Former mayor of Bogota Enrique Peñalosa Londoño, hailed for transforming the Colombian capital into a tolerable urban space, said during his visit to India in 2009: “The single biggest difference between the infrastructure of an advanced nation and a backward nation is its footpaths, not its highways.” He was hinting, probably, at what is wrong with India’s urban planning. Indian cities are often rated by newspapers and magazines on the basis of their standard of living features. But the typical indices are real estate prices, leisure and entertainment, and education and career opportunities. There are also the occasional stories about the crime rate, safety of single women, medical treatment facilities and so on, but the right to walk, efficient waste disposal and affordable public transport almost never figure as priorities.
Celebrated only a decade ago as India’s city of the future, Bangalore, in the state of Karnataka, south India, is now sinking under heaps of garbage piling up on its streets. The crisis hit the city a few months ago, when villagers around landfills starting protesting against illegal dumping of solid wastes and it is not likely to be resolved anytime soon. There are many reasons for it, but the crucial one is that the civic authority is not competent to deal with it, legally or materially. The Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state is choking with internal power struggles and heading into an election year. A majority of the lawmakers will seek re-election from constituencies elsewhere in the state and need not care about Bangalore which, for the record, generates about two-thirds of the state’s revenues.
The civic administration is actually quite helpless because it has no powers or resources to take over private land around the city for new landfills. The plans for the city are actually made by the state government, which is not directly accountable to the citizens. But besides these political issues, India’s ideas of urban planning are themselves open to question. Bangalore is a good example of how not to do it. In 1980, it had a population of about two million; now it is close to 10 million. This was not a surprise, because successive administrations at the Union and state always knew that this was India’s first big city that Indians would build. The other big metros — Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai — were already done by the British. India’s first prime minister Jawarharlal Nehru, during a visit to the city in 1962, was moved to remark: “Bangalore, more than any other great city of India, is a picture of the future.” Asia’s first light bulb glowed in the city’s market in 1905. When the boom began 20 years ago, Bangalore was already a fine city. A Bangalore Agenda Task Force led by software tycoon Nandan Nilekani was set-up in 2001 by the state government to work out the city’s future.
Ten years down, the city is an urban nightmare. It has more than four million private vehicles because its public bus service, though efficient, is not sufficient. The metro rail project, started just too late, is still under construction. The pedestrians have been edged out of the roads, always expanded to accommodate more vehicles, new ones registering on the street at the rate of 1,000 every day. The crime rate has grown because the old neighbourhoods are utterly transformed and community networks have broken down. Those that can afford it are moving into gated communities with guards at the portals. Two million construction workers and the poorest live in slums without sanitation. In an incredible decision, the state administration in 1991 found more than 20,000 acres of land to handover to a private corporation for new townships and an expressway that are yet to materialise for just Rs10 per acre covering a period of 30 years. Now the government says it cannot find 500 acres for a modern landfill to store and treat its solid wastes.
In the case of garbage, it has been out-of-sight is out-of-mind. The comfort for the citizen comes at the cost of dumping daily 4,000 tonnes of unsegregated waste at a couple of landfills in the margins of the city. The civic authorities have ducked questions on the legality of this policy by simply outsourcing the collection and disposal of city wastes to a lobby of private contractors. The villagers around the landfill eventually have rebelled and precipitated the garbage crisis. But the rubbish is now visible and the stink, unbearable. In the case of pedestrian rights, the neglect is simply bewildering. Nearly 1,000 pedestrians were killed in Delhi in 2011. About 400 will die in Bangalore this year. Nearly 70 per cent of all pedestrian deaths are in urban India. In 2009, the World Health Organization in its global report on road safety said India had the highest number of road accident deaths in the world, more than the more populous China. Before the planners offer the solutions, it is time to ask the right questions.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 16th, 2012.