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Don't let our cities degenerate into chaos

April 07, 2006 13:14 IST

When Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi returned to India from South Africa, Gopal Krishna Gokhale made him promise to travel around India. "Gokhale used to laugh at some of my ideas in 'Hind Swaraj and say: 'After you have stayed a year in India, your views will correct themselves.'"

Mahatma Gandhi was left with an overwhelming impression at the end of the year: 'India lives in her villages'. This was true even in 1948 when the Mahatma was assassinated. The 1951 Census showed 17.3 per cent of Indians living in urban areas. But will that Gandhian epigram continue to be relevant?

Take a look at the United States. In 1790, rural America accounted for 94.9 per cent. It would take 130 years before urban Americans crossed the halfway mark, 51.2 per cent in 1920. Since then the situation has almost become the mirror image of 1790; even those who move back to the country are mostly retired people. In fact, the word 'rural' is seen as an anachronism by American demographers, who prefer to call them 'non-metropolitan' areas.

The pattern has been ignored by our planners who continue to chant the mantra of India living in her villages. The 2001 census showed urban India accounting for 30.5 per cent of the total. Halfway through the decade, demographers estimate the figure is 35 per cent or more. Somewhere between 2020 and 2030, the urban population will overtake the rural. Are we prepared?

The question arose because of three seemingly discrete events over the past fortnight, which, to my mind, are actually linked at a fundamental level: the disputes over the sealing of illegal shops in Delhi, over the Pedder Road Flyover in Mumbai, and over rehabilitation led by the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Each one reveals the lack of forethought in fifty years or more.

There are three words in 'Delhi Master Plan', and two of them are a joke! There is zero planning and it is about as masterful as Plasticine, being pulled this way and that to suit the interests of any powerful lobby. Commercialisation has destroyed vast stretches of Delhi with the connivance both of the babus in the municipal corporation and of the netas. Both the BJP and the Congress -- there is no realistic third option in Delhi -- are guilty.

The 1993-1998 BJP ministry in Delhi, for instance, allowed building additional floors in the city, with nary a thought for the added burden this placed on everything from water to parking.

Any improvements are courtesy of an activist judiciary. The Shiela Dixit ministry now preens itself on running the least polluting bus system in India. How many people remember that Congressmen railed against the Supreme Court order that buses and taxis run on CNG?

Today, both the Congress and the BJP protest another Supreme Court ruling, ordering the closure of unauthorised commercial enterprises. Kapil Sibal even argues that the judgment was made without taking the views of the 'people's representatives' into consideration. This ignores the fact that the order was hailed by every Residents Welfare Association in the city. But the traders -- 10 per cent or perhaps even fewer -- are better organised, and may hold the other 90 per cent to ransom.

The talk is now of an ordinance which will legalise every illegal shop in Delhi, Master Plans be damned!

The same lack of forethought is seen in Mumbai. The debate over the Pedder Road Flyover has polarised around Lata Mangeshkar. Her opposition is seen as another instance of an elite holding back a move that could benefit the masses. Could we forget about Lata Mangeshkar for a moment, and see if the proposal has any merit on its own?

Everything I have seen or read tells me the Pedder Road Flyover is going to be a colossal waste. Los Angeles has the most extensive road and flyover network in the United States; it also has the worst traffic congestion. But why should I talk about the American experience when Delhi itself demonstrates the futility of pointless flyovers?

The first flyovers in the capital actually had some merit to them. Several railway lines cross the city, and it made sense that flyovers came up to avoid the jams caused by barriers coming down to let a train pass. But the latest flyovers are nothing to do with trains, they are actually -- like the one at Pedder Road -- being built to avoid other road traffic. This smacks of treating the symptoms rather than the disease. The number of vehicles just keeps increasing, and the result is that there is now a traffic jam on the South Extension Flyover as well as on the roads below it.

Since Mumbaikars are as fond of their cars as Delhiites, I am willing to wager the Pedder Road Flyover will be just another folly.

Is there a solution? Widening roads is not the answer. Delhi's arterial Ring Road is now thrice the size it was fifteen years ago but the congestion has simply got worse. Having cut down the trees on either side, will the corporators now pull down all the houses too?

Any long-term solution will require major changes in thinking. We have to get used to building better public transport. Next, we have to stop using roads as a free resource, with tolls varying with time and place. That is, if you want to enter the city centre in peak hours you must pay for it.

Third, there have to be mandatory restrictions on the number of vehicles, possibly even something as drastic as one car per household. Fourth, there must be staggered timings. Is there any reason why every school and college, every bank and shop and ministry must open between 8 AM and 10 AM?

None of these solutions is new. Each of them has been tried in at least one other major city. But India's problems, courtesy of its population, are so much greater that I believe all of them must be enforced simultaneously if our cities don't degenerate into chaos.

Will it happen? I am not optimistic. We have already seen how the traders' lobby can hold Delhi to ransom. Cutting down on projects such as ill-thought flyovers means tackling the construction lobby, while putting curbs on personal vehicles entails taking on the automobile industry. Do you think our neta-babu nexus will let that happen?

While we wait for urban planning in 21st century India to catch up with those of the Sindhu Valley CiviliSation 5000 years ago -- where encroachment was strictly forbidden -- do not ignore rural India. There are no clear answers to the arguments of the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Unlike the traders in Delhi, the farmers being pushed off their land are not illegal squatters. But what compensation can you offer, given the paucity of agricultural land? What jobs and training can you give to someone who has spent 40 years in farming? On the other hand, without water and electricity how can you ensure development in the urban areas that are the future of India?

However, I do know that the future belongs to those who prepare for it today. Beginning with Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore, we have to get India's cities in working order -- or watch them slip into utter chaos tomorrow.

T V R Shenoy