Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A French photographer captures the disconnect between the promise and the reality in the Indian capital’s hyper-privatized township.
As the Indian capital, New Delhi, has grown in recent decades, surrounding states have sprouted urban offshoots speckled with gated high-rise apartment complexes, glitzy office buildings, and fancy malls.
The most well-known example is Gurgaon, or as it likes to call itself, the “Millennium City”—a suburb often positioned as the future of urban India. It’s a metropolis created by private developers where companies, not local governments, serve the municipal needs of the residents. As people spilled out of Delhi in the early 2000s into Gurgaon, developers scrambled to build high-rise buildings to house them. But outside these structures, hardly any civic infrastructure was planned.
The result: haphazard urban islands housing the rich and aspiring—but no room for anyone else. The guards, maids, nannies, vendors, construction workers, and other working poor often live in makeshift shanty towns at the edge of construction sites or the city itself. As writer Rana Dasgupta observes in Capital: The Eruption of Delhi, “Gurgaon makes no pretense of being a public space: the great number of the poor who clean its offices and houses, for instance, cannot live there.”
While spending time in the area, French photographer Arthur Crestani noticed this disconnect between the migrant workers whose labor built the city and keeps it running and those who get to enjoy its exclusive benefits. The workers are at the margins of the margins. In his photo series, “Bad City Dreams,” he has focused on that stark inequality.
CityLab recently reached out to Crestani via email to ask him about his project:
What inspired you to do this kind of photo series?
Real estate advertisements are ubiquitous in Indian cities. Local governments state their ambitions to make their cities “global” and deliver so-called “world-class” infrastructure, giving away volumes about the aspirations of the Indian middle class. Much more than just apartments, these ads promise luxurious lifestyles inspired by Paris, Singapore, and Dubai.
I wanted to show the contrast between the exuberant visuals used in advertising and the bareness of the spaces where these new residential projects are built. To do this, I used backdrops of luxury buildings and invited migrant workers in the city to pose for me in front of them.
This was a reference to the use of illustrated backdrops tradition of Indian studio photography, where the subject used to pose for a camera in front of a backdrop. My project recreated this process in order to tell the story of today’s urbanization.
What is the message your project is trying to convey about urban India?
Inequality is systemic in Indian society. A striking trait of Gurgaon is the close proximity between the two ends of the economic spectrum. As luxurious real-estate projects spring up, so do the slums that are home to the workforce that construct and work in these enclaves. The fences, barbed wires, and security guards at the gates are meant to isolate the rich from the poor. Yet, the affluent residents of Gurgaon are highly dependent on the cheap workforce that builds the city, cleans their homes, and cooks their food.
The people I photographed for “Bad City Dreams” all belong to this category of workers. They are an integral part of the city, yet they are excluded from the chest-thumping discourse of modernization.
What do your photos say about Delhi’s urbanization?
The liberalization of the Indian economy [in the 1990s] has given birth to a new ideal, where the free market succeeds in delivering the quality of services and goods that the government had failed to in a centralized economy. Gurgaon is the urban translation of this project. The growth of the city can be explained by the absence of legal and fiscal barriers in the State of Haryana compared to the very regulated National Capital Territory of Delhi.
One could call the Gurgaon experiment a success, as the city has one of the highest per-capita incomes in the country, attracts companies and a qualified workforce, and has a lower share of slums than many other major cities. Yet, it is a city with no public space, where basic utilities have to be delivered by private companies, and where the lack of urban planning is detrimental to social and environmental sustainability. Residential projects appear to be built for fun or display, with a quarter of the flats going unsold. And in a city without public utilities, only the rich can thrive.
On your website, you refer to Gurgaon as the banlieue of Delhi. I found that such an interesting use of the word because of the specific connotation it has for French cities. What are the similarities and differences between Gurgaon and the communes in the outskirts of French cities?
“Banlieue” conveys the idea of geographic relegation beyond the limits of the city and a form of exclusion from city life. That relegation is obvious in the bordering parts of Delhi, where I shot “Bad City Dreams”—where the satellite city of Gurgaon grows over agricultural land. However, the story of Delhi since India’s independence has been one of expansion, and it became clear to me that the places I visited around it will soon be absorbed by the urban fabric.
The most glaring similarity between the French banlieues and Gurgaon concerns the use of space. Where slow urban development creates cities with a high density of usages and a strong social mix, especially at the street level, there is a kind of rapid urbanization that creates suburbs which makes for segmented city spaces, where only people from certain social groups meet. The rise of the mall as the favored meeting point for the middle class in India and in France says much of the lack of attractive public spaces.
The main difference between the French banlieues and Gurgaon concerns the role of local governments. While Gurgaon is very much the product of the laissez-faire ideology and free-market urbanism, French suburbs depend a lot on public policies, especially public investment in housing and transportation.
Would you like to share any anecdotes or stories from your time working on this project?
The making of this project was a lot of fun. I had the chance to meet people from all walks of life—from real-estate agents to security guards and construction workers. In fact, I was surprised by how easy it was to shoot, as I initially feared I would attract unwanted attention from land owners. My interaction with people who agreed to be photographed was playful an it seemed that they enjoyed being part of the project. Whenever possible, I always sent them their pictures via Whatsapp.
I started the project by collecting real-estate brochures from various “property fairs,” that I based the backdrops in my photos on. These invariably take place in standardized five-star hotels in the periphery of Delhi, not just Gurgaon but also Dwarka and Noida. Besides offering nondescript abstract art and bland Italian cuisine, these hotels have many reception halls decorated with heavy curtains and carpets, where the promoters set up their booths for the fairs.
I would go early, before the rush of visitors, and visit every booth, pretending to be a representative for a French investor, to work in real-estate or to actually be looking for a flat for myself. I am not sure anyone took me seriously, but being a foreigner did help me gain the agents’ sympathy. I was given in-depth explanations of the details of the projects, from the apartment sizes to the gym and parking facilities. I had no difficulties getting the glossy brochures I was after and was even given a wrapped gift once. I waited for a few months before I finally opened it. It was a coffee mug with the promoter’s name. Coincidentally, it was already broken.