India’s Cities, New & Old, Sitting On Brink of Disaster

Last week, a portion of a busy, motorable over-bridge in the heart of Kolkata collapsed taking its toll on a few human lives and wounding many others. A couple of years ago, experts had warned that the more than half-a-century old bridge was in serious need of a revamp and that its structural faults could lead to a disaster of the sort that occurred on a weekday afternoon. Yet, Bengal’s government and its relevant authorities did nothing. Such urban disasters are waiting to happen, not only in Kolkata, which has its share of decrepit infrastructure and shoddily constructed facilities but also in almost every other city, large or small, in rapidly urbanising India.

Along with that rapidity comes lack of planning and haphazardness. Overcrowding and absence of adequate infrastructure such as housing, power and water supplies, roads, and policing, have already made many of India’s cities unliveable. Blame the urban planning authorities for that. This year’s monsoon wreaked havoc on several cities, notably in Kerala where floods killed and displaced people across the states, but also in the northeastern part of India and in large cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, and Gurgaon. In the coastal city of Mumbai, home to an estimated 22 million people, with every monsoon comes a nightmare when the city is thrown completely out of gear by floods that take lives, damage property, bring the city to a complete standstill sometimes for days. The city is old and densely populated and its drainage system requires urgent attention that successive state governments and local authorities have failed to provide.

Older Indian cities such as Kolkata, Mumbai, and also India’s capital city, Delhi, are crippled by aging infrastructure that is often wilting under pressure of their increasing population, spurred chiefly by high rates of migration. Sometimes this leads to disasters such as the bridge collapse in Kolkata; but more commonly it makes living a struggle. In Delhi’s Dhaula Kuan, a heavy-traffic area, a complex flyover was built years ago but bad planning ensures that during rush hours, fast-moving vehicles get off each arm of the clover-like flyover only to land in epic traffic jams because of faulty planning. Some years ago, when a journalist raised the issue with Delhi’s then chief minister the callous response was: “Really? But I never get stuck on it.” Obviously not because when chief ministers and other VIPs travel through the city, traffic is restricted and paths are routinely cleared by their police-escorted motorcades.

Older cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, are burdened with infrastructure that is out of date and unable to cope with the explosive growth in their population over the years but newer Indian cities are faring no better. Take Gurgaon. Few Indian cities have witnessed growth the way Gurgaon (estimated population: 2.3 million) has. In the mid-1980s, the area was a flatland of green fields, forests and cropland near the Aravalli range of mountains in Haryana. Today it is a vast and sprawling mesh of high-rise office blocks, malls, condominiums, and shopping centres, all built without a semblance of sensible urban planning.

The story of Gurgaon’s boom is often trotted out as the tale of a millennium city but on the flipside of that is a story of doom. Few Indian cities are poised on the brink of disaster as Gurgaon is. During this year’s monsoon, when the city was flooded after a bout of not-so-heavy rainfall the reason was traced to the fact that the concrete from the widespread construction had blocked the area’s natural drainage system that served to take rain water out of low-lying areas.

Gurgaon’s streets are unplanned, unnamed and, sometimes un-drivable. Residences and offices have to use their own diesel-fired generators to supply electricity for most hours of the day since the city cannot supply what is required. The public transport system is a joke; many roads have no names; and there is little zoning between residences, schools, offices and commercial establishments. Air pollution levels are almost as high as Delhi (which is, according to some surveys, the world’s worst polluted city), although Gurgaon’s population is just a tenth of the capital’s.

Gurgaon’s problem is a problem that every Indian city is beset with: lack of planning and haphazard growth. Like Gurgaon, many of India’s cities lack a masterplan that demarcates zones for commercial, residential and other use and for civic infrastructure. Gurgaon, for instance, has grown because hordes of real estate developers built swarms of mushroom-like gated colonies and office blocks with little or no surrounding infrastructure. There has also been long-term destruction of the eco-system because of quarrying, mining and deforestation, all of which have been driven by the construction boom. And what little infrastructure there is—such as roads, over-bridges and underpasses—is shoddily built and usually inadequate for the longer-term.

The Band-Aid like approach to urban planning is common in most Indian cities. Disasters, such as the recent bridge collapse in Kolkata, are waiting to happen across the country, in cities new and old. The pressure of population on India’s cities will continue. Today around 30% of Indians live in the country’s urban centres; by 2025, that is projected to grow to 60%. Will India’s cities be able to handle such growth? It’s difficult to provide an optimistic answer. When archaeologists unearthed the ruins of ancient Indian towns such as Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, they found urban facilities built in 2500 BCE that were meticulously planned to ensure that life was comfortable and hassle-free for those who inhabited them. The irony is that centuries later, India’s urban planners are struggling to ensure that the country’s cities are able to just function normally.

Sanjoy Narayan tweets @sanjoynarayan  ]]>