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New Delhi: Adam’s exit from paradise signalled a downhill ride for his descendants and what a terrible price to pay for yielding unto Eve’s innocent temptation!

Raj Liberhan, Director, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi

As good Indians, we do not blame Adam or Eve, because we believe that the descent of man was destined to be so. After wandering about in the jungles, the early man found shelter in caves and caverns. The civilization’s progress brought knowledge and skill and human settlements became a polis, then a metropolis, finally graduating to a cosmopolis. And the millennium has brought in the megapolis. This too was destined but for the hard working societies of the West.

The modern synonym for progress is urbanization, often interchanged with globalization. What makes a city great? People rave about New York, lots to do; theatre, shows, bars’, restaurants with every kind of cuisine on offer, great education, great employment and everything works. So is London, Vienna, Paris, Brussels, Rome, Athens and the like, each with a distinctive style, a unique personality and a lively statement of its aspirations.

Turn to the South or the East and there are sought after cities to live and work in. Tokyo, Osaka, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong. Sparkling clean, a glittering night life and always alive cities, these are icons of modern creativity and conservators of their respective heritage.

Work anytime, play anytime, do what you want to anytime with one minor caveat, do not, repeat, do not disturb your neighbour’s world.

Our urbanization appears to have followed a will and direction of its own. And this our destiny! Nobody seemed aware when a village grew to a town and became a model town and equally imperceptibly it transformed into a city and ultimately has now presented itself as a ‘problem’. Yes, that is what it is: our cities have become problems, a phenomenon not unknown to urban development in South Asia.

Nature’s assets have been used by humans since times immemorial in the belief that they will be around for ever. The finiteness, however, of nature’s life sustaining treasures like water, energy, fuels, and forests is now being forecast by all doomsayers. Is it not strange that urban habitats in South Asia – a region that gave us the immaculately planned towns of the Indus Valley curlisation – are fast becoming vulnerable to multiple hazards?

Mega cities, smaller cities, indeed our dwelling places are deteriorating at an alarming rate. The cumulative impact of the needs of burgeoning urban populations is depleting physical, resources and given the absence of a perspective plan for managing our cities, there is no regenerative effort to make the sources of supply last longer.

The big question is: will our cities survive? Or is there, a certain inevitability about the degradation of a city infrastructure and civic amenities that no organization or planning process can address in the face of ever increasing volumes?

The search for answers needs to begin now and it has to begin with the knowledge that the cities that will survive in the future will be the ones who manage their waste and sanitation.

We have to realize that no matter what the cost of waste disposal, it is not too high for the health of our population. Therefore, urgent solutions need to be placed for ensuring that we manage our waste successfully.

Secondly, time and distance have undergone a changed definition. City limits at par with municipal limits have lost much of the meaning because these boundaries have got seamlessly merged into the next city. Hence, we need an integrated perspective on the profile of a city and its surroundings. This requires transport and social infrastructure as a unified solution for a region and its hub, rather than only a city-specific answer. This will give the populations a wider menu of choices to locate in the most congenial environment from their point of view.

Thirdly, housing needs to be given secondary priority. The state is singularly unable to provide housing and at least the Indian state will never be rich enough, even in the foreseeable future, to provide affordable housing.

Attempts so far have been rather dismal, both in terms of aesthetics and addressing demand. On the contrary, if the state had not been the avaricious property dealer it continues to be, and fulfilled its duty of being a provider of infrastructure, housing options would have multiplied to cater to each demand segment.

It is understandable to worry about the poor and it looks good on the state, but just ‘looks’ do not help the poor. Only deeds can. The poor can be helped by education and access to acquiring life skills. These can be priced advantageously for them. The housing facility cannot be arbitrarily priced at an advantage and when it has been done, only housing scams are the result and God knows how many of them we do not know about.

Lastly, we need to have urban laws which are unambiguous and can be complied with free of cost. It is heart rending to see that compliance with laws in this country is not cost effective. It is much easier to ‘vend’ your way through the legal framework alleyways than to stand on the right side of the law.

Our problems’, (read cities), need a rescue act if they have to graduate from being pinds’. World class cities or Shanghai lookalikes are faraway dreams in this land where speech is free but actions are rare. And we have miles to go……

Raj Liberhan is Director of the India Habitat Centre at New Delhi. Send your reactions to socionomics@livemint.com

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