India’s growing urban crisis

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India’s growing  urban crisis

The future of India's economic growth, social cohesion and democratic order would depend on our ability to address its crisis of urbanisation. But the question is: Can we do it?

Mussourie is not one of India’s larger cities. Situated at an average height of 6,170 feet above sea level and 35 kilometres from Dehradun, the capital of Uttarkhand, it is, however, a well-known tourist resort and home to Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, which trains recruits to the Indian Administrative Service, Indian Foreign Service, Indian Police Service and other central services which constitute the complex of India’s national bureaucratic hierarchies.

If Mussourie is being discussed here, it is not because of the reasons cited above but its civic infrastructure, which is crumbling under the weight of tourist influx and growing population. To cite examples, the water supply is a little more than half of what is required, the sewage system is in a mess, and traffic barely moves through its downtown area.

A picturesque tourist destination like Mussourie should not have been this way. But it is, and so are most other cities in India, including 10 of its largest ones whose populations are shown in crores/lakhs in brackets after them — Mumbai (18.4), Delhi (16.3—19.1 according so some sources), Kolkata metropolitan area (1.4 crore), Chennai (87 lakh), Bengaluru (85 lakh), Hyderabad (77 lakh),  Ahmedabad (63 lakh), Pune (50 lakh), Surat (45 lakh) and Jaipur (31 lakh). All these cities suffer from varying degrees of shortage in water and power supply besides inadequate sewerage and solid waste management systems. There is gross overcrowding. Traffic, when not at a standstill, crawls — particularly during peak hours. Pollution levels are alarmingly high, thanks to exhaust fumes of automotive vehicles, whose numbers are increasing rapidly, and industrial waste discharge.

Bengaluru, India’s IT hub, provides an example of how terrible things are at many urban centres. Poor maintenance of roads and drains has made it vulnerable to flooding during heavy rains. The absence of an efficient garbage disposal system has led to the dumping of huge quantities of solid waste, generated all over the city, into the stormwater drains. This, as well as illegal constructions blocking the drains, prevents water from flowing through these to the lakes, and remaining for days in stagnant pools in many parts of the city. Untreated discharge of toxic industrial waste by highly polluting units within the city has made the water of the lakes unusable. The frothing witnessed in the Bellandur Lake, the largest in the city’s south-eastern suburb, provided a striking indication of the state-of-affairs. Not surprisingly, the National Green Tribunal has asked the State Government to submit a detailed plan for reviving this 910-acre water body, besides directing the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board to shut down about 100 polluting units around it.

Things, doubtless, are particularly calamitous in Bengaluru. The situation in many metropolitan cities, however, are — or nearly — as bad. Though their ills are not identical with those of Bengaluru, Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata have their own serious infrastructural inadequacies. According to a survey of 1,600 cities of the world by the World Health Organisation, Delhi’s air quality is the worst of any major city in the world. It causes irreversible damage to the lungs of 2.2 million or 50 per cent of its children. Kolkata’s air is almost as bad. According to a six-year-old study completed by the Chittaranjan National Cancer institute in 2007, 70 per cent of Kolkata’s inhabitants suffered from lung cancer and various respiratory diseases like dyspnea and asthma.

Chennai and Mumbai get flooded after every spell of heavy rain. In the case of the former, flooding is the result not of natural causes but ill-conceived development projects blocking drainage and encroaching upon water bodies which received much of the rain water. For example, the Pallikaranai marsh, which drains water from a 250-kilometre catchment area, has been reduced in size from 50 square kilometres some years ago to 4.3 square kilometres at present. In Mumbai, the drainage of rainwater is prevented by high tides when the latter occur during heavy rains.  Sometimes, even sea water enters the city. Ill-conceived ‘development’ projects have destroyed spaces like wetlands, wastelands, mangroves and salt-pan lands, that absorbed water from high tides, besides blocking many critical drainage channels.

An important question arises here: Can the devastating pattern of urban ‘development’ witnessed so far be undone and a more rational approach, adequately anticipating future pressures and requirements and recognising the compulsions of regional physical features, take its place? An affirmative answer is virtually impossible to give. Reducing pollution levels, ensuring adequate water and power supply, public health care, eliminating traffic jams and snarls, will require huge funds and political will, neither of which has been much in evidence. Even significant progress in this direction will not help if the pressure of population continues to grow. This is particularly so because the existing constructions, that have played havoc with drainage and water bodies, will be nearly impossible to dismantle, given the physical dimensions of the task and inevitable opposition from vested interests.

Crumbling urban infrastructure, as has been repeatedly pointed out, means not only disruption and discomfort in people’s lives but inefficiency, social tension and crime. The prospects are daunting. The numbers of both cities and people living in them are scheduled to rise steeply. According to a study by the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission directorate, which comes under the Union urban development ministry, and Delhi-based think-tank National Institute of Urban Affairs, the number of metropolitan cities in India is set to increase from 53 in 2011 to 87 in 2039. The number of those living in cities would rise from 31 to 50 per cent of India’s total population during the same period, which will also see the population of the 10 largest cities increase from 9.3 crore to 14.9 crore.

The matter has not escaped attention. There have been two lines of approach. The first relates to efforts to ensure planned development of the cities through bodies like the Union Government’s Housing and Urban Development Corporation mandated with building low-cost housing and implementing urban development, as well as State Government-run city-specific organisations like the Kolkata (earlier Calcutta) Metropolitan Development Authority, the Chennai (earlier Madras) Development Authority, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority and the Delhi Development Authority. Some planned development has occurred but it has fallen far short of requirement. The causes of poor progress include lack of funds, rampant corruption and inefficiency. And, of course, planning has often been skewed.

The second line of approach has sought to address the issue of migration from rural areas. Here too, not much has been achieved. The process has continued unabated mainly because of the lack of healthcare and educational facilities in the rural areas. Primary and community health centres in the districts lack doctors, medicines and staff. Communication is poor, power supply erratic and often suspended for long spells. Economic opportunities are inadequate.

The future of India’s economic growth, social cohesion and democratic order would depend on our ability to address its crisis of urbanisation. The question is: Can we do it?

(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)

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