As a part of the Intersection: Seminar series, on Wednesday, 19 September 2018, there were two speakers on the chosen topic. Modern cities rely on experts with specialised knowledge to design and manage the infrastructure that makes life possible for residents. However, there is an inherent tension between the privileged role enjoyed by experts and the normative aspiration for democratic governance. This tension is now in the spotlight in the context of the “smart cities” initiative, but it is a phenomenon with deep historical roots. By juxtaposing the history of an iconic infrastructure project with an analysis of the work of a maverick city planner, this seminar explored the ideas and interventions of experts and their critics in early 20th century Indian cities.
Aparajith Ramnath reconstructed the history of the iconic (second) Howrah Bridge in Kolkata. From the 1910s to the mid-1930s, how the engineers, legislators, and representatives of big business wrangled over whether the new bridge should be of the floating or cantilever type; what were the several issues at stake: financial, technical, and political was elaborated by him.
Karthik Rao-Cavale described the heterodox planning ideas of Patrick Geddes, a town planner who spent several years (1915-1923) as a consultant for various Indian cities. He shared with the audience how Geddes vehemently criticised the top-down decision-making process employed by municipal engineers in colonial India and conceptualised an entirely different role for experts in the work of city improvement.