Our urban ethos and pathos

first_imgIndians as a people never opt for revolution, not even close. Revolutions come to Indians, silently, perhaps even creep up our sleeves and most times, only incrementally. Anything good or bad does not hit us in the face. Telecom changed with mobile tech and universalised communication, private couriers transformed parcel services, Paytms and their brethren changed the transfer of money, electronic three-wheelers are driving the way we transport ourselves. The big brother, ie., the government, only wakes up when these revolutions have already happened. And they happened because: Necessity is the mother of invention – the guiding force of human being’s quest for fulfilment. The private businessman caters to people’s needs faster than the establishment who then wants to make policies to regulate what the market has set in motion. The fragile electronic three-wheeler, as per records, is only about 70,000 vehicles but in truth, numbers over some lakhs. We now await the most needed revolution in the way our urbanisation will be driven and managed with the human being and all things living as its central focus. It has been a long wait indeed. When will it happen? Also Read – A special kind of bondAs a loyal and loving, country-born Indian, just close your eyes and think of any one city of your dreams, where the environment is clean, water is pure, all civic amenities are available, there are good schools, good healthcare facilities and women are safe and people can pursue their passions into excellence. None! Dear God, forgive me my trespass but really none, is the answer. In 72 years since Independence, we have not really created a heaven on Earth in any city. The most imaginative and creative piece of urban settlement is only Chandigarh and even its clones, Bhubaneshwar and Gandhinagar could not replicate the initial magic of Chandigarh. Gurugram and NOIDA are examples of what not to do but let’s leave that aside. Also Read – Insider threat managementOur urban stories are written in pathos. Cities apart, even our hill stations have only degenerated over time – what with reckless violations of urban envelopes and utter disregard for safety standards. Looks like we do not love ourselves, and the government loves us even less; because development protocols, as they are for construction, design and geography-specific requirements etc., are not implemented by rapacious builders and easily overlooked by regulators. The chaos has been aided and abetted by what can be called the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons is a situation in a shared-resource system where individual users act according to their self-perceived interest and contrary to the common good. The result – we have either neglect or deficit in urban services and amenities. The apathy of municipal authorities must be given their share of the blame but we as people have to accept our own citizenry’s failure. Recalling ‘Stories from my journey’, Christopher Benninger, the great master architect says tellingly that ‘the human settlements we have lived in, the buildings we have lived in, have moulded and tempered the way we think about space, form and urban structure’. Our buildings and monuments, both of the state and private, will tell our national story for a long time. Why are we so short-sighted that we build only for the short-term and not something that will last centuries to represent the growth of our civilisation? And, we build without respect to geography, ecology or nature; vestiges of which can be seen in devastating floods in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and elsewhere, unsafe constructions in hill stations, over flood plains and water bodies. Are we really insane? Can we get this across to all those who are a part of our urban story-making movement? Just because one generation makes the mistakes and generations after suffer, we cannot continue to be totally regardless of the debts we owe to our successors. Our urban challenges are complex and multi-dimensional. We cannot resolve them in comfortable sequences but have to find answers that converge the challenges. In 1901, only about 12 per cent of our population was in urban areas and by the time of the 2011 Census, it was 34 per cent. At this time, it would be safe to say that it is around 35-36 per cent and increasing by the day. People are relocating for economic, social and educational reasons as well as owing to the limited opportunities in rural India and pervading distress in agriculture. Our cities are not prepared – in fact, they have not been prepared over the last six or so decades. The litany of woes and inaction is long but everybody knows about them. It is one thing that there are deficits in civic infrastructure, in amenities, in housing and socio-cultural spaces but the consequences of these have been devastating to large sections of populations, particularly the migrants and poor of our cities. Disease, pestilence has brought untold miseries in these lives. Cancer, opioids epidemic, seasonal viruses and other health impacting illnesses are a constant feature threatening urban dwellers’ lives, more in poorer segments. Shortened life spans, lower human productivity and hence, lower economic growth, have been the constants in our existence. This totality of challenges makes our urban reformation more complex, making it harder to accept short-term or temporary fixes. We cannot run away from the urgency of bringing solutions to the city challenges. We do know what is to be done. We can even claim to know how things to do can be done. So, let us start with a devolution revolution. For far too long and only for petty political reasons, the mandated empowerment of the local self-governments has not happened. Because it has not happened, there is limited skill in these units and this gets quoted as another reason to not do it. The municipal body has to take the lead in navigating city management. The environmental crisis is upon us and its denial has cost us many lives and many more citizen’s health. We have to focus all our resources on waste and what we can do to manage it. This is literally a mountain-size problem and will need a herculean effort. Even the average population is in denial, occupied as they are with livelihood issues. We are putting out 62 million tonnes of waste in a year and we do not have efficient disposal systems for more than 40 per cent, and that too only in the bigger towns. This quantum is growing at 4 per cent-plus annually. 80 per cent of our cities do not have any disposal mechanism and waste is dumped anywhere and everywhere. Partial efforts involving individual successes are not going to help. At the root of all civic problems, is water and its sources, its accessibility and quality. We somehow adhere to just about minimum standards of potability. We have to touch the highest standards. Merely the cost rationale is not good enough as the health of our people must be accorded the highest consideration of any sensible governance paradigm. Cities are already becoming vulnerable to water shortages and may even have to go without water in the very near future. And, we continue to destroy river systems by not having effluent treatment systems in all riverside cities. The emphasis on cleaning rivers cannot succeed if our towns by the side of our rivers are discharging waste every day into river streams.The reality of our situation demands that fundamental issues have to be addressed substantively. Cellophane patches to cover breaches will not hold any more. While policy structures and financing the infrastructure are important, real investment has to be made in mobilising public awareness and participation in the civic ecosystem. Running marathons for public causes is intermittently healthy but any consistent betterment of our urban environment is a marathon of marathons and this race must start with all of us running for our children’s lives. (The views expressed are strictly personal)last_img

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