My excitement at being on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra for the first time lasted all of two minutes.
The great river, I was told, was at its narrowest here in Guwahati, yet the far bank appeared to fade into the far hills. For a minute, my eye ran over two islands dripping with vegetation and the vast volume of water sluggishly rolling by. That’s when I saw the small mountain of garbage, carelessly and indiscriminately dumped outside a rusting fence next to the river. Since I am as fascinated by the detritus of urban civilisation as by natural beauty, I spent another minute gazing at the composition of the trash: plastic, thermacol, rags, rotting food, a dead cat.
A sudden wave of revulsion ended the investigation and my tryst with the Brahmaputra.
Elsewhere in Guwahati, it was hard for my municipally-oriented mind—my wife says my true calling is the public works department—to ignore the shattered roads and smelly drains under uneven pavements. Outside my homestay in a neighbourhood called Hatigaon Chariali, there were no pavements, the drains filled with black gunk were frequently uncovered, and intermittent hints of asphalt amid the loose gravel, dust, and ditches indicated there was supposed to be a road here.
Regardless, life, as it always does in India, flowed on, accepting and understanding of the chaos.
The chaos has been heightened in urban India this year because of an unusually rough monsoon that has repeatedly battered cities such as Mumbai, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, and Guwahati, leaving them more ramshackle and smellier than usual. Roads have repeatedly turned into rivers, neighbourhoods in low-lying and poorly drained areas have stayed inundated for days, and commuters have spent large parts of their days stranded in traffic stalled by water, trash-choked drains, and broken roads. Such infrastructure-challenging days are likely to increase as the effects of climate change and concretisation accelerate, bringing more intense, damaging downpours.
To be sure, India’s urban population has surged, from 109 million in 1971 to 377 million in 2011. Of this 268 million increase over 40 years, more than a third, or 91 million—the combined current population of Germany and Sweden—occurred over a decade from 2001. But this data is now six years old and does not appear to reflect the ever-accelerating pace of urbanisation. Satellite images indicate that half of India may now be living in cities, instead of 31% as Census 2011 showed. Most countries would struggle to prepare cities for more than 650 million people. China has, of course, but it does not allow village folk to live in cities without permits. India, unlike its richer neighbour, does not and cannot stop unfettered migration.
Indian cities were not always like this. Consider the 1970s, a time when I was growing up. There is no question that cities were cleaner, greener, and better run. Of course there were vast slums, built of sackcloth and stick and, in many ways, more miserable than those of today. But large swathes of primary cities had a sylvan, clean core, and you could argue that a (smaller) middle class had a better quality of life. Today’s cities have become engines of growth and improved material prospects for many more millions of Indians—the proportion of city dwellers living in slums has fallen by half since 1991—but the quality of life has, in many ways, plummeted. Half of the world’s top 20 polluted cities, for instance, are in India.
The effects of this tide of humanity migrating to cities are made worse by a simultaneous crumbling of urban administrative authority. Cities without strong power centres and accountability can no longer cope with exponential growth. Prosperity has made cities richer but it has increased opportunities for corruption, or—as academics like to call it—rent-seeking. Very little gets done without multiple levels of authority charging rent, which comes from their share of a city’s budget. Prime minister Narendra Modi may boast of reducing corruption, but he’s referring to only the corridors of his ministries. In the cities beyond, roads are not built, garbage is not collected and crimes are not investigated without payoffs. A reasonably dedicated, professionally qualified core of engineers, planners, and administrators has given way to venal, ill-prepared replacements who place their interests above the cities they serve.
New authorities have come into being, each reluctant to cooperate with the other. In Bengaluru, commuters risk life and limb trying to change over from new metro stations to older railway stations: linking bridges or pavements are not being built because metro, railway, and civic officials squabble and spend their time communicating through letters. Many flyovers have been hanging in mid-air for years because contracts were handed out and payments made without land being made available for flyovers to made landfall.
In Mumbai, a spanking new monorail isn’t used because its stations are in the middle of nowhere and do not connect to other means of transport; a new monorail line took so long to build that the Malaysian company making its trains discontinued the production line, which is now being upgraded while Mumbai waits. Road-building contracts are repeatedly given to so-called blacklisted companies. In Delhi, as a garbage mountain ravages the lives of those who live around it—collapsing once in a trash avalanche that swept away vehicles and shanties and killed people—a web of feuding authorities controlled by central and state governments fail to launch the only long-term solution possible: garbage segregation.
Some smaller and traditionally better-run cities, such as Mysore and Chandigarh, are better at garbage collection and general order, but they too are fraying at the seams. Every city is being denuded of its trees because there exists no plan or coordinating authority for roads, metros, flyovers, and parks for each city. From Shillong to Ahmedabad, from Srinagar to Rameshwaram, the urban governance crisis is visible and worsening.
Do not expect a political solution. Indeed, as many experts have pointed out, politics is at the heart of India’s inability to create empowered, directly elected leaders and power centres responsible for taking charge of cities. Every city has a mayor, but he or she has no real powers, which are vested in a set of bureaucrats running various departments. Many of these officials are earnest and honest, but lone rangers cannot ensure metropolitan transformation. Big-ticket plans and budgets are controlled by state politicians, usually elected from the hinterland and with no interest in individual cities. In many emerging and advanced countries, mayors make their careers by transforming cities; in India, they make their money, cut a ribbon or two and fade into oblivion.
Urban reform is one of India’s greatest political and administrative challenges. To dismantle corrupt interest groups will not be easy, as Bengaluru’s inability to deposit salaries directly into the bank accounts of its street sweepers has shown. A cabal of garbage contractors—who hire the sweepers, keep a host of ghost sweepers on their rolls and take a cut in the salaries—has successfully stalled reform, stopping trash collection every time the municipality attempts direct cash payments. The sweepers are cheated, as is a city that has gone from being known as a garden city to a garbage city.
The bad news: India’s cities are likely to worsen. The good news: There is none.