Ancient Cities, Modern Slums

Isn’t it astonishing that around 2,600 BCE, when most of the world was living in tiny little human settlements, the Indus Valley civilization had well-planned cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro?

“Some of these cities appear to have been built based on a well-developed plan. The streets of major cities such as Mohenjo-daro and Harappa were paved and were laid out at right angles (and aligned north, south, east or west) in a grid pattern with a hierarchy of streets (commercial boulevards to small residential alleyways), somewhat comparable to that of present day New York. The houses were protected from noise, odors, and thieves, and had their own wells, and sanitation. And the cities had drainage, large granaries, water tanks, and well-developed urban sanitation,” the Wikipedia article on urban planning says.

What is even more astonishing is that now, four and a half millennia later, most of the current inhabitants of land of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro civilization live not in well planned cities but in tiny little impoverished villages, and in unplanned congested mega-slums. The shame of the whole thing is that as a collective not only have they lost the knowledge of what cities mean but they don’t even dream of building and inhabiting cities. One wonders when the regression started and what led to the death of the spirit that built those ancient cities. Something snuffed out the spirit, something killed those dreams, something made the inheritors of such great vision and accomplishment into myopic poverty-stricken masses living in misery, huddled into very primitive small villages.

The world – or at least some parts of it – has moved on. They have built many wonderful cities, much grander in scale than Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. Over the centuries, human civilization has progressed pari passu with the development of cities. Immense understanding and knowledge of what works and what doesn’t in city planning has accumulated.

With a modest investment in airline tickets, our leaders can visit great cities and see them with their own eyes. They don’t even have to imagine. Yet they refuse to dream or perhaps they are incapable of dreaming. Perhaps they are too busy with their incessant bickering over who gets how much of the little pie of material wealth that is created. Their mental poverty doesn’t afford them the luxury of dreams. They just want a little bit more, not something better. Their vision has narrowed to focus on how to continue to live in villages. I have yet to hear or read of even one leader of India calling for the creation of great well-planned beautiful cities. More shameful than our material poverty is the poverty of our imagination and aspirations.

We have the power to imagine a different future even if our leaders don’t. Using our collective wisdom and skills, we have the power to dream big. More importantly, having dreamt the seemingly impossible dream, we have the power to make that dream a reality. We need to ask the question: if not us, who else?

[This is part one of a ten-part series to be published in the next ten days. Part 2 is “Designer Cities.“.You will find the entire series and previous posts on the subject in the category “Cities and Urbanization.” ]

Author: Atanu Dey


14 thoughts on “Ancient Cities, Modern Slums”

  1. Hi Atanu,

    Will look forward to reading the series.

    The above story says that we are getting at least one new city built (properly planned, I hope).

    One thing we could do: Move the State Capitals from places like Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and build new capital cities in the hinterland. At one go, we could get around 20-25 new cities. This could be a start.


  2. Of all the reasons that one hears for the reason why the Indus valley civilization faded, the most plausible is the change of course of the rivers that sustained the civilization. IT is to be remembered that as an urban civilization the IVC had to plan a hell of a lot more than their cotemporaries as well as have a social structure that allowed accumalation of capital to allow for investment. The ‘allah bhand’ in kutch is seen as a remenant of the tectonic activity that probably caused the course change event. As ever this is a karmic warning of what happens when the ground rules that sustain a civilization are changed. The basic resources are beyond the power of mere humans to control and hence have to be factored into any development cycle. This is particularly relevant to the RISC model that you have espoused as siting of the urban centers should be in line with the carrying capacity of the area. Given the scenario in India, in terms of planned development and sticking to a script, RISC is more in danger from execution lapses and silly un-natural planning (to accomodate lobbying) than any other factor.We see this rampant disease today in every large infrastructure project. The bangalore mysore expressway is hanging fire as all the politicos want the alignment to pass as close to their ill-gotten lands. The same was the wrangle for the devanhalli airport location. The same seems to be happening in siting SEZ’s all over the land.How successful can RISC or PURA be if all public inestment or even private infrastructure is put up in locations where someone has already cornered the land rather than where it makes most sense ?


  3. Posted this on my blog…

    Can the Media build great cities?

    Just this morning in a conversation with an ex-IIT topper who’s also been an energy consultant with some of the top energy firms in India and abroad, the topic of power-shortage in Mumbai came up. Mumbai, for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-many-years faces the real possibility of a scheduled power cut. From our brief discussion on the topic, we both were of the opinion that the current shortage is more a problem of mis-management than of a real shortage of power.

    The same argument stands true of every facet of Indian urban (and rural?) planning. Potholed roads. Unruly traffic. Unregulated construction. Stinking sewers. Uncollected garbage. Blocked drains. I could go on…

    This post on Emergic really got me thinking. (your entry)

    Being a media professional, the question that is of interest to me is, what role has the media played in this decline? AND, more importantly, can the media now take on a leadeship role? Can it plant the seeds in people minds to get them dreaming of the stuff that great cities are made of?

    Where the three pillars of democracy have let us down, can the fourth estate stand-up and deliver?

    Or am I just dreaming?


  4. Yes, it is astonishing as to how our civilization, which was once the most superior on earth, has been reduced to what it is today. But then most of the world’s ancient civilizations have crumbled, except maybe the ones that originated in modern day Europe & laid the foundations for today’s “western civilization”. One of the biggest reasons for India’s downward slide was due to the British rule which drained us of all our wealth, and left us with divisive politics, which remain to plague our country today! As mentioned here, “India is estimated to have had the largest economy of the world between the 1st and 15th centuries CE, controlling between one third and one quarter of the world’s wealth up to the time of the Mughals, from whence it rapidly declined during British rule.”

    But yes, the order of the day is to invest in cities.


  5. Unfortunately the Dravidian genius that birthed the Indus Valley – South Asian Civilisation – was vanquished by tall fair brahminical Aryans who rode down the steppes and mountain passes on horse drawn chariots and established the baneful caste system that continues to choke off all progress to this day.

    But jokes apart isn’t it interesting that while few monuments to vanity have survived from those times the well planned cites have?


  6. it is also possible that the cities of harappa were not sustainable development and consumed a large share of resources that was not replenished fast enough for later generations. before building large cities, one should also check if they are sustainable over generations.

    if generation x uses 1000 tons of wood per capita to build a house, and trees grow at a rate of 900 tons per capita, then generation x + 10 might never be able to build a wooden house. ditto for stone/water/tar/metal.

    i am not accusing developed cities of over-consumption straight off the bat, but the senseless pomp and grandeur on display in most american cities makes me wonder how long it will all last.


  7. {quote}One wonders when the regression started and what led to the death of the spirit that built those ancient cities. Something snuffed out the spirit, something killed those dreams, something made the inheritors of such great vision and accomplishment into myopic poverty-stricken masses living in misery, huddled into very primitive small villages.{unquote}

    It was the destructive Islamic invasions. Starting with the fall of Sind in 712 AD and continuing till about 1707 AD with the fall of mughal despots.

    I guess about a thousand years are enough to wipe away all the genius a civilization has built. But there was a ressurection with the coming of the British. We have to, in some ways, to be thankful to the British for Indian Nationalism and the making of modern Indian. Ironical but true.

    Best Regards,


  8. We seem to have some historical wires crossed here. WRT Pankaj’s new and very interesting theory on the fall of the IVC, it should be noted that mohendejaro and harappa preceded islam by a millenium. It would be very difficult for the invading islamic hordes to go back in time to wipe out the infidels in this case.Maybe that is what they did 🙂


  9. My dear Mr. Shiv,

    Please do be assured that no historical wires have been crossed. I think i will have to give you more information so that you get your associations right.


    No assertion of the IVC being destroyed by muslims was made in my comment. The comment follows Atanu’s Quote – with regards to the regression and the gradual decline of Indian Civilizational genius as embodied by Mohenjo daro and Harappa. {Read the Quote}.

    2} Now the background info for you.

    The essential implication of my comment is that the genius, the skill and the craft, was still there amongst Indians till the reign of the Gupta dynasty, {320 – 600 AD}. More info for you here:

    3} Now to my essential assertion.

    The decline of the Indic Civilization started with the disintegration and defeat of Indians to the armies of islam followed by a thousand year Enslavement. That is why the dates. 712 AD: When they first entered India. And 1707 AD, when they were gradually vanquished.

    I also assert that the resurrection came with the British in India. Cant go into essentials here as it would be too long.

    I think this much is enough. Please revert if further confusion prevails. Thank You.


  10. Yes, you might say that the British East India Co. united all of India’s princely states & other independent territories, which were constantly engaged in civil wars, under the empire’s crown. And its subjugation of our own people, stirred up in us a screaming national spirit that produced great freedom fighters, and united us all to stamp out these oppressors. But the point made was of the ‘divide and rule’ policy that they employed, which today remains as ‘caste politics’ and prevents us from uniting and marching towards a better future together.


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