By Sunita Narain
Published: Wednesday 15 June 2005

Finance minister P Chidambaram goes to Mumbai to deliberate, with its corporati, upon urban renewal, and promises sparkling growth for this bursting metropolis. On the way to the venue, he is confronted by angry slum-dwellers whose homes have been demolished to make way for the new age city. They say they are paying for this growth, which is unjust and unacceptable. The chief minister vows he will make it another Shanghai. He says this even as the city is shattered by crippling power shortages and rationing, to last till 2010. Then because the neon lights of this Shanghai-aping city need to be lit, he cuts off free power to farmers in the state. No free lunches here, is the stern message.

Let us get real. We cannot be another Shanghai or another New York. But we can be another Mumbai that has housing, clean water, public transport, garbage collection and disposal that work. In other words, we can have well-being for all, and richness and wealth for few. But for this, we cannot build dreams based on the reality of others. So let us get real. Invent our own ways to build modern cities, shape our own tomorrow.

Let us also be clear we have no choice in this matter. It is a do-or-die situation. India's urban growth is on a boom. But if handled as badly as today it is being, it can bust our growth as well. This is because cities need huge resources -- natural, capital and human -- to sustain themselves. If these are not managed well, such growth will seriously impinge on the rest of the country, which lives outside its doors and on resources that the city needs to secure for its growth.

The fact is that Indian cities are in serious crisis. It is a fiscal crisis, a planning crisis. Most of all it is a crisis of a mindset which cannot accept the depth and reality of the urban miasma. The reason I say this is because the government views the urban problem a little differently. It has launched, this year, a 'National Urban Renewal Mission' with an outlay of Rs 5,500 crore for just this fiscal year. To put the funds into perspective, this outlay is roughly half of what it plans to put aside to provide employment guarantee for millions living in the poorest districts of India. In other words, it is large enough for a poor country with different priorities. The government proposes (at least on paper) that it will use these funds, in combination with private financing -- as the buzzword signifies, in private-public partnerships -- to invest in urban infrastructure and renewal.

The fact is that if we don't change our current urbanisation strategies then all the money we have will not be enough to make our cities livable. Take any challenge that the city faces -- garbage, excreta, transportation, power or housing -- and you will find that much more than money is needed today.

We know that our cities are drowning in garbage -- plastic is surely the curse of the modern landscape. The current approach is to invest in collecting this garbage, transport it and bury it in landfills. It is built on the premise that there will be land for urban India to bury its waste. It then assumes that if we can finance infrastructure, we will be able to pay for urban services that can efficiently collect and dispose our waste. The vision is to hire corporate sweepers to clean our cities.

But the facts are different. Firstly, we do not have land to dispose off the current waste we generate, let alone the new waste we will generate. Finding a dumpyard -- elsewhere -- is always the cheapest and laziest option rich cities in many parts of the world have used. But we cannot. Secondly, all city plans do not account for the fact that there will be increasing quantities of plastic, non-disposal waste and toxic waste in our households, which will require new and much more expensive ways of disposal. In fact, even as urban renewal gets under way, we are creating industries of waste generation in the country -- from more and more plastic bottles to everything else that is modern and fancy and waste-foolish.

Thirdly, the waste-plan does not understand that it is the rich in the cities that do not pay for their waste disposal. Not the poor. Urban services today are stretched because they are in the service of the people who generate the waste but do not pay for it. In this scenario, cities cannot under any circumstances extend these services to all. Let us be clear. It is enormously advantageous for the city rich that over 50 per cent of urban India lives in slums and other wretched and illegal situations, where they do not get water, waste or any other services. The fact of the matter is that the Indian state cannot afford to subsidise all -- it can only extend this privilege to the rich.

And do not argue that the rich can pay if they are asked to. In the current situation -- whether it's water or transportation or garbage -- the technological challenge is such that even the rich cannot pay the real cost of the services they use. The garbage disposal would be too expensive. The clean drinking water may be affordable but taking back the city's waste and treating it will certainly be not. In this Shanghai dream, we build many flyovers to transport the private vehicles of the relatively rich, while the poor travel in over-crowded and abused public transportation systems. The flyovers are built in the name of all, but used by some. In other words, there are only free lunches in Indian cities, only for some.

The bottomline is that India's urban renewal will need new answers because it cannot afford to subsidise its poor. That is a fact. Like it or not.

-- Sunita Narain

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