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SOCIAL segregation is not an evil of a bygone era; in modern times, it is flaunted as the solution to complex urban problems of our country. Mantras such as "keep the polluting industry out," "relocate industry from residential areas," and "rehabilitate the slum dwellers elsewhere" reverberate through the corridors of power, today. This is how the Indian government reacts to a very complex governance challenge: the organic but uncontrolled and unorganised sector that mushrooms in our cities. The sector has two faces: it is refuge for millions of migrant hopefuls; its teeming millions also provide the low cost spine for India's economic growth.
When the government wants to expunge the slum areas of their filth and squalor it invites builders to redevelop these areas. In Dharavi, Mumbai one such ambitious move awaits implementation. Efforts are on to 'redevelop' the 'slum' (see Simmering) that has an annual turnover of Rs 3,000 crore. Dharavi's thriving businesses must run from 225 square feet hovels and builders can construct dream houses on the excess land and make money. Of course, this means that the papad-making lady and Dharavi's potters will have to ply their trade from the same type of cement cubicle. Don't we sometimes wish that solutions were so simple?
On other convenient occasions, the government believes that these 'epicentres of poverty, disease and pollution' should be relegated to urban peripheries. So-called residential areas should be purged of all industrial units, it decrees. Of course, a perfect rehabilitation plan is always on offer.
This is political convenience, not a solution. Legalising pollution spewing factories and slums to create political vote banks or packing people off to suffer their fate on the fringe of the city will not help either the slum-dwellers or the ailing cities. The answer lies in creating a generic matrix of regulations to reduce the pollution emanating from such areas in the city. Have zoning regulations and then implement them strictly. Within this general framework tweak the management to answer site specific issues. What will work in Dharavi, Mumbai shall certainly not work in Yamuna Pushta in Delhi. The central issue is always reduction of pollution, but the nature of pollution and the economic activity in the area demands specialised solutions within the generic rules .
Solutions to urban problems are really not so simple. When will the government admit that? It's true that our cities are swelling to their seams. But when will we have a more nuanced system of governance? When will our government stop believing that a master plan is a four-colour map on glossy Japanese art paper?