India is hurtling towards a horrific urban dystopia

It is a gruellingly hot, summer afternoon circa 2030. Marauding gangs have taken to the streets in a posh locality of South Delhi. Armed and violent, they easily overpower the security guards stationed at the entrance of a gated community. The guards are armed too, with guns, Tasers, and rifles, as has become the norm in Indian cities now, particularly in colonies where the rich and upper middle-class denizens reside. But they prove to be too feeble to resist the onslaught of the angry, surging gang, which is desperate. A few shots are fired. A guard is stabbed and there are a couple of casualties on the other side as well but in the end the violent crowd is inside the complex and the fear-stricken residents of apartments that are valued at crores of rupees are now at their mercy.

The security guards easily overpowered, the gang of angry men, women and even some children who live in the slums and shantytowns that have mushroomed on the periphery of every gated community, now breaks into a few of the apartments whose residents are mostly helpless. Calls have been made to the local police but their force is not nearly adequate to tackle an attack such as this. These attacks are now commonplace and random. They can happen any time and on any day. The gangs are in search of something that has now become the most valued and rare commodity: drinking water.

So rare has water become in 2030 in India that it is the biggest, or, perhaps, the sole determinant of whether you are a have or a have-not. The residents of the complex the gang attacked this afternoon are the haves. The marauders enter their apartments and fill up plastic buckets, jerry cans, and whatever else they can lay their hands on. A bit of arson and violence driven by resentment are also inevitably tossed in: slaps and punches are dispensed; and some cash and valuables grabbed. The residents of the complex are rich; they can afford to buy water at a huge premium (the going rate for a couple of litres of what the heavily armoured drinking water tankers deliver can run into several weeks’ wages for the poor members of the attacking gang). Elsewhere, water riots are rampant. Men kill each other for a bottle of water; diseases spread like untameable epidemics as people are forced to drink and use contaminated wastewater and effluents; children die like flies; and a notorious grey market in water thrives…

If you’ve read till now, you probably think that the author is a poor wannabe writer of futuristic fiction who’s doomed to fail, or that they are the ramblings of a grievously mentally disturbed soul. But the fact is that the National Institute for Transforming India (NITI Aayog), the Indian government’s policy think tank that replaced the Planning Commission has recently warned that by 2020, as many as 21 Indian cities will run out of ground-water and that in 10 years after that around 40% of the population (or more than 600 million people if the projection of a population of 1.51 billion in 2030 is right) will have no access to drinking water. Those are staggering revelations about the future and, notably, ones being made by an official think tank of the government (and not an NGO or a foreign agency). In the context of that, you may agree that the italicised, dramatic introduction for this column may now seem slightly less far-fetched than it did at first, no?

Urban India’s groundwater resources are depleting at an alarming rate. A surge of building activity has meant digging deeper and deeper to find water to service apartments, office complexes and shopping malls. In cities such as those in the National Capital Region (like Delhi, Gurugram, NOIDA, and Ghaziabad), water problems have already become chronic. This month in a Delhi residential area, a man was killed during a dispute over a water connection. Water riots may not be too far. Along with groundwater depletion is comes the additional whammy of an erratic monsoon, which many believe could be correlated to climate change and other long-term paradigm shifts in rainfall patterns. Some environmentalists say the richer echelons of the population are wasting and misusing more water than they really need, while the poor and under-privileged suffer and that this exacerbates the problem. The fact is that even NITI Aayog’s thinkers have little to suggest in terms of remedial measures. Water also is a state subject and each of India’s 29 states will have to grapple with the problems of their own region.

Meanwhile, urban India’s growth continues unabated and uncontrolled. Most of the expansion of India’s cities, particularly the ones touted as the most “progressive” such as Gurugram and Bengaluru, are driven by a combination of factors: avarice of builders whose nexus with malleable local authorities is well known; the sheer desperation of a growing rich and middle-class population to seek places to buy where they can live; and the central as well as the state governments’ lack of foresight, vision or even common sense when it comes to urban planning for the long-term. The impending water crisis is one of the outcomes of unplanned, haphazard urbanisation.

But water is just one element of the tinderbox that is waiting to ignite. India’s cities are so badly equipped to handle exigencies that it is alarming. During the recent monsoon rains in Mumbai, ostensibly India’s most expensive city to live in and its financial capital to boot, roads flooded, work came to stop, buildings collapsed, and, worst of all, five people died. Yes, India’s cities are such that when it rains, people can die. Mumbai is a pathetic example of India’s unworkable and completely unviable urban infrastructure. The annual monsoon rains can be severe in Mumbai but over the years, the city’s authorities and the state’s governments have failed to evolve a vision and solutions—so much so that with each passing year, things only get worse.

In other cities such as Gurugram, liveability is seriously compromised by many things but particularly, lack of electricity (for most hours of the day, residential, commercial, and business properties have to generate their own power usually from diesel-powered generators); and by alarmingly high levels of pollution. Pollution levels in the NCR are so hazardous during the colder months that even when they are “just” dangerous for the rest of the year, residents, authorities, and the media, have come to tolerate them unperturbed. If anyone did a NITI Aayog-like projection on the long-term levels of air pollution in India, that italicised intro might have had to be amended: the gangs would still be attacking but not just to steal water, but also to grab breathing masks. It is not inconceivable that by 2030, anyone living in the NCR would have to be wearing high-tech, sophisticated masks (that can filter out suspended particulate matter) all the time. If not, he or she would be dead. Or, if you believe in my rampaging gangs theory, be killed for them.

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Kabootarbaazi: The immigration racket

Raj Kumar is a kabootarbaaz, literally a pigeon handler but now the slang word in northern India for those who organise illegal immigration. People like Kumar make money from kabootars — those desperate to get to promised lands where jobs and social security are available. Kumar, who operates out of a South Delhi colony,  doesn’t forge documents; he ensures a visa to a foreign country where the potential immigrant must then disappear and make his own way. Here’s what this business is all about, in 45-year-old Kumar’s own words:

 
You may call me a trafficker, illegal immigrant pusher or kabootarbaaz, but I take pride in my work. Most of us consider our profession as an instrument to level the playing field and bring an end to economic disparity. My clients are largely from rural Punjab or Gujarat, lured by the glamour of a western lifestyle. They approach us by word of mouth. We never make or help make forged documents. Our services are procuring a valid visa and ensuring that the client reaches the destination, often with the help of a ‘carrier’. After that, how the banda (colloquial for person, here client) dissolves into the foreign country is not our headache. For European countries, barring the UK, we charge around ₹5 lakh. For the UK, Canada and the US, the fee is double. The payment is made part in India and rest after the client reaches ‘home’. I specialize in Schengen countries. Most of our clients want to go to Germany as their family circle is there. We have mapped lenient or ‘pliable’ embassies. When we find German embassy ‘uncooperative’ in a case, we get the Schengen visa through countries like Malta (the most preferred one), Czech Republic, Spain, Slovenia, etc. From there, the banda travels by road or train to reach Germany. There are two tricky parts in this game. Not papers, but visa and the immigration. Documents like passport, IT return and PAN card must always be genuine. Normally, embassies suspect young people leaving India for Europe. So, we need a carrier, with respectable track record, to vouch for the client as an assistant or an employee of the traveller (carrier). The carrier, depending upon our client could be a failed sportsman, B-grade musician, retired Army officer or bureaucrat who has fallen on bad times. I have personally used all these categories of carriers. For a group, since the stakes are high, we first visit the destination country ourselves and go through their annual event calendar. We mark events like a trade fair, local cricket tournament or an Indian classic music programme. Now, depending upon the pack, we decide how to plan the ‘departure’. If our pack is an athletic looking young lot, we mark local sports events. Else, a business expo or a local music event. The next target is to search for the right carrier to lead the troupe or team. Here is how it works: I place an ad in newspapers looking for retired officers who are well travelled, and willing to work as partners in a new venture. I then screen the unscrupulous or desperate ones, luring them with a free return ticket to a foreign country, a brief stay and $500. We then disguise our clients as junior musicians, a sports team, or representatives of an exporters group looking for printing tech, and apply for the visa. The invites are mostly genuine and the carrier has his/her career record to back the ‘team’. Very few European embassies seek personal interviews. Besides, the language barrier works to our advantage. Only in a rare case is an application rejected.
WHO MAKES WHAT
Agent: ₹5-10 Lakh Carrier: $500-1000 plus return ticket and boarding expenses Immigration Officials: ₹25-50,000 Embassy Officials: Unspecified

The next barrier is the immigration desk. There are many agents who try to bypass this barrier to save loose change. This is foolish. Immigration officials, often drawn from security services, can easily tell a genuine traveler from a kabootar. Their fee, called cutsey (probably derived from courtesy), barely crosses ₹50,000. If you ever come across a case where illegal immigrants or fraudulent travelers were caught at airport, you can be sure that the agent hadn’t paid the immigration desk. Since immigration desk works under CCTV cameras, last-minute deals are impossible or very expensive. What happens when the banda reaches destination? I told you this is not our concern. But to your information, mostly they contact their community, hide their passports and find local jobs. These jobs could be night shifts at various 24X7 shops, or in remote areas. When the support is good, mostly in UK or US, the banda hires a lawyer and applies for asylum and, later, citizenship. Some stay there in jobs to later apply for social security number with the help of rights groups. In that case, Canada is the most benevolent. In other places, the banda can get away by either bribing the cops or by destroying their passports and preferring a jail term while simultaneously applying for social security benefits with the help of rights groups. The real Ram Rajya for an illegal immigrant is not in India, Sirji. It is in Europe. Try it.
 
With editorial assistance from LokMarg; name of travel changed to maintain anonymity]]>