Feroze Varun Gandhi’s new book ‘The Indian Metropolis’ considers the dismal state of our urban spaces – and ways to improve them
Feroze Varun Gandhi | February 7, 2023
The Indian Metropolis: Deconstructing India’s Urban Spaces
By Feroze Varun Gandhi
Rupa, 840 pages, Rs 1,500
Feroze Varun Gandhi, a Member of Parliament from the BJP, has been a published poet. He is also a policy expert – he had published ‘A Rural Manifesto’ in 2018, and has now come up with its complementary volume, covering India’s cities.
The volume covers the Indian city-space from a multitude of angle: population pressure, availability of resources such as water, affordable housing, employment and business, urban planning and urban financing – not to mention urban crime. Of course, he does not forget the key element that is public transport. When India is poised to become the most populous country on the planet and its capital likely to become the most populated city in the world by 2028, the significance of Gandhi’s new work cannot be overestimated.
The writing here is lucid and it should engage not only the policy community but also the citizens – the word originally meant city-dwellers, and theirs would be the most important voice if any positive change is going to come up in our urban spaces.
Here is an excerpt, from the section ‘On Delhi’s Urban Tradition’ (Chapter 1: ‘On Urbanization’)
Now, Delhi is India’s most populous city, with a population that rises by ~700,000 annually—it is in line to be the world’s largest megacity by 2028, outstripping Tokyo. There is a flood of people annually shifting across India’s rural hinterland, moving to cities that generate the largest share of economic activity. This is hard to keep up with for any urban planner. From 2005 to 2018, Delhi’s population rose by ~10 million; meanwhile, only 43,000 new homes were built by the government’s two main housing programmes.
India needs to add the equivalent of 700–900 million sq. m of urban space annually—essentially the size of Chicago—in a sustainable manner. Even government servants can end up not getting adequate, affordable housing. Consider the East Kidwai Nagar redevelopment project—starting in 2014, it was supposed to be an enclave for civil servants, replacing over 2,444 low-rise homes into 4,608 apartments in 14-storey towers spread across 87 acres. The project has been highlighted as a poster child for new and affordable housing, comprising solar panels, rainwater harvesting and on-site waste management. However, it has run into local issues—lawsuits were filed over concerns relating to environmental mismanagement and an increase in traffic congestion. Questions remain about how water will be supplied to the entire enclave. While a planned 10,000 capacity garage will restrict the planting of large trees in lieu of the 2,000 trees being cut—all this, for a net incremental increase of just 2,164 units of housing, after over five years of construction. Meanwhile, 200 families were relocated over 24 km away during the redevelopment of this enclave. We are physically stratifying our society bit by bit. Eventually, a large segment of our population will end up living in an area with no schools, little to no healthcare facilities and no open spaces for children to play in.
Consider the simple matter of garbage collection. Delhi’s chief secretary, in 2018, remarked to the Supreme Court that ~45 per cent of the city’s solid waste was not being collected by civic bodies. In each cardinal direction of Delhi’s landscape, lie mountains of garbage so large that they have turned into landmarks for directions in the city. When such landfills catch fire, the city’s already noxious air quality drops even lower. The resulting uproar led to the Supreme Court terming the city as a gas chamber (due to the ongoing air pollution crisis) and remarking, ‘Is this not worse than internal war? Why are people in this gas chamber [Delhi]? [...] you better finish them with explosives [...] It would be better to go rather than suffer from diseases like cancer.’ Delhi, as a city, has suffered from the onslaught of air pollution and solid waste for decades, with city leaders hesitant to take on the issue of pollution; the topic has been heavily politicized. The city is usually ranked at the top of the world’s list of megacities afflicted by pollution. The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) in a survey on water pollution declared that Delhi’s water was the most contaminated among all the cities it had surveyed in 2018.
Meanwhile, a significant percentage of the population continues to live on the streets, cutting a sorry sight in winter months (something I have personally sought to alleviate by distributing blankets). Delhi continues to acquire a reputation as a capital of crime. There is no other city in India that has attracted as much investment and attention to public transportation as Delhi; and, yet, the number of private vehicles continues to rise, leading to a clogging of Delhi’s streets. Even fire safety seems lax—nearly every month brings news of a tragedy in a low-lying slum or an industrial cluster catching fire. There is no respite, whether in the Uphaar tragedy of 1997 or the Anaj Mandi fire of 2019.
Most water treatment plants in Delhi have also been found wanting. A report by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) from August 2022 highlighted that water samples taken in June 2022 from 16 of 26 sewage water treatment plants simply did not meet quality parameters set by the CPCB. Some of these water treatment plants had been newly inaugurated, including those near Coronation Park, Kondli, Keshopur, etc. Such plants had failed to meet standards with respect to total suspended solids, biological oxygen demand, dissolved phosphate and other parameters. The city, in August 2022, was generating 720 million gallons per day (MGD) of sewage with a treatment capacity of 597 MGD (it must noted that an additional treatment capacity of ~239 MGD is expected to be added by June 2023). While the state government pushes for a city of lakes project using treated water, the age-old problem of polluted water supply remains. The National Green Tribunal (NGT), meanwhile, continues to highlight the decreasing water quality of the Yamuna, driven primarily by sewage and industrial effluents from Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana.
With migration to the city rising, such issues will get worse. It is surprising to note that Delhi had only 4 lakh people in 1901 and was ranked seventh in the list of the largest cities (by population) in India.75 Now, it has reached north of 18 million people, with the national capital region (NCR) considered the largest (in area and population) in the country. This trend will continue, with forecasts predicting that Delhi will reach a population above 37 million by 2030,76 a growth that will simply submerge the city’s existing infrastructure Meanwhile, the city has only ~10,000 buses (Beijing had ~24,000 in 2015). Perhaps, it is time to look for another capital. Delhi’s future looks decidedly dismal. The situation with other cities is worse.
[The excerpt reproduced with permission of the publishers.]
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