Book review: Of Greater Dignity than Riches: Austerity and Housing Design in India

reviewed by Debapriya Ganguly

27 Jul 2021, 9:40 a.m.
Debapriya Ganguly

Of Greater Dignity than Riches book cover

Book review: Of Greater Dignity than Riches: Austerity and Housing Design in India

By Farhan Karim and reviewed by Debapriya Ganguly

Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh, 2019; 336 pp.: ISBN: 978082296 5695, US$55 (hbk)


Discussions on the built environment have underlined the linkages with the existing mode of production within a society (Harvey, 1988Lefebvre, 1970). Public housing thus acts as an interesting canvas to capture the economic, political, social, cultural, geographical and historical factors which inform the processes of city-making and state-building. The Industrial Revolution in Europe, which accelerated the urbanisation processes on the continent, marked the arrival of the rural population in the industrial centres, and the living conditions of these incoming workers were an increasing cause for concern. In this context, housing and urban development became interrelated questions, which needed to be addressed urgently. As cities became closely linked with economies of space across the globe, designing and planning this space required serious attention. Shelter and accommodation, therefore, became priorities of political regimes to sustain urban productivity and supply of labour. Public housing designs represented an amalgamation of political economy and architectural trends, infused with the dominant ideologies and discourses. As is widely argued in urban studies, the process of urban planning and design is theoretically people-centric; yet there might be contradictions when it comes to putting this into practice. In this context, Of Greater Dignity than Riches: Austerity and Housing Design in India is an important contribution which ties together several of these themes effectively.

In the book, Karim attempts to show how ‘ideal houses’ and ‘model villages’ (p. 5) were structured by the idea of ‘austerity’ which had also guided the developmental visions and understanding of modernity for the post-colonial Indian state. The author heavily draws from various archival resources to discuss the different influences that have shaped the processes of conception and implementation of these designs. The book consists of seven parts. The introduction explains the role played by the principle of ‘austerity’ in India’s political and economic discourses. Karim discusses that the aftermath of independence saw efforts by the governing elites to rebuild the nation-state, and that while doing so they attempted to strike a balance between ‘growth’ and ‘control’ (p. 6). He goes on to clarify how ‘austerity culture was prescriptive’, and therefore was not a correct portrayal of the ways in which the poor would choose or had chosen to live. Chapters 1, 3 and 4 proceed to focus on these prescriptive ideal types, which were created for urban and rural housing, and the interconnections between them. In ‘Imagining an Ideal Prototype House for Industrial Workers’ (Chapter 1), Karim specifically highlights the housing designs for Bombay mill workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The confluence of ideas of Western and Indian architects, which informed these designs, is a recurring theme in Karim’s book, and is further demonstrated in this chapter. In ‘The Idea of an Ideal Village’ (Chapter 3), Karim explores British planner Jaqueline Tyrwhitt’s ‘stereotypical’ understanding of Indian villages in the 1950s, and how rural housing was styled after Gandhi’s ashram. The author takes forward this discussion on ‘model village’ designs in ‘Architecture of the New Villages’ (Chapter 4). Here, he brings into focus the concepts related to the ‘bottom-up level development’ of the American architect and planner Albert Mayer and its linkages with Gandhian and Nehruvian visions of rural growth (p. 170). Through Chapters 2 and 5, Karim attempts to tie together the larger narrative of the book. In ‘Exhibiting Development’ (Chapter 2), the author uses exhibitions on low-income housing organised by various national and international agencies as a lens to demonstrate the different perspectives underlying housing designs, especially on self-help housing, in the 1940s and 1950s. The fifth chapter, ‘Appropriating Global Norms of Austerity’, underlines the notions related to ‘asceticism’ prevalent in Indian cultural practices, and the global influences that have been witnessed. Here, the author talks about how ‘a novel material culture’ was emerging in the 1960s, which represented a ‘synthesis of the local and the modern’ (p. 219). In the conclusion, Karim shares the example of Ralegan Siddhi, a model village planned by the social activist Anna Hazare, to show the possibilities of reducing the gaps between different plans and designs for people, and their own ideas, needs and requirements.

In Karim’s own words, the book aims to expose the ‘conceptual limits’ (p. 16) of the ‘ideal prototypes’ that have been constructed, and it does so quite successfully in many ways. Each chapter begins by identifying the origins of the designs, the various agents involved in their planning and execution and any pitfalls encountered. For instance, in Chapter 1, the discussion starts by noting how the Expert Board of Colonial Bombay headed by Arthur E Mirams planned to build cottages for the Bombay mill workers in the late 19th century, who were then residing in overcrowded dwellings. By providing a detailed account of the different stages of the process, the different actors that were involved and the outcomes, Karim brings forward important themes like gentrification, challenges related to the socio-economic category of the ‘worker’, hygiene, aesthetics and climatic conditions, among others. Similarly, in Chapter 3, the author at the outset highlights Tyrwhitt’s prejudiced notions regarding the inability of Indians to adjust to the urban lifestyle, and by doing so emphasises the ‘apparent’ rural–urban divide that was prevalent in the plans and visions for development. The book brings into focus significant issues which have plagued planning and design in India for several decades, while documenting the interactions between Western planners and architects and Indian political visionaries. By using the case of Ralegan Siddhi as an alternative and improvement on the Gandhian utopian model, Karim stresses the concrete ways in which people’s participation can be invited and democratic structures can be built, even while aspiring for austerity.

Housing, in the Indian context, is a consistent cause for concern in both rural and urban contexts. The book, published in 2019, would have benefited from engaging with contemporary forms of public housing design in India, showing either the continuity or absence of earlier practices. For example, central housing schemes for lower-income groups, such as Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY), which was implemented under an earlier political regime, and Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY), which was implemented under the present government, show disparities between planners’ visions and communities’ needs. The public–private partnership framework, which shapes the majority of these projects, continues to suffer from similar contradictions, as was seen in the case studies provided by the book. This also brings forward an important question about the ‘modernism of austerity’ as a discourse used to confront the difficult questions related to development in the post-independence period. How can we understand the principle of austerity in changing times? With the country envisioning the growth of Smart Cities, and planning and design competing with international standards even more intensely than before, in what ways does the modernism of austerity become visible? While Karim lays the foundations for this discussion, it would be productive to pursue these questions even further.



Harvey, D (1988) Social Justice and the City. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
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Lefebvre, H (1970) The Urban Revolution. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.
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