4 sq ft of corals — why India’s cities will remain miserable

Shekhar Gupta
Monday, 22 July 2019

Nearly 50 per cent of Mumbai’s population lives in slums or semi-slums. They make great movie sets and plots for ‘feel-sorry-for-these-poor-and-lovely-wretches’ liberal writing.

India’s big cities are rotting, growing into massive, self-governing slums. When attempts are made to fix them, corals come in the way

Our cities suck. Latest data from global agencies remind us that 15 of the 20 most polluted cities are in India. Given how rapidly we are worsening, and urbanising, it is a matter of time when we count, maybe, 25 of the dirtiest 30, and so on.

Traffic in our cities crawls. In Mumbai, it is now at 8 kmph. Bengaluru is worse. My suggestion to Google Maps: Rename it as ‘Waterloo’ its own, of course.

Hyderabad may be a bit better, Kolkata even improving, which is a gift of its economic decline. And Delhi may not catch up with Mumbai or Bengaluru just yet. But work in progress. Particularly if you are commuting to its twin ‘downtown’ of Gurugram and Noida.

Between these biggest metros, Delhi-Mumbai-Kolkata-Bengaluru-Hyderabad, more than 9 crore people live. For ease of understanding, since New Zealand is the new liberal El Dorado right now, the population of these metros is about 20 times the wonderful nation that gave us icons like Jacinda Ardern and Kane Williamson. And 150 times that of Luxembourg.

Why I bring in that tiny jewel of Europe, I shall let you know soon. Suffice it to say, a mass of humanity lives in fast urbanising India’s cities. I can quote McKinsey Institute and many other studies, but nobody now disputes that in another five years — just another five years — more people will be living in India’s cities than the entire population of the United States of America.

Nearly 50 per cent of Mumbai’s population lives in slums or semi-slums. They make great movie sets and plots for ‘feel-sorry-for-these-poor-and-lovely-wretches’ liberal writing. But think New Zealand again. Our commercial capital keeps a population two times that country in subhuman living conditions. Kolkata is no better and Bengaluru is making rapid progress. No other city in India, even that planned Sarkari utopia Chandigarh, is without slums.

What is a slum in Mumbai is usually an unauthorised or illegal colony in Delhi. The quality of life may not be as abysmal as in Mumbai but isn’t much better either. In any case, about the same population as Kane Williamson’s country lives as ‘illegals’ in our national capital. Our public hospitals, medical care, education and colleges are all rotting, overcrowded and either of sub-Saharan quality, or demand Harvard-level scores — check out cut-offs in top ‘public’ colleges in Delhi.

India may have become the fifth or even third-largest economy in the world, but our mindset towards our cities is still conditioned by one of the great Gandhian hypocrisies we have perpetuated. That the cities are evil, villages virtuous. We’ve all heard in some context that famous old exchange where Ambedkar apparently responded to Gandhi saying India lives in its villages by asking: But must it continue to do so for ever?

The union cabinet has always had a rural development ministry. But, for nearly five decades after independence, we didn’t quite have a full ministry of urban development. It was more like, ‘Works and Housing’. The ‘India lives in its villages’ romanticism endures, to the great detriment of India’s cities, their poor, and at zero benefit to the villages. Or crores wouldn’t be fleeing them.

Even during the tenure of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam in Rashtrapati Bhavan, the mythology was furthered by an idea called PURA, or Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas. Everyone applauded his PowerPoint presentations on this and sniggered on the side.

First of all, an Indian village simply did not have the scale or economics to build urban-level infrastructure. Especially as the political class is unwilling to charge the village Indian for water, power or any other utilities. And then, what urban facilities was he talking about when our cities are such a disaster? This mindset has had deeply damaging and far-reaching consequences. Because we think cities are evil, villages are virtuous, Indian cities are never planned. They grow by themselves into massive, self-governing slums, punctuated by islands created by individual builders, ‘audacious’ real estate entrepreneurs and mafias who can work the system.

Our cities, therefore, grow without infrastructure. It comes later, usually over three generations.

Yet, millions of cars and two-wheelers have no place to park except sidewalks (where they exist) and public spaces, usually blocking entire roads. It isn’t just the poor that are victims of this. 

You can go to the fanciest buildings in Gurugram. They all float on their individual, giant septic tanks and diesel reservoirs. The first, because nobody ever bothered laying down a sewer system for India’s fanciest new post-reform development, and second, because nobody trusts state power utility. Do you want to know how ridiculous this is?

You’d remember a phase of labour unrest in the Maruti factory a few years ago when unions and activists alleged that a large number of workers had been killed by the police, their bodies were thrown in the gutter and sewer. The chief minister asserted, in confident, self-righteous defence, that it had to be a lie because no sewer has ever been built in this Gurgaon.

This week’s National Interest is provoked (or triggered, which millennials prefer) by the Bombay High Court order stopping work on Mumbai’s long-delayed coastal road project. The 219-page order written by Chief Justice Pradeep Nandrajog and Justice NM Jamdar is among the best-crafted and comprehensible judgments I have read in some time. The judges have spoken sense on there being no conflict between environment and development, need for balance and adherence to laws.

Read the judgment carefully, however, and you may cry. I cannot fault it on the law. I only highlight a point where the judges say, the project also needs wildlife clearance.

Because the petitioners said corals along the coastline will be destroyed. Studies presented in the court have indeed shown coral near Haji Ali and Worli: All of two patches of 0.251 and 0.11 sq metres respectively. I know the perils of walking into a ‘lovely coral’ versus ‘ugly human’ debate, but what the hell.

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