Our dying cities

Print edition : July 27, 2012

On Anna Salai in Chennai, traffic snarls such as this one are a daily occurrence.-R. SHIVAJI RAO

India is urbanising rapidly, but it has failed to build a civic consciousness or culture that can stem urban decay.

Consider a cruel irony. India is one of the worlds fastest urbanising countries. Its total urban population exceeds the entire population of each one of the worlds nations barring China. The number of Indian urban agglomerations with more than one million people has grown by more than 50 per cent over one decade alone, to 53 (the 2011 Census). Yet, most Indian cities are decaying rapidly and increasingly becoming unlivable.

Not one of our major cities can provide even the bare minimum of water, sanitation, electricity, road space, affordable schooling or public transport, leave alone modern (if modest) housing, reasonably clean air, basic health facilities, playgrounds or open spaces to all its citizens. Only an affluent minority has all these. As some of these services get privatised, they become inaccessible for millions of underprivileged people.

Glaring rich-poor inequalities are a constant, but hideous and growing, feature of all our cities, manifested in deeply inegalitarian provision of services, from roads to drainage, to milk-booths and schools, to water and electricity. Meanwhile, squalid shantytowns mushroom, turning India into what Mike Davis calls The Planet of Slums.

The quality of our urban life is abysmal and falling. Painfully long power cuts are a quotidian reality in most cities, barring their privileged enclaves. So is a crippling scarcity of potable water, which forces a lower middle class household to spend 5 per cent or more of its income on buying bottled water or purifying the poor-quality water it gets from the municipal tap or, increasingly, borewells, most of which are illegal and savagely depleting and contaminating groundwater.

Most Indian cities are unsafe, especially for women, but also for pedestrians and users of non-mechanised transport like bicycles. Old people, whose numbers are growing rapidly, cannot possibly feel secure in negotiating our urban spaces. No Indian city is disabled-friendly. And the vast majority of our cities and towns have no pavements or footpaths worth the name.

Worse, our cities are turning uglier by the day as parks and greenery are devoured, roads and drains are dug up, potholes multiply, garbage piles up, ungainly shopping malls proliferate, and flyovers meant to speed up cars and other private vehicles rip through city centres and demolish historic landmarks and graceful old buildings.

Urban air quality is plummeting everywhere thanks to unbridled vehicular pollution, dust clouds (not least from haphazard construction), and diesel fumes from electricity generators, to a point where respiratory diseases affect one-third or more of Indian children. In cities like Delhi, where the entire fleet of public buses, taxis and autorickshaws was converted to relatively clean compressed natural gas a decade ago, the gains from reduced pollution have already been reversed.

A new menace is cars and worse, luxury sedans and sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) which run on highly polluting diesel, and which now account for fully one-half of total car sales, up from under 30 per cent a year ago.

Although growth of passenger vehicle sales has slowed down over the past year, the 20-year-long trend of furious privatisation of urban transport continues unabated. Private vehicles are choking roads, slowing down traffic in particular, public buses and creating terrible jams and snarl-ups in city after city. The introduction and rapid expansion of super-expensive Metro rail systems, which the poor cannot afford, has failed to slow down the runaway growth of private transport.

There is little systematic effort except in a handful of cities to harvest rainwater and none at all at recycling water or curtailing its abuse by the rich through the flushing of wasteful toilets designed a century ago in Europe even though water scarcity is acute and growing. Most major cities get their water supply from increasingly long distances, for example, Delhi from distant Tehri in Garhwal.

Natural drainage has been all but destroyed not just in Mumbai (hence the devastating floods of 2006), Delhi (where old waterways have been built over to create filthy stagnant pools which breed mosquitoes), or Chennai (where the Adyar has turned into a sewer); but also in smaller cities such as Nagpur, Guwahati, and Dehradun. Soon, some of our cities will float on sewage, like Bangkok.

Little effort has been made to redesign our cities to adapt to climate change. The Sustainable Habitat Mission under the National Action Plan for Climate Change is poorly conceived and omits large components (for example, residential housing) from its scope, focussing narrowly on matters like green buildings mainly high-rise commercial structures that use huge amounts of energy-intensive concrete, steel and glass, but seek a measure of economy and efficiency in demand management by tinkering at the margins while leaving the ecological burden of construction unresolved.

In Bangalore, drainage overflow in front of a high-end shopping mall.-G.P. SAMPATH KUMAR

The window of opportunity to repair our cities offered by the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) has now all but closed. The 63-cities-seven-year Mission, the biggest initiative of its kind, has failed to achieve urban renewal and improve urban governance.

As K.C. Sivaramakrishnan argues in Re-Visioning Indian Cities (Sage, 2011), it was mired in numerous conceptual conflicts from the start. It did not take elected local bodies fully on board in preparing City Development Plans and concentrated on infrastructure projects unrelated to the Plans. It assessed project outcomes in terms of physical progress and money spent (read, made by contractors), not benefits accrued to the target groups. Numerous flyovers, some expansion in urban transport and better landscaping in a few cities remain its biggest achievements. Amidst these countless failures, a tawdry, philistine, crassly commercial culture has come to dominate Indias urban landscape, to which the land mafia is central, as is the collusion of businessmen, upwardly mobile professionals, politicians, urban planners and municipal authorities. This collusive network has succeeded in corrupting the middle class through ubiquitous transactions in black money, while creating a real estate bubble in which speculators alone thrive.

Even more corrosive is the growing influence and legitimacy of the aggressive, macho, ultra-individualistic culture of the new super-rich urban elite devoted to the worship of power and wealth, which mocks at civic values and the idea of building a community that shares a common space.

This culture promotes a grabbing, mean, misanthropic mentality, an unbelievably crude form of Social Darwinism, and an each man for himself and Devil take the hindmost attitude towards ones fellow-citizens. This is one of the most toxic and enduring social legacies of two decades of neoliberal policies, which supposedly were to energise the animal spirits of our entrepreneurs, but have certainly resulted in horrendous inequalities and disempowerment of the underprivileged.

Effects of this are evident in the rampant appropriation of every available public space by the rich and powerful. Roads, two-thirds of whose space is occupied by cars carrying under 15 per cent of commuters, are a prime example. Public streets and pavements are usurped through muscle power to park cars. In cities in north India, murders over their ownership are not uncommon.

Similarly, municipal water is stolen by the rich who install suction pumps before it enters the common sump of an apartment building. If you do not steal it yourself, you get no water.

In South Delhi, there are instances where residents have taken over pavements and barricaded them with chains and locks for their cars. These proprietary places are closed to the public even when no cars are parked.

Outright criminality apart, there is a larger, distressing truth about our cities. They are increasingly uncentred, atomised, fragmented, and left with few democratic, collective spaces such as public parks, plazas, theatre districts, performing-arts centres, museums, libraries, bookshops, literary societies, music circles, cafes, discussion groups, salons and other centres of intellectual activity or venues which give us a common identity as thinking citizens of the same polis, with a common destiny and purpose. Shopping malls, where young people gather, are no substitute for them.

The public sphere, so central to vibrant civic life, has always been tiny in India and is shrinking frightfully rapidly. There is a growing disconnect between writers, artists, scholars, scientists, Gramscis organic intellectuals, social activists and concerned citizens. Our universities and learned institutions, which can pursue free inquiry and critical reflection on society, are in decline and in the grip of a self-seeking, narrow-minded clique, which blithely bans books and outlaws cartoons and has no respect for academic freedom.

The intelligentsia, itself fragmented and in disarray, no longer generates a coherent discourse on civic values and citizenship based on universal principles of egalitarianism, democratic participation and social cohesion, which contest hierarchy and elitism. In short, we lack civic consciousness and a commitment to building an urban, civilised community.

It will not be easy to recover these values. But recover (and enrich) them we must unless we want to live impoverished lives as citizens of soulless, debased, wretched, fundamentally unlivable cities, where Mammon rules and the wicked and corrupt alone flourish. This will need a Herculean effort on the part of progressive civil society organisations, intellectuals, political parties and concerned citizens. They must draft and fight for a radical Citizens Charter.

A letter from the Editor


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