// TRACING URBAN HISTORY
The Enigma Called Gwalior in Modern India
Has historic stranglehold of power cost Gwalior its future?
The intent of the article is to explore why the city of Gwalior, even with its rich heritage value and historic significance as a seat of power in Central India, has not flourished to achieve its true growth potential. Modern day Gwalior is a congested city, bursting at its seams, ridden with problems of scarce resources and poor infrastructure. The outcome ultimately captures the conundrum of Gwalior’s tryst with unbroken power, that has in fact, not allowed for the city’s growth even with significantly continuing state power, much to the discredit of the political rulers- the Scindias. The article is not intended as political commentary, but merely scholarly inquisitiveness.
Gwalior, as it exists today, is a city possibly sinking under the burden of its own history as a dominating seat of power in Central India. The Gwalior State had risen to significant power with the accession of the Scindias in the 18th and 19th century. However, post-independence, after it was integrated with India into the new state of Madhya Bharat, Rajmata Vijayraje Scindia, the widow of Maharaja Jivajirao Scindia, was elected to the Lok Sabha, beginning the family’s long and ongoing career in electoral politics.
Political convenience and personal ambition of the state rulers has invariably seemed to strangle the inherent potential of the city. In the Revolt of 1857, the State of Gwalior had sided with the British in a bid to protect its own interests, even at the cost of Swaraj. In the years that followed, several state buildings, including the opulent Jai Vilas palace stood as immodest showcases of the comfortable riches that came as perks of allegiance to the British. While these spelt grandeur through exotic European antiques and borrowed styles of Architecture, the very basic needs of the rest of the state seemed to remain unattended to.
The Princely states of India existed as subsidiary alliances of the British Raj and were entitled to a semi-sovereign state of authority on some matters of state. Some prominent States, particularly Baroda and Mysore used this partial autonomy to enable compelling social transformations. Most of these investments were great experiments with a strong social purpose- that of creating a culture of their own that helped them rise above the identity forged on them by the Raj. Gwalior, on the other hand, continued to remain dependent on the British to bring about such reforms. Until two decades ago, the administration of Gwalior had not ventured into establishing institutions after those already established by the British except perhaps the Lakshmibai National University for Physical Education in 1957 or the Jiwaji University in 1964.
The growth of Gwalior seems to have fallen hostage to the design of its political leaders. The Scindia household’s proximity to power- first with the colonizers and then political affiliation post-independence has driven Gwalior into their stranglehold. The continuity of having power should have allowed greater ability to change the state of Gwalior- and this came as an added privilege to Gwalior over the other erstwhile Princely states such as Baroda, that had lost its political authority to the Government of India after independence. However, in present day Gwalior, a glaring lack of development of industry, institutions and civic infrastructure with a growing population ridden with problems of scarce resources has resulted in a dense urban fabric stretched to its limit.
As per the recent land use plan (2021), nearly 46 % of the city is classified as residential while a meagre 3.5% and 7% is reserved as commercial and industrial use. The old city around the fort cannot accommodate the demand or seem to support new housing projects without necessary infrastructure. Apart from sustaining extremely dense population, the old city’s Bada area is one of the only major commercial zones in the city- it is bursting at its seams. The civil lines and the railway colony have self-imposed restriction against growth. Therefore, it is evident that Gwalior is in dire need of identifying new areas for development. The existing infrastructure conditions have attracted a class of migrants in hordes, which makes the city unattractive to others, unless provided with economic incentives. Gwalior thus needs to build up an image.
During decades of negligence, the erstwhile pride has blurred in public memory, causing apathy towards perhaps, the only existing source of identity- its rich historic heritage. Nothing significant seems to be prevalent in recent memory to nudge Gwalior out of its shell. It has been retreating into slow urban decay.
The city of Gwalior has not seen any expensive or crippling, wasteful wars or been plundered. It has always been under the benign cover of the powers of the Indian State. It also seems to be at further odds with the fact that the masses of Gwalior have always held their ruler in high esteem and would be more than willing to lend their weight behind their king (current political leaders) should they decide to bring development or economic growth to Gwalior. One can argue that Gwalior’s envious location, places it as an immensely potential center of trade and industry. One also wonders that with an exquisite fort and other notable historic heritage, why has Gwalior not been a naturally flourishing tourism destination in contrast to say, Khajuraho which has a very inaccessible location and yet has reinvented itself as holding a place on the cultural map of India, or even Orchha which is beginning to become popular without any major support from any quarter.
The Scindias have more economic clout than any other Maharajas of erstwhile states and unbroken continuity of power. One wonders if the stifled development is a result of quirky fate or of apathy, if not design of its political masters, the erstwhile royalty. Has long continuity of power been the bane of Gwalior’s destiny?
1. Mansoori, I.K., Prasad Sati. V., Trends of Urbanization in Gwalior Metro-City (India) And Its Environs, Journal of Environmental Research And Development, Vol. 2 №1, (2007)
2. Gwalior Development Plan Book 2021, http://www.mptownplan.gov.in/plan_gwalior.html
3. Yadav,S.,The Gwalior dynasty: A short history of the Scindias in Indian politics, The Indian Express, dtd. 13 Mar 2020