A wish list for a better life 70 years after independence
Reality is cruel. It forces us to cope with its immediate horrors. Worse, it eventually snuffs out our dreams, too. It is bad enough to be stuck in mile-long traffic jams but what makes it worse is when the fumes from the exhausts and the haze from the perennial dust cover also cloud visions of driving through verdant avenues. The little preface is just a summary of daily lives in India’s mega cities which are crying for urgent attention.
As a first step, we need to get over our fixation with villages as the acme of all that is pure and beautiful.
What’s more, most of our young people want to move to cities, and that’s because cities are the centres of innovation, creativity and wealth creation. In particular, it is mega cities in emerging markets like India that are expected to be the engines of global growth in the coming decades. According to Bloomberg estimates, by 2050, five billion people, representing more than half the world’s population, will live in emerging market cities, and account for more than half of global gross domestic product (GDP) growth.
Sadly, in the face of rapid urbanization, with millions of Indians streaming into our mega cities which are managed by ineffectual local governments, our urban existence has become an enduring nightmare.
So, on the occasion of India’s 70th anniversary as an independent nation, here’s my wish list for India’s largest cities.
Top of my wish list for India is a restoration of our natural world of trees, birds, and butterflies. Today we live in cities and towns that are soul sappingly degraded. The space for pedestrians is shrinking under the onslaught of more and more construction to aid motorized transportation as well as the new metro trains. For starters, how about reserving the space under those monstrous metro pillars for pedestrian movement by making barricaded pathways and greening them?
It can’t be too difficult. In New Delhi’s tony Chanakyapuri area, which hosts various embassies, the main streets are laced by lush green open parks. Of course, on most days they bear a desolate look with hardly a soul using them. It is part of the age-old curse of wanting the West to think well of us even while the rest of the city pines for some green space.
That brings me to my next wish, restoring the lungs of our cities. Across the world, people have vast public spaces like Hyde Park in London, Buen Retiro Park in Madrid or Central Park in New York. These are not some gift to the residents, not a favour done to appease them, they are theirs by right. In Berlin, Monocle reports in its annual ranking of the cities with the most attractive assets for leading a quality of life, most parks don’t close at night, a sign of the “strong sense of ownership residents have over their city”.
So how do you carve out these spaces in already crowded and congested Indian cities? The answer is simple: bulldoze all those areas earmarked for our public servants, including politicians and bureaucrats. In Delhi, that would be almost all of Lutyens’ Delhi, including the anachronistic Rashtrapati Bhavan which sits on 320 acres of prime land. Other cities have their governor’s residences and, of course, the mansions cornered by sundry politicians.
All this has to be part of the move to bring back our public spheres. The adda in Kolkata, the roof-top sleeping in North India, the impromptu musical soirees in Cubbon Park in Bengaluru are emblematic of a bygone era, one that enriched our lives, gave it texture while also serving as a perfect safety net for society.
Cycling, too, was a great Indian tradition long before it became a thing in the West. The cycle disappeared as our streets became more dangerous and city administrators eased cycling tracks out for more glamorous means of transportation. Now it is time for a mandatory ruling that every street has to have a compulsory lane for cyclists.
Let’s also find ways to go back to our roots. While the world learns of the awful consequences of using plastics and Styrofoam cups, we have gone and abandoned our traditional earthen pots. All we need to do is to resuscitate them with more hygienic standards and better collection methods. Instead of those disgusting food vans, a wholly imported concept completely unsuited to Indian conditions, we could bring back our old tandoors, with just a bit of tweaking of the technology to make them safer to use.
The world over, cities are working hard to retain their traditional ways of life even as they embrace the latest technologies. In our rush to adopt the latter, we’ve gone and abandoned the best parts of a 2,000-year-old civilization. As we breathe in air which isn’t fit for man or beast, we would do well to the best of our past.
Finally, I dream of an India where we can meet, interact and chat with people from all nationalities. One of the great pleasures of growing up in the Calcutta of the 1970s and ’80s was the sheer heterogeneity of the place. Imagine a classroom where the roll call went Menon, Aggarwal, Chetri, Saleh, Yap. That’s a Malayali, a Marwari, a Nepali, a Muslim, and a Japanese, besides the usual mix of Bengalis and Punjabis. Lunch break was a smorgasbord of cuisines and cultures.
Despite the plethora of restaurants catering to different parts of the world, we see little of the world in India apart from the handful of tourists that flock to predictable places like the Taj in Agra or the sands of Rajasthan.
There is so much more to India than just these few marketed-to-death monuments to its antiquity. We need people from across the world becoming a part of the daily cadence of our lives, bringing with them the best of their cultures.
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