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Sunil Sethi: Downhill in downtown

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“At twelve noon the natives swoon, and no further work is done,
In Bangkok, at twelve o’clock, they foam at the mouth and run...
In Bengal, to move at all, is seldom if ever done,
But mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.”

So trilled the playwright in a satirical lyric on summer afternoons in the colonies. But given the number of water tankers plying Delhi’s half-deserted streets on a hot June day, each leaking a scarce supply of water, perhaps not that much has changed since the song became famous. The national capital is a parched, thirsty place, the drought growing more desperate each summer.

Alarm bells are ringing in government and the chief minister is in emergency meetings with officials over the water shortage. Levels are dipping dangerously in reservoirs; a long-standing water-sharing dispute with Haryana remains unresolved. Citizens at the mercy of private suppliers are paying extortionate rates of Rs 3,500 for a tanker. An 80-year-old retired social worker is reported as saying that she has no water to cook and depends on neighbours for meals. Citizens wake at 4 a m to save a trickle of the municipal supply. In low-income housing settlements, queues at overworked hand pumps extract every ounce from a depleted water table; in better-off locations electric pumps simply gasp and burn out. The situation is no different in many of India’s 53 most populous, million-plus cities — and the urban crisis looks set to worsen.

“Urban infrastructure is cracking. Urban roads, urban water, solid waste, these are issues that we need to tackle,” warned Chairman recently, arguing that these were more basic necessities than successes being clocked in telecom, modernised airports and ports. India spends barely 0.1 per cent of its on urban development whereas the minimum requirement is 0.25 per cent of GDP per year — a record dismal enough to knock it out of the Brics club.

Observant outsiders reprise the same kind of revised opinion about India’s overstretched, often non-existent, urban survival kits. The award-winning New York Times columnist was in Jodhpur last winter and noticed that there was a single traffic light in the million-plus city: “...for the first time in all my years visiting India, I’ve started to wonder whether India’s ‘good enough’ approach to government will really be good enough much longer,” he wrote in his dispatch.

With its extensive metro network, clean transport fuel and spanking fleet of air-conditioned buses funded by the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, Delhi is a relatively rich place as defined by economic and social indicators. Yet, given the smallest extremes in weather – a heat wave, heavy showers or an intense cold spell in winter – it begins to fall apart at the seams. Like the rest of urban India, it can’t cope, betraying the many symptoms of going in downtown.

As an urban agglomeration, extended Delhi, with a population of nearly 22 million, now outnumbers greater Mumbai and its population of 21 million. This includes the satellite cities of Gurgaon, Noida, Ghaziabad and Faridabad. But glittering Gurgaon is a perfect example of the downhill-in-downtown phenomenon: Rs 4-crore apartments with uniformed doormen and fake Henry Moore bronzes towering above a wasteland of slums and tangles of exposed high-tension wires, acres of shopping malls with almost no parking space and a rapaciously corrupt police force. It’s the model for a new urban landscape teetering on the cliff-edge of crisis.

Deepak Parekh is not the only one to point out that urban infrastructure can improve if municipalities and local bodies are made financially autonomous and allowed to raise their resources. Cities in the clutches of low-level politicians, bureaucrats or are beyond saving. So long as they are dispensing largesse and milking profits from urban renewal projects, the natives can swoon, foam at the mouth and run from the midday sun.

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