This Dysfunctional Dystopia that is Urban India

Published: 06th December 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th December 2015 10:14 AM   |  A+A-

This Dysfunctional

Mumbai, New Delhi, Srinagar, Rajkot, Chennai… torrential rains, flooding, collapse of public services, rescue by armed forces, the familiar cry for relief, the demand for Central funds… the sense of déjà vu is unmistakable. History, it would seem, is condemned to repeat itself as tragedy, again and again and again. The pain of death and destruction scarcely deter the prevalence of administrative sloth.

This week, Members of Parliament stood up to “stand with the people of Chennai” in their hour of need and grief. It was not the first time they stood to stand with the people of a city in grief. It will not be the last time either, not unless India decides to learn from history. Typically, ‘headline attention’ disappears with the headlines. The problem with the Indian discourse is far too much attention is on the consequence and very little analysis of the cause.

What happened in Chennai is almost exactly what happened —rather, what was allowed to happen—in Mumbai. Legitimisation of illicit expansion has enabled the violation of the most basic tenets that must govern habitations. The British—who ran both cities—had sense to allow room for run-off. Their successors allowed mangroves to be destroyed, wetlands and lakes to be built upon, neglected de-silting of rivers to invite disaster home. It is not just Chennai and Mumbai. Srinagar was hit by flash floods, but the act of nature was magnified by monumental man-made mistakes. The tragedies are the same— only the location changes. And there is no guarantee it won’t happen again.

The harsh truth is that urban India has not been seen as a viable vote bank by the political class. Mind you, the number of urban Indians, rather the population of urban India, at 377 million (as per Census 2011) is larger than the total population of India at Independence. It is also a fact that cities contribute over 64 per cent of the national GDP and is estimated to touch 70 per cent by 2020. Global consultancy McKinsey forecasts that the GDP of individual cities will be larger than that of many countries—Mumbai Metropolitan Region is projected to touch $265 billion by 2030. Despite the potential, despite the fact that cities are proven to be engines of growth world over, India’s political class has denied urban India the tools to survive and thrive.

There is really no escaping the truth that urban India is a dysfunctional dystopia. To appreciate the magnitude of systemic neglect, one must visit the data on a few key public services.

• Water: Only 70 per cent of urban homes have individual connections and supply ranges from one to six hours in cities compared to 24 hours in Brazil and China.

• Sanitation: In 4,861 cities and towns, there is no sewerage network. Only 20 per cent of sewage generated is treated before disposal.

• Storm Water Drains: Notwithstanding annual floods, only 20 per cent of the road network in urban agglomerations is covered by storm water drains.

• Public transport accounts for barely 27 per cent of total traffic and only 20 of 85 cities (pop of five lakh plus) had bus services (Planning Commission/2012).

• Housing: Census 2011 says  65 million people—nearly the population of France—live in slums (a UN Habitat report puts it at over 157 million).

Last week air quality in Delhi was declared as hazardous. Fact is, air quality in most cities/towns ranges from alarming to hazardous and only eight of 124 cities (WHO study) can boast of breathable air quality. The Delhi Government plans to restrict access—based on odd and even vehicle registration number—on alternate days. The seductive idea will prove Quixotic in the absence of last mile public transport connectivity.

Delhi is not unique, almost every metro in India suffers from congestion and the reasons and solutions are spelt out in the Rakesh Mohan Transport Committee Report lying with the government since January 2014. Thanks to poor public transport facilities, Indians own over 115 million two- and three-wheelers and 21 million passenger vehicles—twice that in 2005—contributing congestion and pollution. The need for urban transport first made its appearance in 1980 in the 6th Five Year Plan. A decade later, in the foreword, the Eighth Plan declared that “if people got opportunities where they reside they would not migrate to urban areas”. For six decades, successive regimes lived in denial. And the consequences are manifest.

Urban agglomerations are really aggregations of amoebic unplanned urban construction. The addition of over 2,600 census towns in 10 years is euphemism for unplanned urbanisation. The problem stems from the very definition of what is urban that is vague, and worse, promotes policy-free urbanisation. Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata are among the 15 most populated cities of the world and the only ones without an elected executive. Governance in towns and cities has been reduced to a three-legged race that includes the Centre, the states and the municipal bodies. The multi-layered structure allows those responsible to not be accountable.

Urbanisation is the ideal driver for enabling a modern industrial and services sector-led economy that will create opportunities for the youth and deliver growth. India’s political class must wake up to the potential.India desperately needs a new template for city governments. Unless India seizes on this imperative and acts to enact critical changes in the structure of governance, history will be repeated and tragedies will follow. 

 shankkar.aiyar@gmail.com

Shankkar Aiyar is the author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change

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