India was in the public imagination through two award winning attempts last year. Two stories of urban resilience - the Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire, where the hero comes from the same slums of Mumbai that we just referred to; and the other, Arvind Adiga's Booker winning White Tiger, a very different protagonist works in class- and caste-conscious Delhi, thriving in the world of power, influence and corruption. Two very different paths, one of succumbing to crime and getting on with the ways of life in urban India, the other of overcoming the easy options and finding a strange way to reach out to someone one has loved and lost, end poignantly. Love, life and enterprise win over the urban India, its squalor, corruption, injustice and prejudices. It is indeed a strange picture of India, not the one which surrenders passively to fate but wishes to carve its own path, not the one which seeks spiritual redemption amid misery, but one which is ready to slit someones throat [literally] and change the scripts of destiny.
This is indeed a different script from the great works about India of the past: the movies of Satyajit Ray and others, where the protagonists usually discovered beauty and faith within the endless frustrations of Indian life. But what has not changed is the urban landscape - one can find continuity in the slums, poverty, middlemen, policemen that take bribes and roads that are endlessly log-jammed, and the like. One finds the same answer that various commentators are trying to give to the question 'how does India at all work': It is the people. The same thing that business commentators say - Tarun Khanna recently commented that Chinese businesses are successful because of its government, and Indian businesses are successful in spite of the government. Nandan Nilkeni writes about how there is a vast difference between public and private efficiencies in India, and how that is apparent to any foreign visitor driving through the impossible chaos of the Hosur Road and then getting into the serene Infosys campus. One would also remember the scene from the recent movie about India's outsourcing industry, Outsourced, where the call centre gets flooded but still operates from the terrace. Everywhere, the story is of a country whose urban infrastructure is failing to keep pace with its aspirations and in desperate need of fixing.
To be fair, there is a lot of focus on urban infrastructure these days. It is the Government's top priority. There are significant investment outlays for each of the major cities. Almost all of India's airports are going through major expansion [which adds to the sense of chaos at this time] and going by the ones which have been completed, in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Cochin, the improvements are going to be significant. Each Indian city is planning to get some kind of Rapid Transit System - in fact, Mumbai is designed to get two rapid transit systems - years late, but most projects will be completed in the next couple of years. There are significant new ideas to improve sanitation, new plans to build low cost houses and new initiatives to push through political obstacles and get moving on the environment.
But, despite all this, meet anyone on the streets and ask about how things are going, and one notices a sign of pessimism about if things can ever change. Many people blame India's population and the fact that thousands of new people are coming into India's cities every day, looking for jobs, social mobility and a new way of life. The public infrastructure, the schools, hospitals and public parks in the cities have become dysfunctional under the pressure of population. Also, Indian cities keep expanding geographically under the weight of this population, they are forcing people out of their lands, creating a new army of the dispossessed and new pockets of crime and corruption. Gurgaon, a glittering city in the outskirts of Delhi, already tops the world in the rate of crime. Even the backward provincial Calcutta, which is moving slower than most other Indian cities, have recently witnessed unrest provoked by the clashes between the dispossessed farmers and land mafia, the strongmen whose sole business is to acquire land for urbanization.
Looking at this, one can wonder whether any urban renewal initiative is ever going to work. Isn't that climbing precisely the wrong tree, more out of hangover from our colonial past than current realities? The fact that development has to be connected with urbanization is as dated a concept as the efficacy of central planning. That's the prime time approach to development, in an age where development necessarily meant setting up factories which needed a huge number of people to live in close proximity and build a social eco-system in a small geographic area. That is surely past, now that one can build enterprises out of one's home, as long as connectivity and education are available.