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.