Originally Published 2010-04-14 00:00:00 Published on Apr 14, 2010
A country's development is judged by visitors from the general atmosphere and ambience of its big cities and not by the number of five star hotels and their posh lobbies
Urban infrastructure is under siege
Recently, 20, 000 people volunteered to clean the Yamuna flowing through Delhi. The river has been the life blood of the city and beautiful bungalows, gardens and palaces were built on its banks in the past. In its pristine days, the banks of Yamuna were the idyllic place for walks and picnics. No longer can anyone do so. Though it remains a source of water supply to a city of around 14 million inhabitants, it is a stinking drain now which shows its state of decay and pollution.

A country’s development is judged by visitors from the general atmosphere and ambience of its big cities and not by the number of five star hotels and their posh lobbies. India’s hotels are posh, the hotel staff is well groomed and smart but in the rooms, there is a warning that one should not drink water from the taps. This is not so in the hotels of Europe or US. European rivers are well preserved and their embankments are pleasurable promenades. That the water is polluted in India is a known fact and all travel magazines warn prospective travelers of it. Similarly the public hospitals are full of infection and dirt and are inadequately staffed. The state of public health — which includes sanitation, sewerage, waste disposal and drinking water system in all big cities — is in dire straits and all visitors notice it. What then are we showcasing as Incredible India?

All residents of metro cities in India have to boil or filter the water the municipal corporations send through the pipes. According to government sources, progress has been made in making safe drinking water available to rural population and urban population. Yet waterborne diseases are still common in rural areas and with the start of the summer season, numerous cases of gastro-enteritis would be reported in big cities due to poor quality of water consumed by common people who cannot sterilize water properly.

Hospitals are in a dismal state. People are lying on the pavements outside public hospitals waiting to get admitted. Only the corporate hospitals are doing well and they are like five star hotels with room charges that are similar. Who but the very rich can afford to go there? India is becoming a country where the rich get everything including all the services but the poor and the lower income groups are left to fend for themselves and jostle for medical attention in overcrowded hospitals, railway stations and buses.

It is quite amazing how each year the government goes on spending more and more money on water and hospitals but each year, the situation is getting worse. Perhaps this is because everyday, thousands of people are arriving by trains and buses to metro cities in search of work. The huge influx of people into cities is the cause for much of their infrastructural problems. There is not enough resources — space, water, power, sanitation or hospitals for so many people.

Roads are also a problem. As every one knows there are too many cars and therefore the traffic congestion and jams. The construction of metro rail in Delhi may relieve some of the traffic problem as many would travel by public transport. There would have to be additional trains for bringing in people from the suburbs.

All big cities are surrounded by slums and some have slums in the middle of the city (Kolkata). It is shocking to learn that only 45 per cent of the households in India have access to toilets. There is a huge problem of garbage disposal and clearance and piles of rotting rubbish can be seen even in posh localities. All the cities have clogged sewers and drains. Yet people are actually living near them and make a living out of scavenging. Their efforts have to be lauded yet they cannot clean up the entire city.

If only agriculture was more productive it would have yielded more income to the rural population, people would not have migrated to cities in such large numbers. No slum or pavement dweller opts for city life voluntarily. It is because agriculture yields such meager incomes that the youth who are without jobs have to leave home and eke out an existence in big cities. Similarly if the organised factory sector were to expand it would have given jobs to immigrants and they could enjoy better living standards. But unfortunately only the informal sector is expanding and jobs in that sector are poorly paid and workers are without any social benefits or safety net. They form the bulk of slum dwellers and live in dismal conditions.

These colonies cannot be wished away and are here to stay. In Beijing no slums can be seen but there are low income areas which have cheap but adequate housing. By contrast, in metro cities in India, the low cost housing projects seem grossly inadequate. The government has increased the allocation for slum development by 700 per cent in Budget 2010 but whether the money will actually lead to improvement of amenities in slums is yet to be seen. Implementation is always lagging behind such grandiose allocations.

What about the education of slum children? A trip to any of the schools in such areas would reveal that the children are far from getting properly educated and many schools do not have classrooms, teachers or mid day meals. Several surveys have revealed that slum schools are poorly attended and there is hardly any formal teaching going on. The dropout rate is high and many children are forced to earn money selling all kinds of stuff at crossings. They are also employed as helpers in hotels, motor mechanic and grocery shops. Child labour has been banned but one can see children who are out of school in big cities doing odd jobs every where. There has to be a big effort by the government and the NGOs to help slum children get proper education and nutrition.

Urban infrastructure is thus under siege in all big cities. Clearly the only way out is to build satellite cities and good communication networks so that commuters can go to work in the city and go back to the suburbs easily. Many big cities in the world have solved the same problems-so why can’t India? Something urgent however is needed regarding solving the water pollution problem which is reaching crisis proportions in all big cities. Only 42 per cent of all households have piped water in India. Cleaning up the source-rivers, lakes, streams and ponds is obviously needed. But to clean up the Yamuna is a Herculean task and perhaps a lakh people would be required on a daily basis.

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David Rusnok

David Rusnok

David Rusnok Researcher Strengthening National Climate Policy Implementation (SNAPFI) project DIW Germany

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