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Inside the gates

Western-style gated communities are springing up across India, fueled by Bollywood endorsements and a rising middle class. Are they the latest reflection of the age-old caste system, or a new threat to social cohesion?

LUCKNOW --The capital of India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, was once the spectacular cultural center of India, a city of domed palaces, flamboyant Muslim rulers, and Urdu poets. Now the City of Nawabs has crumbled into the chaos that characterizes most north Indian cities. Cows and dogs pick at garbage in the ruins of ornate monumental buildings, and beggars wander the clogged streets displaying the stumps of their limbs. But amid the remnants of past glory, a modern-day empire has seized hold of the city, with ambitions to take over more than 200 other cities across India.

From its Lucknow headquarters, Sahara India Pariwar, India's second largest company, has just launched the country's first branded housing network, with room for some 800,000 homes on about 30,000 acres across India. The company chairman's office and residence is set on a majestic plot of land dotted with lakes, gardens, and cupola-topped buildings reminiscent of those inhabited by the city's 18th-century rulers. At the Lucknow airport, a billboard proclaims, "Welcome to Sahara City"; across the inglorious skyline, neon signs broadcast "Sahara" from commercial towers.

The company's five-year-old township here is currently being transformed into the first of some 200 planned "City Homes" -- a slicker, more exclusive version of the community. Picture a luxury housing community that provides its own infrastructure, beginning with a 10-foot boundary wall and armed guards. In addition to 24-hour security, the typical City Homes complex will have a private fire department, backup electrical system, drinking water filtration plant, school, multiplex movie theater, and a manmade mini-seashore. The homes will be carefully designed and manicured units in small apartment blocks, each surrounded by a measured patch of green.

It sounds like an enclave you would expect to find in the subdivisions of Phoenix or Las Vegas. But Sahara's network of gated communities is targeted not at the traditional elite but at India's newly prosperous upper-middle class, largely created by software exports and service outsourcing. Their tastes altered by media-fed ideals of Western comfort and Bollywood's images of extreme wealth, this new class is hungry for the trappings of prosperity.

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Planned cities are not entirely new to India. From Shah Jahan's Red Fort to Le Corbusier's Chandigarh, architects have envisioned an ideal metropolis distinct from the unplanned concrete jungles of most Indian cities. Frustrated with inept government services, India's rich have for years simply created their own infrastructure by purchasing backup generators and water filtration systems. More recently, they have created their own cities, like the satellite "Millennium City" Gurgaon, outside New Delhi. But Sahara, with the help of "brand ambassador" Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood's biggest star, aims to bring Western-style comfort and reliability to an even broader market.

"For the first time in India, we have envisioned paradise living," exults S.J. Sarwan, chief marketing manager for Sahara Housing. "We are giving the dream lifestyle to the common man."

Of course, the definition of "common man" is highly relative. India's annual per capita income hovers around $480, and a recent United Nations report found that it is home to more hungry people than any other country in the world. Nevertheless, India's is among the world's fastest-growing economies. Economic growth reached 8.4 percent in the last fiscal quarter, and foreign-exchange reserves surpassed the $100 billion mark in December.

There's another factor behind India's luxury-housing boom: credit. Interest rates on housing loans have virtually halved in the last five years, making what was previously financially unthinkable and culturally suspect -- borrowing to buy homes, cars, luxury goods, and vacations early in life -- commonplace even for middle-class Indians.

According to a recent DSP Merrill Lynch India Economics Report, bank lending to individuals has almost tripled in the last five years. Young professionals and businesspeople are buying their own homes for the first time, usually leaving their parents' house and the traditional extended family behind. Many of them are avoiding the hassles of construction by buying into pre-built housing complexes. Sahara's alliances with a network of banks makes loans even easier to get.

Swati Saiwal, 25, and her new husband bought an apartment in Sahara's flagship Lucknow housing complex just nine months after they married. A hefty bank loan made it possible, but so unworried are the newlyweds about cash flow that they already have plans to buy a second Sahara property for their children to move into eventually. Sitting on a floral couch in their brochure-perfect living room, Saiwal says it is the safety and cleanliness of the community that attracted them.

Security seems to be Sahara's primary draw. Applicants are carefully screened for financial viability, and residents and workers have to show ID cards at the gate. "Safety is more than protection from terrorism or robbery," says Neelima Saxena, deputy senior manager of marketing for Sahara Housing. "It's a feeling."

"Gating communities is partly an understandable response to the rise in urban riots, petty crime, and rape," says Abhimanyu Dalal, an architect and urban designer in India's capital, New Delhi. Recent statistics show that rape and robbery are much higher in urban areas, where the population has ballooned nearly fivefold in the half-century since India's independence.

But Dalal says that the middle class's urge to create safe enclaves only makes urban areas more fragmented and insular: "If you live in such a community, you tend to become comfortable with people similar to you and less tolerant of outsiders."

Other architects and planners echo his fears. "Gated communities will only further polarize India according to economic stratification," warns Krishna Menon, director of the TVB School of Habitat Studies in New Delhi. He believes these townships are just one example of how Indian city planners increasingly focus on the upper strata of society and ignore the vast majority of city dwellers. "Who really creates the Indian city?" he asks rhetorically. "It's the slum dwellers, who build illegal shanty towns so prolifically the authorities simply cannot stop them."

Even critics like Menon concede that while the image of Sahara is rooted in Western ideas of comfort, its mentality is compatible with Indian tradition. "Thanks to the 4,000-year-old Hindu caste system, which has always separated villages by economic and social type, the gated community perfectly suits Indian society," he says.

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For its part, Sahara says the company is actually improving the Indian city by providing what the Indian government has never been able to supply its citizens with: clean water, reliable power, and open space. "Middle-class people step out of their nice houses and see the same filth, pollution, and chaos," says Shahkar Faizal, one of 30 Sahara architects who designed the City Homes project. "That's what we have changed."

Sahara claims to be eco-friendly, too. At each of Sahara's current complexes, residents are encouraged not to use plastic bags, for instance, and 50 acres of each "City Homes" development will be kept as open green space. That's certainly rare in Indian cities and suburbs, which tend to be a tangle of streets and slums and where recycling is a project reserved for street scavengers. "People feel the government has failed them," says Sahara Housing president I. Ahmad. "We want to set an example."

Usha Raghupathi, a researcher at the partly government-funded National Institute of Urban Affairs, knows the state's limitations only too well. She blames the country's spiraling population and government corruption, and argues that gated communities like Sahara's will actually help everyone. "If the city cannot support the middle class -- and there is tremendous pressure on infrastructure -- then of course they should leave," she says. "If they go, their share of water and electricity will go to someone else."

Sahara certainly has some satisfied customers, like Binti Srivastava, who lived in 22 houses before buying a place in Sahara's Lucknow complex. "Whatever maintenance I need done in my home, the Sahara people take care of," she says. "If my kids go out to play, I don't have to think about whether they're OK."

On a recent evening, the Lucknow complex was almost empty as dusk fell. The fountain -- an almost unheard of extravagance in a country with chronic water shortages -- rises and falls gracefully into the Sahara silence, broken only by strains of Hindi music drifting over the massive wall from the nearby slums. The wide Sahara boulevards are eerily empty of cars. It takes a moment to comprehend what else is unusual about these roads: no garbage, no cows, no pigs, and no beggars.

Welcome to the brave new India, swipe your ID card at the gate.

Miranda Kennedy is a journalist based in New Delhi. She reports frequently for National Public Radio from across South Asia.