Chennai and India’s urban nightmares

The devastation in Chennai and surrounding areas over the last few days is yet another stark warning that the Indian state is failing miserably in managing its metamorphosis from a largely rural country into an urbanising liberal democracy.

Blaming excessive rain or unauthorised construction for the latest misery is a very lazy analysis, ignoring the significant contribution of government institutions and political masters to the mismanagement of Chennai, and other cities. The adverse role played by them in creating havoc has grave security implications for the country at various levels.

Multiple migrations

India is witnessing multiple migrations that are unprecedented in its history. Millions are moving into literacy, similarly staggering numbers are migrating out of poverty and malnourishment, thousands are migrating to the IT world, and several millions are moving to urban centres.

These migrations are impacting the way Indian democracy evolves, and some of them — such as growing literacy and healthy living standards — are reassurance that in the long term we could mature into a thriving liberal democracy.

In the short term, however, most of those migrations are so chaotic, and managed by a very creaky, and often corrupt, state infrastructure. More devastations of the kind that struck Chennai and surroundings could befall us in the coming days as the vagaries of global climate change and other natural disasters hit on the region. What could add a critical amount of misery to this fate are the significantly corrupt state institutions and immoral political leadership.

The misery of Chennai is mostly about the failure of the state to manage the exponential growth of our urban centres. From a little over 30 per cent of India’s people in urban centres, the proportion could up to over 50 per cent in the next three decades. This projection has grave implications for both human security and state integrity.

The staggering exodus of people from rural parts into the urban areas must be examined without any hyperbole and hypocrisy if we want to avoid the experience of Chennai this year, Srinagar last year, the 2013 floods of Uttarakhand, repeated assault of monsoon rains on Mumbai and tragedies that frequent other urban centres. Then only will we appreciate that a significant part of the Indian nation-state is in the grip of a crisis, and its institutions are already in a slow race to the bottom.

Urbanisation in India is quickened by government failure to boost agriculture, and improve economic opportunities in rural areas, by shifting the terms of trade towards the farm sector. By blindly aping the western notion of development, especially urbanisation, we are only repeating the mistakes of the West, and pushing people into Delhi-like gas chambers or Chennai-like disasters-waiting-to-happen, miserably managed by inefficient institutions.

As people reach the urban centres, they need space to live and work, and that would invariably result in construction. Much of that construction is now illegal and unplanned, because the city administrations are run by a deeply corrupt network of officers, engineers, contractors and politicians. They overlook, or actively aid, those constructions.

Drainage systems, roads and other urban amenities mostly remain on paper, and much of that money sanctioned for it is taken out of the system by large sections of the official establishment with the contractor as the conduit. A lot of that money is lining the pockets of officials and contractors, and, most importantly, fuelling the very expensive election process celebrating the world’s largest democracy.

The political class sitting on top of the system shut their eyes to illegal constructions, unpaved roads and flawed flyovers. Worse, they let deeply myopic and inefficient planning ruin the experience of urban living. Otherwise, how could you let private builders construct 1,00,000 apartments in a planned city without any proper access to the city centre (Dwarka in Delhi)? How could you permit an airport outside the city without multiple quick accesses, and often leading to many passengers missing their flights (Bengaluru)? How could one of India’s most important highways, NH 8 linking Delhi to Gurgaon, be clogged most evenings because of a few marriage venues?

Indian cities now regularly feature at the bottom of comprehensive city rankings. The Safe Cities Index 2015 by the Economist Intelligence Unit — based on an index composed of more than 40 indices — assessed 50 cities, including two from India. Delhi was at 42nd position and Mumbai at 44th. It is a reflection of how well our urbanisation is progressing.

Honest discussions

The political brains that create vote banks and shrewd political strategies couldn’t be so foolish as to ignore the fundamental flaws in urban planning. They just happened to be the political masters of a very rich country with a very expensive political system and lots of poor people.

The kind of corrupt nexuses that deprive India of planned urban development exist in every other segment of the Indian economy, and are chipping away at the ability of the state to manage various transitions — with disastrous consequences for the security of the state. If the very fundamental duty of a modern nation-state is to provide security to its people and secure its borders, then India is beginning to fail because of staggering corruption and amoral public administration.

So any discussion on Chennai disaster must begin with some fundamental questions. Are the missing drainages and shrinking waterbodies of Chennai a creation of our corrupt masters? Has Chennai’s misery been accentuated by the failure of the state to manage its urbanisation? Is the Chennai disaster a peek into what is in store repeatedly for the rest of India in the coming days?

Any other discussion would amount to cruel disregard for those washed away by the latest man-made disaster.


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Printable version | Jan 26, 2022 1:04:30 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/homeland-column-chennai-and-indias-urban-nightmares/article7958641.ece

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