How we can regenerate our metros
By Valson Thampu | Published: 20th April 2017 04:00 AM |
Bengaluru, our version of the Silicon Valley, is sinking into geriatric degeneration. It is projected to become unlivable in ten years, unless the present trends are reversed. And ten years is like a leisurely wink on the macro-scale of time!
Some of the reports we have read and the visuals we have seen of the plight of this Garden City are worrisome. Recall Bellandur Lake catching fire for the third time in February 2017. Water and fire are elemental incompatibles. Water is supposed to douse fire, not burn like petroleum! But how can water not catch fire when the building mafia bombs the
lake with debris?
So where are we, then? Nearly 20 per cent of the schoolgoing children in Bengaluru fare poorly in lung screening tests. That’s, if you don’t mind, an epidemic! Will they even have minimal open spaces in the metropolis? Bad news. The built-up area, which currently stands at 77 per cent, is projected to increase to 93 per cent in the next few years. The population of the city has gone up already from 5.1 million in 2001 to 10million in 2016. With vehicular traffic increasing 18 per cent annually, the roads are choked. Garbage disposal, contamination of water sources, the depletion of the natural assets of the city … the list goes on.
And Bengaluru is still preferred by IT-driven youths and age-shriveled pensioners. Which means that the plight of our other metropolises is not any better. What should worry us most is the dense fog of indifference that hangs over all of them.
We hurtle from disaster to disaster—floods in Bombay and Chennai, acute water-logging in Delhi, lethal levels of air pollution in all our metropolises—and express indignation and dismay for a while, but nothing changes. Why so? Our cities are teeming with people who no longer see them as their shared homes. I lived in Delhi for nearly half a
century. I never felt it was “my city”. It was a place where I happened to be. And that, despite the fact that I wanted to settle down there and did acquire an apartment. That city never struck me, unlike the European cities Iknow, as a place of culture and character. Delhi did not breed a sense of belonging in me. Rather, it kept me on the back-burner of simmering alienation. (By the way, our VVIP culture contributes to this, but it is not talked about.)
Delhi has at any given point in time a large army of floating population. It is also a place where money and power matter much more than human beings. The city used to bruise my mind with monstrous contrasts and contradictions. Centres of opulence standing cheek by jowl with slums of destitution where children and pigs stand side by side.
The pollution of the city aggravates this latent sense of alienation. Alienation inhibits responsibility. I wonder who among the rulers and the ruled feel responsible for any of our metropolises. Apathy fills the vacuum resulting from the demise of responsibility. Our metropolises are today wildernesses of impersonality and indifference.
Apathy breeds unwillingness in citizens to accept such adjustments on their part as are required to allow our cities to regenerate. As Goethe said, if only every man would sweep his own doorstep, the whole city will be clean. But why would anyone do that, unless he has a vibrant sense of belonging? Failing this, we see citizens disposing of their garbage on roadsides or vacant public spaces safe from surveillance.
The prime minister, who can make a difference, stays absorbed with money. But money, as an end in itself, is the seed of our environmental and moral pollution. It is easier to create a cashless metropolis. Creating pollution-less cities should be a greater priority, even if it is a stiffer one.
We can no longer dodge the stark reality that no city can be made or maintained healthy unless its dwellers are imbued with a sense of belonging and responsibility in relation to it. Citizens need to be proud of their cities; but our cities rarely inspire a sense of honour.
Surely the prime minister does not need to be told that all aggressive and alienating agents, advocacies and strategies undermine the health and wholeness of the country as a whole by substituting belongingness with alienation and apathy.
It is also amply clear that unbridled greed, which cobbles together a coalition of predators—building mafia, bureaucracy, political leaders, corporate interests—is what chokes our cities and shared spaces. Merely expressing sentimental concerns about the sinking habitability of our cities does not help. The courage to act boldly and surgically is needed. Citizens, on their part, need to be willing to accept the costs and inconveniences this entails.
Everyone wants a clean, safe, healthy city. But nobody does anything about it. And, worse, everyone resents measures meant to keep pollution under control. If only citizens in Bengaluru would refuse to patronise the building mafia that dump debris in lakes and waterbodies, there could still be hope! If many citizens i Europe boycott carpets made with child labour, and environmentally harmful products manufactured in their countries, why can’t we be mindful of what we breathe, drink and eat?
Phoolan Devi, the Bandit Queen, was killed in Delhi. She was safer in Chambal Valley. This aspect of our urban culture needs to be reckoned with, if we are to think radically and relevantly on humanising our urban culture and regenerating our cities. At the end of the day, the link between nature and human nature does matter. We cannot violate nature and be rewarded for it with natural and wholesome habitats.
(The author is former principal of St. Stephens College, New Delhi. Email: