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Having lived in Bhopal intermittently for the better part of past half a century and gained some expertise and a little experience, I have a broad idea of what the city was, is and ought to be. Of course, there are experts who know more and older inhabitants who understand better but mine is an overview-cum- undercurrent.

As everybody knows Bhopal has a long history – almost a millennium – but not a great one. It was an outpost of the Parmara Kings at the outset of the second millennium and later marked the boundary of the Gond kingdom. In the early 18th Century , an Afghan interloper Dost Mohammad landed up at its outskirts and carved the Nawabi state. It existed till past independence – Bhopal was among the last states to accede to Indian union in 1949. The highpoint of this era was that it had women rulers continuously for over a century –a feat unmatched elsewhere

Modern Bhopal was born in 1956 after the states’ reorganisation wherein Madhya Pradesh was formed with the city as its capital. Almost overnight, its population swelled as people from across the regions from which it was carved out – Rewa , Jabalpur , Gwalior , Nagpur and the rest of it- headed for the city . However , administratively it continued to be a minor – being part of Sehore – till 1972 , when it was made a district. On the Education front too Bhopal was a backwaters during this period with colleges affiliated to Vikram University. During this phase a major development was the establishment of Heavy Electricals ( The precursor to the present day BHEL ) in 1961which altered the demography of the city- from Muslim dominated to Hindu majority. This meant that by the end of it ,Bhopal had three almost equivalent divisions- Old City, Tatya Tope Nagar & HEL Township. However, all said and done, it still remained the city of Parda , Garda and Zarda ( Veil, Dust and Tobacco).

Bhopal first shot to national limelight in 1984 albeit for the wrong reasons of Gas tragedy ; and , it has not slid back into oblivion ever since. Around the same time it started emerging as a major centre of art and culture – a label it has retained till date albeit in a jaded version.

Towards the end of the second millennium, with liberalisation, Bhopal too changed at a faster pace than it ever had in its history. As elsewhere, the first signs of change appeared on the twin fronts of education and health – the two building blocks of any society. However , just as in every other field competition improves quality in the west, in India it starts catering to the lowest common denominator. Resultantly, Bhopal got a few good schools, many bad ones and none excellent. Ditto for hospitals. During this period the Hindi print media in the state became a national leader, at least in terms of circulation. It started with Arjun Singh allotting prime land to media houses almost gratis – just as Nehru had done at Bahadurshah Zafar Marg in Delhi. Of course , the intent of the two gentlemen were quite different – while the former wanted to create an independent press , the latter wished to co-opt it. Both of them succeeded. However , all said and done , it remains the biggest success story of Bhopal.

In my over four decades of coexistence with Bhopal there have been many changes – for better and worse. The city has more greenery, superior infrastructure , better connectivity than before ; on the other hand Patiyas ( informal open air social spaces ) have vanished, as have Tongas ( horse Carriages); the all woman market Pari Bazaar has evaporated (existing only in a miniature form in Pakeezah ) and the Bhopali lingo survives more as a caricature (viz.Soorma Bhopali ) than as a living entity. Incidentally, whenever the oral tradition of a place is threatened, it is a sign of impending death of its culture.

During this phase , Bhopal could neither develop as a business city nor as a trading hub. Instead , it has evolved as a crony trading-cum-business centre of sorts. At the outset ,Muslims mostly did the low skilled jobs and Sindhis took up petty businesses in the Old city and beyond – which is almost all that Bhopal had. Over the years, a third variety evolved – several mid scale businesses mushroomed defying any sort of logic-they were the fronts for money laundering for the officers, as cronies. At the end of this phase ,Muslims stood more or less where they were, Sindhis became mainstream and crony businesses got to the top of the heap. In this period , Bhopal emerged as a preferred place to live among bureaucrats (esp. retired ), Hindi litterateurs and middle classes in general. In a business city they would’ve got sidelined by moneybags and in major political centres the power brokers would’ve marginalised them.

Every city has its culture incorporating traditions over the years . Bhopal evolved no singular culture to call its own though sub-cultures did come up. The Muslim Tehzeeb remained mostly confined to the old city, HEL township evolved its own tacky antiseptic public sector culture and the government servants in TT Nagar could never transcend the ritualistic regime in the wake of the fact that either they or their neighbours were always one transfer away from anything deeper.

Along the way , those who caused the maximum damage to Bhopal were politicians without a base and rootless bureaucrats .The ones who preserved it included commoners – who unwittingly continued their traditional way of life -besides a few romantics , the enlightened souls who protested against every distortion.

The new millennium ushered in the third wave in the form of eateries, housing schemes and garment stores. Basically, Bhopal has been hit from two sides – a stream of mid range executives descending from metros as companies spread their wings to Hindustan / Bharat and an undercurrent of migrants from the state’s hinterland riding on the benefits of democritisation of corruption. The former have brought in kitsch Gujarati and crude Punjabi cultures and the latter carry with them coarse folk traditions. Consequently, Garba – Dandiya and Bhangra have become a regular feature of Bhopal calendar as have Shobha Yatras and Anushthans. It is precisely for the reason that Bhopal had no universal culture that paratroopers from metros and the gatecrashers from Desi land could impose and graft theirs on its soil.

Simultaneously, the city has come on the radar of the metro landsharks and has been caught by the antennae of the hinterland moneybags mostly spilling with stolen public money. This two pronged attack has hit Bhopal’s culture and environment whereby the city feels stuck between a rock and a hard place.

At this point in time , it remains in a confused state with shortsighted politicians and scatterbrain bureaucrats trying to muddle their way around a roadmap for future. However, it is too important an issue to be trusted in the hands of politicians, bureaucrats and corporates / builders / businessmen alone. Now that Bhopal is due for the next phase of generational planning, it is a critical juncture to intervene. The city must decide what it can be and what it can’t – so that we can muster the courage to make it what it can be , humility to accept what it can’t and the wisdom to know the difference. More than a master plan Bhopal needs a master’s plan which is what this piece exhorts .( It is also being attempted by the authorities now – involving experts and the experienced – after making a mess of the proposed master plan ) First things first, the city can never become Paris ( as has been fantasized ) nor can it remain unchanging Bhopal (as is romanticised ). Interestingly , there have been attempts earlier too to make it Paris like. In the 1980’s there were overenthusiastic attempts to make it a centre for classic arts – a la the French megapolis- Dagar brothers were imported from Paris , Alliance Francais came in and all sorts of eclectic activities were initiated. It was an exercise in elitism just as the present attempt is an act of populism. Bhopal needs neither (or a bit of both) – the former is best suited for metros and the latter better reserved for mofussil towns.

Politically, the city needs to grant its Mayor more powers vis-a-vis the council in growth issues – Bhopal’s Mayor cannot be compared to that of any other city in the state.

On the economic front, it ought not to even dream about becoming a business city. Nowhere in the world, let alone India has any modern city of the post industrial era emerged as centre of both political and economic power. As an aside , the growth of business in any city has some relation with the pace of movement in it. With its hilly terrain , Bhopal never has been -and never will be- a fast paced business centre. Relatively speaking , all hilly cities follow the norm. Once this fantasy is given up there is a lot else that can be done. Bhopal has the potential to be the backroom office of India viz. as Metros graduate from BPO’s to KPO’s the city can be the call centre hub. The city doesn’t need mega malls ;instead midsized complexes with neighbourhood stores will do just fine. Likewise , if another clean industry such as BHEL could be brought in, it would fit the bill just right ( the city narrowly missed getting the NTPC–BHEL joint venture two years ago ).

On the sports front , it is O. K . to promote eclectic sports such as shooting , equestrian, water sports etc. but till the newfound successes can be matched by those in city’s traditional sport of hockey , it’ll all sound hollow. Though many sporting facilities have been created in and round the city and many more are coming up, for a common man accessibility is still an issue. Hosting events and felicitating sportsmen from other states can be a good PR exercise but will have little long term impact. In sum , sporting culture is yet to take root in the city.

Bhopal ought not to try to have anything much to do with pure science and math – for it is no the place for the queen of sciences. It can and must pursue excellence in interdisciplinary sciences and also invite centres for applied sciences – as has been rightly done in having IISER, ISRO etc.

A major thrust is needed to establish Bhopal as an intellectual hub- by having resident intellectuals , conventions, felicitations, seminars , workshops, establishing chairs etc. We are now in the knowledge age and economy and hence a singular focus on culture/ tourism may not be self sustaining. There may be no direct or immediate benefits but a stage will come that policies would get auto corrected for growth .Just as a single thrust in culture in the 1980s gave an identity to modern Bhopal ,a similar intellectual push could give it the much needed makeover.

Culturally , Bhopal can only be the epicentre of folk , tribal and popular arts. Classic arts need a cultivated audience so Bhopal can at best be a secondary stop. The drama school set up this year is in line with the city’s tradition in theatre. Eventhough the proposed film city is a half baked idea , the city can come up as a major centre for support activities of filmmaking – locations , junior artistes , set designing etc.

Bhopal doesn’t have clubs and pubs in proportion to its size and with an everfloating population, the city is an unlikely candidate for a socially happening place.

In the wake of the gas tragedy Bhopal ought to have been an international symbol of environment disaster management .Unfortunately, the proposed environment research centre announced after the latest court judgment being relocated to Delhi is disappointing ,to say the least.

Bhopal can be a microcosm of MP tourism – wild life ( Van Vihar ) , heritage ( Bhimbetka , Sanchi ) , adventure ( Kerwa , Upper lake , Kathotiya) and culture – all it needs is aggressive branding and innovative marketing .

It is somewhat ambitious to envision Bhopal to be a Education hub given the fact that it is neither a business – industrial city nor does it have mega funds to support higher education. However, it does have the potential to be a “coaching” capital with a little help from the policies.

The pronouncements of making Bhopal a healthcare destination too are a bit farfetched but it can emerge as a leading centre for Holistic and integrated healthcare systems. Also , it can become a major destination for public healthcare – with AIIMS , BMHRC etc.

It is significant that Bhopal has a plethora of architectural tradition, from Buddhist to Hindu, Mughal-Afghan , British ,French and even American-in and around the city – going back to fifteen hundred years or more. They range from excellent to decent; besides, in the modern times no other city of Bhopal’s size can boast of three Charles Correa buildings. Sadly, barring a few government structures ( Vidhan Sabha , Bharat Bhawan ) not much of city’s architectural tradition is reflected in New Bhopal .The city’s highpoint –or is it a low down ?- is gated complexes of factory made row houses, bereft of any character( I live in one of them). As metros expand, they grow mostly vertically; Bhopal being a midsized town ought to grow both vertically and horizontally. The city centre must grow almost completely vertically and mostly for professional- commercial purposes – this part should be left to the market forces. Horizontal expansion needs to be in the housing sector – it is no coincidence that Bhopal has taken a fancy to Duplex houses, ideally suited for midsized cities. Vertical rise at the outskirts, if at all , should be for lower income groups and must be taken up by the government.

A related issue is that of public transport – it has to tailored to our terrain and needs . The fiasco of Star buses and building huge traffic rotaries – first introducing them unimaginatively and then dumping them at public expense – isn’t very encouraging. The ongoing BRTS scheme too is flawed in being transplanted as it is from metros. In Bhopal , it can at best be a moderate success given the entrenched two wheeler culture and low status stigma attached to public transport. By the way , if BHEL could run battery operated buses in Delhi, why not have them in Bhopal ,at least for arterial roads?

Bhopal has at best a minor tradition in fashion symbolized by Bhopali Kurta , Joda ( with its Zardozi work ) and Batua (as an accessory )-all of which could be better off with some promotion ; ditto for cuisine- save for the Bhopali Murgh Rezala , and Bhopali Gosht Korma there is not much to speak of – in any case, it would do no harm to highlight these.

Over the years, Bhopal has been distorted in some ways , mostly unintentionally ,due to lack of understanding and cultivation…Banking the upper lake gave it a pond like look bereft of grandeur of its waves crashing on the roadside ; sometime ago the British library shut shop ( only to be reopened in a bureaucratic avataar )and recently Takia Tapu has been “beautified” by building a boundary around it and making access easier – a move that goes against the grain of religious places where difficult approach puts the believer in a receiving mode. Likewise , it has lost out or is in the process of losing many of its traditions and symbols – Qwawalis , active participation of women in the socio-political life of the city etc. Some , if not all, can – and should- be revived. Besides , there are intentional angularities, many of which come as a package with any city’s growth…Crime against women and the elderly, Satta (gambling) , bootlegging & adulteration and even links with the extremists.

Though it is as yet only a hint but going by the number of young women moving around with scarf covered faces even at night , men drinking in cars in every other corner and a market infiltrated with spurious goods, Bhopal in some ways shows signs of becoming a city of “Naqaab, Sharaab and Kharaab” (Hoods ,Liquor and the spurious)

Bhopal doesn’t have roots of a great city ( like Pataliputra , Jaipur or Lucknow ) hence it’ll have to strive doubly hard and much longer to attain its due place. Its relative disadvantage – of not having a glorious history can be converted to a huge plus by focusing on pristine environment and clean slate to build a great professional future . That may be possible only with the help of experts and the experienced – for professional and cultural aspects respectively. What goes in Bhopal’s favour is that for most part it has been constructed in past fifty years and is mostly planned ; add to it its hilly terrain which ensures that it’ll always remain relatively clean. However, if it merely follows the conventional path- instead of a mix of orthodox and unconventional- it’ll always remain behind the heels of comparable cities.

In the same vein , what has been tomtomed as a glorious aspect of its history – that the city was ruled by women for hundred years and more – is also a pointer to its psychic underbelly. Imagine the psyche of men in any place ruled by women for so long. No wonder Bhopal has all the Mangalwaras, Somwaras & Itwaras – housing a disproportionate number of eunuchs . The saying goes that the original epithet for Bhopal was “Parda , Zarda and Namarda” ( veil , tobacco & eunuchs ).All of this boils down to saying that Bhopal will have to follow the conventional route in conservation and the unorthodox path in growth. Only then can the dream of making it a Hitech Heritage city come true.

Taking a one sided approach – indulging only in emotional symbolisms such as installing Bhoj’s statue or proposing to change the city’s name to Bhojpal will not suffice ; it has to be matched by concrete growth measures .As of now there are quite a few initiatives extending into the future but if the vision is not matched by preparation, it will not be actualised. For instance , there have already been many encroachments on the proposed ring road ; likewise ,if land is not protected for the metro , when the time comes to get going there are bound to be many blockages.

All in all , what is the City’s USP ? Bhopal’s topography is a combination of hills and lakes; it offers a unique blend of tribal, folk and Muslim cultures ; a place for the creative, the city offers more open spaces than any other comparable place and the general lifestyle is simple ; Bhopal is a melting pot of people from all over the state , even across the country ;it is centrally located and has decent connectivity ; with its medium pace of life and balmy climate, it offers a scope for both leisure and pleasure … By proposing to be a destination for the intellectual , Bhopal aspires to be both a state of the mind and a condition of the heart ;a place for the eclectic and the subtle ; an ideas factory and a preservatory of traditions. It need not run 24×7 ; 18/6( working for 18 and resting for 6 ) should be O.K… In a way , an ideal place for the creative , the intellectual , the semi-retired and the middle classes… It has the potential to be the best tier 2 city – becoming a mega city is neither possible nor desirable. To sum , it is better to become a first rate Bhopal than to be forever a second rate Paris .

*** (The author is an Independent Journalist and Documentary Filmmaker) ***