Our cities are a mess. Rapid urbanisation is one of the signs of economic development, but filthy overcrowded, unsafe and unhygienic cities are not necessarily a corollary to development. In this era of inverted snobbery, pleading for aesthetics is asking for Marie Antoinette’s fate. However, perhaps I can plead my case on a more important ground. Is public health a criterion worth considering?
A study conducted by the Royal Institute of British Architects has found a clear, positive correlation between greater availability of green spaces, lower housing density and higher overall health of the local population. When a city is organised in such a way that people are encouraged to walk and run outdoors and children have safe, open spaces to play, its population is healthier.
Now cut across the world to our cities, say, for example New Delhi. There aren’t enough open spaces and well maintained parks/play grounds in comparison with the population density. The safety of women and children is so uncertain that a normal outdoor activity like walking is restricted to that which arises from unavoidable compulsion. Pavements are either non-existent or broken and battered on account of being dug up at least three times a year, if not encroached upon by shops, slums, cars and the like. There are no cycling tracks. Traffic rules are broken as a rule. People literally have to risk their lives if they decide to cycle; and walking as a means of commuting is just a shade less dangerous. While the rich can afford gym memberships, personal trainers and tennis lessons for their offspring, the rest of the Indian population may well be doomed to avoid outdoor activity and thereby to obesity and lifestyle diseases.
Government land that could be used for parks, schools or recreational facilities, etc., has been taken over by slums and nobody has the courage to assert that public property belongs to the public and not to any individual even if he/she is the celebrated aam admi. A report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), cited in The Economist, has debunked the fond and fashionable notion of slums as launch pads for individual and national progress. It states that people in slums rarely break out of the poverty trap.
However, in the Indian context I am not so sure about that. A hardworking villager who migrates to Delhi, rents accommodation on the outskirts of Delhi and commutes to his workplace should perhaps be labelled a fool. Why not just put up an illegal jhuggi (shack) on vacant land around government colonies in New Delhi? This is a sure shot way to get rich quick.
Slums are not only a source of noise, filth, crime and diseases but also a source of cheap labour and votes. Anybody who protests against their illegality will be shouted down for being insensitive to the common man and uncaring of the fate of the rural migrant and the labour class. It is outmoded to speak about laws and rules these days.
The truth is that slums show us that we have failed to create opportunities and facilities in rural areas in spite of years of lip service and millions of rupees being spent on rural development programmes. They exist because they are a source of easy votes and cheap labour. The differential in the market price of well fed and housed citizens or labour force, by way of the facilities provided to slums, is borne by tax payers.
Now, imagine an alternative scenario. What if the government was to ensure the availability of low-cost housing in and around cities with good facilities such as schools, hospitals and playgrounds as is done by, say, the Singapore government? What if we had excellent public transport to commute from the suburbs to workplaces in Delhi? What if women and children could actually move around freely instead of darting hurriedly clutching their mobiles for dear life? What if pavements could actually be used for walking? What if walking or cycling for serious commuting were possible because drivers were forced to stick to their lanes and to obey traffic rules such as stopping at the zebra crossing (as is done in most civilised parts of the world)? What if Delhi and other Indian cities were clean, green safe and slum free? Would this make all urban Indians healthier and happier or would it make the aam admi worse off?
I may be wrong, but it appears to be stylish nowadays to perversely ignore the legality or long-term consequences of issues. Therefore, because we must not appear snobbish, the poor must continue to live in unhealthy slums and the relatively better-off must compulsorily become progressively obese and unfit. Every one must suffer what are certainly amongst the ugliest cities in the world. I could be hanged for saying so, but it is true.