we find vendors and shop-owners protesting the planned beautification of the traffic island, citing the essential services they provide to the residents of Jalandhar. Most of these shop-owners were refugees of the partition and had rebuilt their lives after arriving in the city.

The city and its junctions are therefore very far from the imagined tabula rasa that the smart cities paradigm of planning would have us believe. They have rich and continuous histories of claims and struggles that spill into the contemporary processes of futuring that the Smart Cities Mission represents. These histories are recorded and preserved. But the particular processes through which this has been done, are not described in the vocabulary of archiving. The material fragilities and unofficial knowledges that hold together this record exist precariously. But they exist nonetheless.

Looking at the current state of knowledge on small-town India and the difficulties in finding reliable sources for urban histories of non-metropolitan cities, an Orientalist historian of the bygone centuries might even have proclaimed that in fact such places have no histories at all! The task is then clearly cut out for postcolonial historical geographers. We must reclaim the record room and tear down the imagined tabula rasa to reveal the rich lived experiences and the politics of place that have finally propelled a city like Jalandhar into the national limelight under the Smart Cities Mission. We must trace the continuities between the struggles of the past and the imagined orderly future, so we can write a city that embodies justice and not just a vacuous notion of ‘smartness’.