Birth Pangs of a Brash New Country
PONDICHERRY, INDIA — My grandmother still remembers the peepal tree that grew outside her house in Agra. She remembers the park where her children used to play. She remembers uncrowded, unhurried roads, an easy pace of life.
This was in the 1950s. My grandmother had recently moved from Lahore, in present-day Pakistan. Her family were refugees from the post-partition violence that convulsed the subcontinent.
I was in Agra not long ago. The city was a mess — garbage piled by the sides of roads, stray dogs and the occasional pig running rampant, open sewers. The Yamuna River running behind the Taj Mahal was black; the Taj itself was turning yellow from industrial pollution.
Agra is an egregious example, but it’s hardly unique. Indian cities are congested, polluted, filthy, noisy, dangerous. In a word, they’re unlivable.
In Mumbai, in the upscale (or so they say) neighborhood of Bandra, I have walked on sidewalks layered with a sludge of mud, composting garbage, and human and animal excrement.
In Bangalore, I have been caught in a torrential downpour, stuck in diesel fumes and traffic for hours while the waters rose outside my bus, seeping eventually through the floor.
In Chennai, just off the Old Mahabalipuram Road, the city’s technology corridor, a showcase of the nation’s entrepreneurial prowess, there is a waste dump that was recently rated as having the worst air quality in India.
A sea of burning trash spreads over hundreds of acres. Every time I drive by, black smoke billows into my car. I cough; I tear up.
Urban life is gritty everywhere, but urban life in India redefines the notion of grittiness. India’s cities, and especially its metropolises, make places like Paris or London or even New York seem positively bucolic.
Partly, this is because Indian cities are anachronisms. They’re designed along gridlines established by colonial-era master plans and zoning laws. They were built to accommodate only a tiny, elite minority in a nation that was overwhelmingly agricultural.
In 1901, 11 percent of Indians, just 26 million people, lived in cities and towns. Today, India has one of the fastest growing urban populations in the world. Around 30 percent of the country, more than 300 million people, now lives in the cities.
Gandhi famously said that the soul of India was to be found in its villages. The center of gravity has shifted. Indian cities, charged with the hopes and aspirations and frustrations of millions of rural migrants, have become crucibles of the modern nation. It is in the cities — in the big metropolises like Mumbai and Bangalore, but also in the thousands of smaller towns that have swollen over the last couple of decades — that the future of India is being shaped.
The new India is an emerging economic power. The nation’s wealth — its world-class companies, its enviable growth rates, its army of enterprising and educated young technical workers — is concentrated in the cities. Two-thirds of the country’s G.D.P., and 90 percent of government revenues, emanate from urban India.
The new India is energetic, self-confident, ruthless and often brash. These are not values associated with the hinterland. The villages and farms of rural India are dying. They can no longer contain the ambitions of the young men (and, increasingly, women) who long for something more dynamic, more exciting, than the predictability of agricultural life.
The new India, however, is a complicated place. And while the cities contain all the nation’s possibility, the exuberance and sheen of a people emerging from decades of underdevelopment, they embody, too, the seamier side of rapid development.
With their economic opportunity, their cheerful determination, their youthful clamor, India’s cities are promises of a better future. But they are also, in the physical and aesthetic nightmares of urban life, dismal forebodings, warnings of how that future could yet collapse.
Poverty, once largely a rural phenomenon, has migrated to the cities. More than a quarter of urban residents live below the poverty line, and almost a quarter live in slums. The slums are grim places: tin shacks and makeshift plastic structures, fetid little pools of class resentment and anger that threaten always to boil over into violence.
The cities are crippled, too, by a collapse of municipal services that hints at a larger failure of governance in the country. Garbage piles up, electricity and water supplies are sporadic at best, and desperately needed infrastructure projects — roads and bridges and airports — lie dormant, stalled for years and sometimes decades in a tangle of corruption and red tape.
Pollution, bad governance, poverty, inequality: these are the difficulties that hang like clouds over India’s bright prospects, and these are the challenges the country will have to overcome if it is to live up to its potential. These are, largely, urban challenges. The road to the much-vaunted Indian Century we keep getting offered by our leaders runs through the nation’s cities.
I always planned to live in an Indian city. When I moved back to this country, from America, in 2003, I sensed that something tremendous was happening. India, I felt, was an adventure, and I knew that it was in the cities, in the cafes and bars and shopping malls that overflowed with energy and optimism, that I could be part of the adventure.
I soon realized that I would never survive. Two days in a metropolis, and I could feel the phlegm in my throat, the sting in my eyes. The cacophony of traffic got into my head; I was always on edge.
So I moved to the country, to the fields and forests around where I had grown up, outside Pondicherry, to the ocean, lined by fishing villages and casuarina plantations that track the coast. Sometimes I miss the buzz of the cities. I feel marginal, far from the great transformation that I know is under way. But at least I can breathe freely and sleep easily. At night, I can see the stars.