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Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Perils of economic reforms — The unliveable cities

Whatever claims the government may make about `economic reforms,' the fact remains that their impact, so far as the cities are concerned, h...

Written by Jagmohan |
July 31, 1997

Whatever claims the government may make about `economic reforms,’ the fact remains that their impact, so far as the cities are concerned, has been negative.

The poor have suffered everywhere. But the urban poor have suffered the most. Their destitution, when measured in terms of quality of life, has deepened. The congestion in their small and precariously built dwellings has increased. So is their vulnerability to water-borne and communicable diseases.

Recently, former Finance Minister Manmohan Singh while defending the reforms, observed: “This is the way of evolving modern and suitable instruments of charge, for eliminating poverty and for coming closer to the modern world”. Even a casual visit to any of the hundreds of slums and low-income group settlements in Delhi, Bombay or Calcutta will show how misplaced is this observation. With growing obsession for wealth-making and obtaining a competitive edge in national and international markets, cheap labour is being subjected to greater and greater exploitation, and the poor man’s environment is being further degraded. Where, previously, 10 or 15 persons were huddled in a hovel for work and habitation, now about one and a half that number are jam-packed in the same space.

Our cities are coming closer to the modern world through cellular phones, pagers and other items of sophisticated technology but this proximity is restricted to a microscopic minority of the inhabitants. A vast majority of them is getting closer to destitution, disease and debased environment.All that the votaries of reform have to do, to acquaint themselves of the truth, is to travel to Delhi by the morning train. The spectacle of vast, open, defecation grounds that exist along the railway line and hundreds of slums and illegal colonies, surrounded by stagnant and stinking pools of water, will tell them in which direction Urban India is moving. They may also note Seabrook’s description of a tannery-hovel in a Mumbai slum: “Men with sharp knives are engaged on an endless labour of scrapping and cleaning the raw skins; the smell clings to them wherever they go. After this, the hides are steeped in acid. These repelling work sites are the starting point for the production of leather goods that will find their way into the shops and boutiques of Bombay, the Gulf and the United States; by what time they will be cleansed of any shreds of exploitation…”.

It is ironical that, while the economic reforms were initiated with claims of bringing in rapid prosperity and making our cities creative concentrations of people and activities, in actual practice they are crippling them. The pollution levels are increasing and health costs escalating. Presently, “about 40,000 premature deaths, 17 million respiratory hospital admissions and 1.2 billion restricted activity days” are occurring annually due to polluted air. Three cities Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta account for 44 per cent of these deaths. New and more virulent forms of diseases are appearing.

During the colonial period, the cities had served as an instrument of economic exploitation by the imperial power. It was from the city that the wealth of the country from the hinterland was drained out in the shape of low-priced raw material and depressed wages. It was, again, through it that the manufactured goods of the colonist countries were sold in the Indian markets and huge profits earned.

Now, under the hypnotic spell of liberalisation and globalisation, the city in India has once again started serving as a tool of exploitation. Through it, not only the natural resources and cheap labour are being virtually exported, but also the health and environment of the nation.

Thanks to the prevailing political culture of superficiality, hardly any one in authority is noticing that under the cover of reform, our cities are being denuded of whatever little harmony and balance they have at present.On the other hand, every basic issue is being kept vague. Take, for instance, the New Housing Policy, an offshoot of the reform process. It is nothing but an exercise in wishful thinking. It pontificates that “it would be necessary to remove bottlenecks in the supply of serviced land by making it available in adequate quantity at right time and at affordable price.” But it does not make it clear how the `bottlenecks’ would be removed, what is considered an `affordable price’ and how `availability’ would be ensured at the `right time’ at the `affordable price’. Such a policy, while providing still greener pastures to the speculators and racketeers, is bound to make urban lands virtually out of the reach of the low income groups, thereby creating a situation in which slums and squatters settlements would grow at a faster pace. At present, the squatter population is increasing at the rate of about 10 to 12 per cent per annum in our cities, which is more than double the general growth rate of the population in the city.The Urban India has already the dubious distinction of having the highest congestion rate in the world about 19 per cent of the Indian families live in less than 10 square meters of space. About 44 per cent of them live in one room only.

Under the new housing policy, practically no piece of land has been developed or building constructed by any private agency for about 40 per cent of the urban population which lives below the poverty line. On the other hand, a major part of the investment in housing is going to luxurious constructions.

To assess the impact of the reforms on our cities, a few other basic questions also need to be raised. Have they given birth to a better civic culture? Have they injected a new dedication or a new dynamism in the city fathers or municipal staff or improved urban governance in any way?

The answer to all these questions, I am afraid, is in the negative. Clearly, attributes of true reforms are nowhere in evidence. Our cities are being subjected to a new onslaught of materialism and notion of `survival of the fittest’. I have little doubt that, if the present trends continue, only 5 to 10 per cent of the `fittest’ would survive but only as prisoners in their `fortresses of affluence’, while the remaining would have to face a thick pall of civic destitution and debased environment.

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