India's Privately Owned City

What would a city look like without a government? Imagine not lawless anarchy — there's still a government — federal, state, what-have-you— just not its own government. There would be no planning, no zoning, no mayor, and no public infrastructure. You might think it’s a silly question. Who in their right mind would live there, after all? But imagine, for some reason, this city is the size of Phoenix or Philadelphia — home to about 1.5 million people. Without government, who would make the trains run on time? Or even make sure there was a train in the first place? Who would inspect buildings for safety, or test the purity of water? You don’t, actually, need to imagine. There is such a place. It's called Gurgaon — India’s privately-owned city.Because there were no public roads, water pipes, energy lines, or fire stations, corporations simply built their own. Why would anyone — much less a million Anda half people — move to a place with no central sewage or water system? While Gurgaon may not be home to any natural resources to speak of, it does have one big thing going for it: proximity. It's about a half-hour drive southwest of Delhi, India’s capital and the second-largest city on Earth. Instead of slowly sprawling outward into suburbs, construction in Delhi was all of the sudden forced to relocate. In 1957, the Delhi Development Act banned private real estate developers, leaving them no choice but to move elsewhere. The reason that elsewhere became Gurgaon was a man named Sanjay Gandhi. Sanjay dreamt of an Indian-made automobile— an aspirational pride of the nation. The government, at the time, argued its focus should be on mass transit, not wasteful personal cars — but Sanjay was the son of India's prime minister, and his wish, therefore, became command.Gurgaon was chosen for the factory precisely because the land was worthless — rural, undeveloped, and rather unimportant. His car turned out to be a total failure but was eventually bought by Suzuki, who, by the early 80s, employed 20,000 workers in the then small town. Land laws are complicated in India — owners must apply for permits, which can’t be transferred to new owners and the whole process involves many levels of bureaucracy. Not to mention rampant corruption. Because of this, Gurgaon may have remained a small, industrial outpost forever, except for a lucky coincidence: Nearly all of its land was under the jurisdiction of just one single office. Of course, this one was no more immune to corruption than any other office — but there was a critical difference: Say, for example, a company wants to develop a plot of land. To do so, it needs a permit. The agency responsible can therefore demand a bribe. If it believes the land will generate $1,000,000in profit, in theory, it can ask for as much as $999,000, and the developer will agree, still making a profit. But if the permit requires the approval of two agencies, each will try to extract the maximum value possible, for a combined $2,000,000— twice the actual value — leaving the company with no incentive. Thus, unless all parties coordinate perfectly, the land will sit empty and its economic potential will be wasted. Gurgaon, in other words, was no economic utopia— bribes were common, but the lack of red tape made paying them quick and easy. That made all the difference. Soon companies like Nestle, Coca-Cola, Dell, and American Express flocked to the city's cheap labor, proximity to Delhi, and an international airport, and lack of bureaucracy. And with them came a wave of skilled middle-class knowledge workers and ex-pats.Delhi was old, crowded, dirty. But in Gurgaon, developers introduced luxury estates — walled-off high-rises with a shared pool, clubhouse, and shopping mall. There was just one tiny problem: There was still no real government. That meant no public transit, roads, sewage, electric grid, water — you-name-it.Still, to this day, many roads simply don't have names — including one outside its Civil Hospital, which surely makes getting Therea bit tricky in an emergency. And so, to induce demand, developers simply created supply. Whatever customers demanded, they provided. Its Rapid Metro is the world’s first 100%privately-owned modern light metro system. To pay the bills, each station is auctioned off to the highest corporate bidder who becomes its “sponsor". You might meet your friend at Vodafone Belvedere Tower Station — paid for by the British telecommunications company Vodafone. It's even painted Vodafone red.Two-thirds of the city’s population aren't connected to the main sewage line. While they may flush their toilets without knowing it, their pipes end in a septic tank at the edge of the property, waiting to be dumped just outside the estate walls. Electricity may be erratic — but those on the 30th floor don’t know the difference— their power is backed up by privately-owned diesel-powered generators. The public employ just 4,000 police officers, while developers maintain a legion of 35,000security.The city’s fire preparation is equally comical. In 2008, there were just 14 public fire engines, despite the central government mandating no Fewer than 42 for a city of its size. Worse, their pumps could only spray up to40-meters.The tallest building is three hundred. Real estate companies had no choice but to build their own fire stations, which act as a quasi-public service in times of emergency, helping anyone in need. Its business hub, Cyber City, boasts having "Weapon-mounted” Scorpio SUVs, a security force of 500, and 8,000 security cameras. Now, on paper, all of this development was part of a “public-private partnership”— private companies would build their own infrastructure and the city would connect it all. But, of course, without any system of enforcement or an explicit contract, developers built only what their customers demanded and nothing more.Despite being the third-largest source of tax revenue to the central Indian government, somehow a formal municipal body was only created in 2008, by which time it was already home to over a million people. Even then, its power is extremely limited. About the only thing it did was rename the city — though few noticed. If Gurgaon is an accidental experiment in what happens when corporations are left to fill the role of government, what are the results?The answer depends on who you are. Its privately-owned islands rival any of the world's great cities in cleanliness and comfort.Tiger Woods once played around at the Arnold Palmer-designed DLF Golf and Country Club, The Fortis Memorial Hospital draws people from all around, and its high rises offer every luxury under the sun. But step outside these artificial islands, even just an inch, and everything changes. Untreated sewage is dumped straight into the river, electricity is sporadic, the air is polluted, extreme flooding is not uncommon, and traffic jams are a daily fact of life. In 2016, thousands of cars were stuck on the road during a flood, which canceled school for two whole days. At one point, traffic got so bad that a judge ordered the pause of toll collection to speed things up. So, what is Gurgaon? A brutal, lived lesson on the limits of Capitalism? Or an extraordinary example in the lengths the free market will go to fill in the gaps, all on its own? In short: yes.