A tale of two cities

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

Habitat And UrbanisationI travelled to two different cities in two different states last week—Indore and Guwahati. I came back with images identified by common distinctions: piles of garbage and glitzy new shopping malls. Is this our vision of urban development? There is no question that cities are imploding; growth is happening faster than we ever imagined. Construction is booming and expansion is gobbling agricultural land.

But the quality of life is no better. In most parts there is traffic, dust, air pollution and most of all the chaos of unplanned growth. Road expansion is eating up lines of shady trees—in Guwahati I saw the most majestic trees hacked down mercilessly. The city’s lungs are going, and so are its sponges, as waterbodies are making way for buildings. In Indore its residents will tell you that the names of the colonies are the names of the lakes they are built on. In Guwahati, the airport has been built by killing the grand Deepor beel. First a road was built (obviously without culverts to channelise the water), then as the waterbody died, it was filled to undertake new construction. This year, as always, Guwahati airport was flooded and air traffic disrupted.

The two cities are different ecosystems, so they should have had different water and waste issues. One is located in the relatively dry Malwa plateau and the other in the high-rainfall region on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra. But both cities have acute water stress, even as rain leads to swamping of cities, disrupting life and destroying property. Both cities have no water culture. Both are drowning in their waste.

Indore, because of its location, had a rich tradition of lakes. Rain water was harvested and stored in structures, which recharged groundwater. Then, in 1977, the city brought Narmada water from some 110 km to the city. Indore should have had enough to drink and to swim. But 35 years later, the water has still not reached all distribution pipelines. Over 50 per cent of the 172 million litres per day of water it sources is lost in distribution, which means there is far more costs but far less water to supply. The city water utility has no money to repair and extend its water system. It spends all it has and more in just electricity costs of bringing the water. Politicians are vying with each other to bring the water from the Maheshwar dam. The recent jal samadhi by the Maheshwar dam-displaced has met with enormous anger from Indore’s power elite. They say they need the dam’s water at all costs. They do not care if the people, whose land has been submerged by the dam, have not received compensation or been resettled.

The same power elite never demand systems to deal with the sewage they flush out of their homes. In Indore, the sewage system was constructed in 1936 at the time of the Holkars. Independent Indore has added to it insignificantly. The bulk of the sewage pours into its rivers, Khan and Saraswati, and Piliyakhal Nullah, untreated. It forgets that the Khan pollutes the Kshipra; the main water source of the neighbour, Ujjain.

Guwahati is no different. When I went in early October, floods were still ravaging the city. This was the third pulse of flooding, which began in early June. Residents explained that the intensity and duration of floods had made life impossibly difficult. They also spoke of desperate water shortages in this region of plenty. Worse, life-giving water is now the cause of diseases—death by dengue fever was top news in Guwahati.

This is when both cities have options to do things differently. They are yet to build all their homes, roads and water and sewage systems. They can execute a plan, which allows them to modernise but with quality of life intact and even better. This requires not to want to grow in the way Delhi, Mumbai or any other “old-growth” city has.

For instance, they should not repeat the mistake of allowing fleets of cars to take over their roads. Indore was an enlightened city to plan for a bus-based future. Some years ago it invested in new buses, rationalised routes, created systems for efficient operation and put GPS in place to track and inform customers. Now cost of bus fuel is up, fares have not been revised and buses are losers. Still the majority of the city population rides or walks, even though the city’s footpaths are long gone. Indore is now building a bus rapid transit (BRT) corridor. It has a many foreign and Indian consultants to design the system but the people of Indore have no idea what is being proposed and why BRT is important. So they already hate it.

Guwahati’s footpaths are gone as well, taken over by mounds of garbage. The city has taken the route of its bigger cousins. It has put the task of garbage disposal out to a concessionaire, who, it hopes, will sweep the city clean. It does not. Instead, Guwahati could collect, segregate and compost garbage at the household level. It could reserve areas in colonies for environmental services. This way it would not have to first collect and then transport the waste. It would not have to live in filth.

In the end Indore and Guwahati will be the creations of their people. The only question is whether they will be dreams or nightmares.

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  • Having lived in Indore for a

    Having lived in Indore for a few months a few years back I can attest to the city bloating out of proportion. I had lived right next to the neighborhood garbage dumping area and had had stomach sickness for about half of the time I was there. Having travelled around and lived in many cities it sad to say that it doesn't seem that this tale is restricted to only two cities. However historically many 'modernizing' cities from London to Seoul have gone through such ecological upheavals. The World Bank recently pointed out that 60% of land projected to be urban by 2030 is yet to be built. India has the advantage of history and foresight. Will she (can she) take advatage of this?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Yes, two cities which are

    Yes, two cities which are having entirely different eco-environments do have similar challenges with basic needs like water, pollution and its consequences. It reflects our dis-respect towards the natural resources and its mismanagement for unwanted & unhealthy development. As concluded by the Author, in both the Cities, yes, it is the DREAM of the PEOPLE which has resulted for the NIGHTMARES to poor and marginalized groups. Creating awareness at the higher level may not workout without the initiation of the people at community level. The prime responsibility lies on the local community to raise their issues with the concerned authorities and developers on regular basis. Particularity the issues lie: £ RAINWATER harvesting both to storage on the surface as well as to recharge Groundwater & £ Conservation of Lakes and other Water Bodies with protection from all possible Pollutants, encroachments, and other needy measures. ... the local communities can handle the issues with effective measures for achieving sustainability in terms of supply, quantity and quality. With the support of professionals and other stakeholders, COMMUNITY can do wonders in enchaining their Quality of Life.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • hi sunita, thnx for a nice

    hi sunita, thnx for a nice piece. indore is my home town, but unfortunately i served my home town just a year as a journo. during that period of time, i reported this issue.i still remember,it was year 2009, when i discussed the case of River Khan to then indore collector rakesh shrivastava, addl. collector anand sharma, and ADM narayan patidar and made a exclusive series of reports on the issue, but sorry to say neither my english daily mgt. nor any other hindi daily was ready to chase that issue. i did lots of research on that issue. search out the city gazette of british time, even my fellow journos started telling me a delhi-return crazy journo.now the same journos start a campaign on social media- save river khan. i learned from my that experience that neither the administration, nor the media or social activities, ever try to understand the problem of water lungs of city Indore. thnx again for rising this issue.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Thanks Madam, for your

    Thanks Madam, for your editorial- a reality almost everywhere in India which has many more tales to tell. The thing is that we are witnessing ourselves to be overpowered by the votes of those who have no discerning capacity, managed by the politicians by other means. Before us the country's forest and biodiversity are getting devasted, for nuclear power our great resources are drained by those who enjoy the present at the cost of the nation's future. The moot question is how dreamers of better India will triumph over the undesirables.

    Aju Mukhopadhyay

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • I absolutely agree with the

    I absolutely agree with the article. Whenever a town or city is planned the basic infrastructure, amenities like water electricity telephone services etc are are all planned to meet current demands and provision is also kept for future expansion / growth. These become the part of the master plan. it seems all this happens to our town/cities post facto. A vision plan is prepared for the city.

    Alas we have no such things in practice. Roads are built and then dug up by numerous agencies for laying cable, pipes gas line etc. This is because it is costlier to to repair than to build a good road from start. Public money is wasted in this process. And not to talk of malpracties!! We are good in building new structures but do not maintain them at all. All this has led to this mess.

    Very nicely written article; makes me sad to realize the systematic exploitation of my country !!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The situation in other cities

    The situation in other cities and metros is not at all different. Everywhere the system is collapsing. On paper lot of development do take place but on the ground very little is done.

    On the other hand the population in all cities and towns is increasing fast. Reason is obvious. In rural areas income opportunities are not enough. There delivery system is very poor. Presently, most of the funds for rural improvement and reconstruction are swindled by the people in administration and the politicians. Hence, people migrate from rural areas to towns and cities. There at least they can earn something to keep their hearth warm. That is another issue that they have to live in extremely bad conditions as they can never afford the cost of respectable living in cities and towns.

    The city administration is controlled by politicians and bureaucrats. They are more concerned in making money than bringing improvements in the life of residents.

    Till the time these anomalies are taken care of there is no hope that the cities and towns will improve. On the contrary the situation will become worse.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Your observations are

    Your observations are important and critical. But the tale of any city in the country is no different and will continue to worsen. No body is bothered to check the population growth of our country which is the major cause of all the problems. Politicians would never favor or like to work on this aspect as poverty and more and more population is key to their survival and prosperity.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The two cities story is

    The two cities story is applicable to all modern cities. People are cray to find a place in city.Do we have alternative vision of a city? J.C.Kumarappa used to suggest villages of UK during 1950s could be a model, a combination of village and town. As for I see city could be called culture is pre-collapsing situation. Most of the members of the family and the travelers and the tourists do not bother about the future. It is a consuming culture leads to collapsing culture

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Sunita Narain continues in

    Sunita Narain continues in her great and selfless service to Indian society and development. Waste management and creating social awareness of sanitation is where India is still in `diapers' compared to other nations. This is due to the pernicious mind-set of social hierarchy. Regrettably, the education system, which could easily solve the problem, does not even address this. We may be whizzes at science and math and get accolades abroad, but what good is it if our own house reeks and is filled with filth?
    As Gandhi noted, the least deviation from scrupulous social sanitation is evidence of spiritual paucity. India has all the real answers that humanity is aching for. She, herself, must put them into practice. And this is what the peoples of the world really want to see from India. This is India's gift to the sphere of nations. She doesn't need to follow the failing model of so-called development, that only develops industry, and not a humane human culture. We must take a page from the collapsing societies of the west. Social sanitation through education and volunteerism will clean India's Great Soul of the apathy that shrouds it at present.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Thanks to the author for

    Thanks to the author for narrating her experience. The wound has grown so much that now it is visible to the tourists like her. I am a native from Indore city (currently living in Delhi) and therefore knows ins and outs of this city.
    Long back, Indore used to be a peaceful city with buses running for local transportation. As the population grew up, these government buses were also discontinued first from the city and then later from the state altogether (perhaps for some im-political gains). Then in recent times, shopping malls propped up like mushrooms in the city with glazed tiles inside and garbage and water logging (that too with sewage water) outside.
    Concrete roads are under construction for many years- no one knows when would they complete. However, strangely, the roads where tolls are to be paid get completed within stipulated amount of time. Even, a beggar can tell, Quality of over bridges constructed is no where comparable to the the ones constructed during British times. Rightly said, citizens are unable to understand why BRT is needed when it is not successful in cities like Delhi?
    There are so many questions for which either there is no answer or answer lies with politicians and bureaucrats who themselves are tainted with so many allegations.
    Any layman can give solutions to all these problems but here decision makers wants to study system in other countries to see their replicability for this city.
    It is difficult to be away from family, but perhaps more difficult to Enter in this city now, called Industrial capital of the state.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • I will not call this

    I will not call this unplanned growth.

    This is the story of all our cities. Plans were made and thrown to the garbage-pile when it came to demolishing any sensitive old property. Urban Ceilings, restrictions on purchase of agricultural land, unclear policies on urban-rural fringe land use and other legal/legislative restrictions made it impossible for even those who could afford to buy residential and commercial land when they needed these for their own use.

    In fact this regulatory mess has spawned a breed called Builder, who is essential in any property development, even though this entity is neither a planner, architect, designer, engineer, financier, buyer nor seller. The Builder makes a profit of anywhere around 75% of the HUGE developedprice of the property by 'managing' and coordinating all the clearances for each stakeholder in the project.

    On one hand, nothing gets bought or built without the builder's involvement and viability to the builder's economy, no place is spared if it makes for profitable exploitation regardless of any human consideration.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • the root cause of this

    the root cause of this decline and degradation is due to having jettisoned the indigenous (vedic) science which has sustained our civilisation for thousands of years. we need to retrace our path to where we went off the environment rails by according primacy to "science" only decades old - trying to dominate nature rather than revering and complying with the 'panch-mahabhoots'.

    have been deploying soil biotechnology for regaining wealth from "waste" - both liquid and solid. and without electricity, mosquitos, odour, pathogens and the usual suspects which medical "science" is yet to label;-)

    organic (solid) waste needs 0.2 sq.m. area per kg. to produce bio-rich manure - under one's roof:-) similarly, 1 lt. used water needs 1 lt. volume for remediation, to give bio-rich water for flushing, gardening, groundwater recharge, washing cars, etc.

    but then. this technology originated in iit bombay and not mit, stanford, harvard et al - so the nation waits;-)

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • dear sunitaNarain, thx for

    dear sunitaNarain,

    thx for the well-composed, lucid narrative of our real, civic life. the two cities mentioned therein, are among the foremost in our country. however, your descriptive report is equally applicable to ALL citiies, towns & villages of our great country. but it was, shockingly, the same 20 years ago, when i visited the cities of agra, benares, nainitai and bangalore & even poona. while looking for an answer, i concluded the following: .1. improve conciensousness towards civic-sense 2. improve law & order, those being the very foundation of any civil society (the onlly thing which supports this foundation is a strong, disciplined military . however, that is another subject). i may be wrong but the question is, what next must be done and how?????????

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • hi..sunita madam i am little

    hi..sunita madam i am little depressed way our cities are progressing towards self destruction.its not only about indore or guwahati nearly all new emerging cities have same conditions.something needs to be done,its not only the failure of our planners or politicians who for their selfish motives ignore future concerns but also we the people of our country should realize our duty and responsibility towards our surrounding.all sections of the society should work cohesively to achieve balance with nature and help ourselves to have sustainable future.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • If Netherland can tackle the

    If Netherland can tackle the flooding from the sea front occupying a level higher than the adjoining land by the use of technology, why in India we fail to handle annual spate of floods in India.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Dear NKG, Yes, it is possible

    Dear NKG, Yes, it is possible to control the floods both inland and near to the sea coast. The technologies (Geological, Geophysical and other associated) were well established and tested to control the floods at all stages. Attempts have been made in making the assessment along the sea coast for minimizing the intrusion of saline-water towards inland due to various man made and natural activities took place. Public awareness as an Advocacy is required to resolve the issues with sustainable solutions. As a Geophysicist very near to the community, trying to utilize the required technologies for Risk Reduction due to various activities and its consequences.

    It only needs concern and commitment with control over time, energy and money.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • I have lived and worked in

    I have lived and worked in the North Eastern Region for 22 years and am aware of the garbage-plight and flooding in the Brahmaputra- Barak-Surma valleys inclusive of Guwahati. We need to do something about it. For this reason I gave the anolog example of Netherlands!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • I m from Patna.As it is one

    I m from Patna.As it is one of the most popular and important city of india.But when u come to Patna and look its situation the u will become sad as a lot of garbage and harmful things are ther in the roads.The situation of the holy river Ganga is also the same.Now we need special attention to look for this bright city both fron centre and state governments as well.After all Bihar needs a status of Special state by centre as demand is there form ours Chief Minister Mr. Nitish Kumar for the betterment of Bihar as well as Patna.
    Thank U.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • An article with lot of

    An article with lot of insight. There are several other cities in India of similar nature. It is People who have to act. Mahatma Gandhi said, CLEANLINESS IS NEXT TO GODLINESS!
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
    E-mail: anumakonda.jagadeesh@gmail.com

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • A very well thought issue,

    A very well thought issue, needs consideration. So how do we create awareness, and what needs to be done for a city like Guwahati and also indore.Have stayed in both these places... know a lot of facts.. would like to talk in depth about the issues in detail..
    please mail me how can we make that possible.

    Thank You

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply



    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The definition of STUPIDITY

    The definition of STUPIDITY is probably REPEATING our mistakes..Doing the SAME things, over and OVER again, yet expecting DIFFERENT results. Yet we are not considered a Stupid lot. By others, or ourselves.

    Further, all this with Town Planners/ Architects/ Economic advisors and the entire Govt's Think Tank behind planning and execution of such cities.... Begs the question...HOW could ALL of them get it SO WRONG?

    On the other hand an 8th grade pass, retired, Army, truck driver like Anna Hazare to painstakingly transformed his village from a derelict town to a green, thriving haven. It took him 30 years !!

    Seems then 'highly qualified experts' are NO substitute for highly motivated, involved people with high integrity. They seek, find and IMPLEMENT sustainable solutions. As they are not fettered by
    chasing votes or feathering their nests and More.

    God bless him, and people like him.. May this Nation give birth to many more who could be inspired
    their ilk.


    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Hi Janak, Which is the

    Hi Janak,

    Which is the technology you are referring to? Dr Bhawalkar or somebody else's.


    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • The problem in a few words

    The problem in a few words is

    1 People in power (a very few at the top) have very little accountability and responsibility due to deteriorating ethics and gullibility of the masses. Maybe most of them are forced into situations where they don't have competencies and/or competent and reliable subordinates to handle such tasks. There is no fear of change in the status quo or any chastisement.(beheti hui ganga me sab hath martein hai --is the norm).

    2 The public has no common sense to be taskmasters for the public servants as they don't know how to debate/brainstorm and understand best possible solutions through consensus--they let themselves be manipulated endlessly with new laws, new rules, new regulators, new solutions, new practices, new commissions and bodies --which is all like old wine in a new bottle.

    3 The knowledgebase for solutions and competent Human resources/organisations to implement them simply are not known or accessible to those who can get the solution implemented.(whether from the public or the public servants/representatives or both)

    Solution is to have a presidential form of governance at the local level--as was the case in earlier times where the main official (the appointed administrator/commissioner) was like the (elected) Mayor in the developed world. Now both the commissioner (and his group of officials) and the standing committee of the corporation (group of politicians) pass the buck and claim all power but no responsibility. Where a capital city is involved each CM (and his office including the PAs) doubles up as the (behind the scenes)super commissioner over the corporation and practically gets away with any misuse of power or faulty decision. Nobody from the public has ever in modern India humbled any of the CMs/ruling establishment and brought them down to their senses/ground realities.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply