Total Disregard of Recent Traumatic Events will Inevitably Lead to Widespread Turmoil: Ranjit Sabikhi

Total Disregard of Recent Traumatic Events will Inevitably Lead to Widespread Turmoil: Ranjit Sabikhi
Total Disregard of Recent Traumatic Events will Inevitably Lead to Widespread Turmoil: Ranjit Sabikhi 1
Cramped housing in Palam, New Delhi. On the right is the Cantonment area separated by railway line in the centre, Picture: Dr. Punit Sethi

Since early 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the residents of several states, the country has passed through a series of catastrophic events one after another beginning with the lockdown in March 2020, the return of millions of workers to their homes, the farmers protest, and the new wave of the Omicron infection. Over the past two years the urban poor that consist of over 60% of the population of 230 million, have been the most affected by these traumatic experiences. This has involved the loss of jobs, substantial loss of income, and the loss of education for their children, reducing them to a pathetic state with an uncertain future. One would have thought that these events would have figured in the Finance Minister’s Union Budget proposals for the year 2022-23, but there is not even a casual acknowledgement of these happenings. Instead, mention is made of many ambitious proposals for future urban development with fancy names and slogans, which may well remain incomplete like many other schemes launched during the past seven years. It is important to reflect on these recent events and their impact on the lives of large numbers of people. In early 2020 the first cases of the Covid-19 infection were confirmed, and within a short time spread to several states across the country. On the night of 24thMarch 2020 the Prime Minister announced a nation-wide lockdown with less than four hours’ notice. All offices, shopping centres, and industrial units were closed, and all public transportation was stopped. Within days it became clear that India had plunged into an enormous human crisis. It is estimated that the lockdown resulted in 114 million job losses, 90 million were daily wage earners, and 20 million salary earners were laid off. The livelihoods of the poor and marginalized were destroyed, and they were pushed to the brink of starvation. Over 25 million migrant workers headed for their homes in the rural areas. Little or no help came from the government. Some workers and their families managed to get on to trains or on to trucks and buses at a cost which they could barely afford, but the larger number walked from a few hundred kilometers to over 1200 kilometers along the roads. They had no food or water except for what was given to them by welfare activists and concerned citizens who set up free food distribution centres in towns and villages along the way. No real help was provided by the concerned authorities, and in many places, they were subjected to undue harassment by the police and state authorities. After considerable publicity, a few free trains were run, but this also was soon discontinued as they were not organized to cope with the massive demand. Large numbers of people lost their lives but there is no proper record of the widespread impact on the lives of millions of migrants, emanating from this disaster.

Despite the fact, that conditions in the villages were worse, with no proper jobs, and minimum earning capacity most of them had no intention of returning to the cities. As the Covid pandemic spread across the country from state to state, large numbers of people succumbed due to a variety of reasons including inadequate healthcare, lack of oxygen, and shortage of hospital beds. In the Delhi urban area 25,600 residents lost their lives. In the rural areas in all the states conditions were much worse, and to date there is no proper accounting of the total number of deaths. Horrifying pictures of large numbers of funeral pyres stretching far beyond the confines of the cremation grounds, including half burnt bodies floating in the rivers along rural areas, were seen on the media. The central and state governments were unable to control the situation and resorted to a denial of the reality to avoid increasing panic. Even after the lockdown was lifted there were several covid cases in some states. The total number of Covid deaths in the country amounted to over 475,000. The lockdown disrupted the lives of over three million people, a majority of which were part of the informal sector in cities. They had to leave their homes, their daily wage jobs, and their children had to leave their schools causing a break in their education.

It is of interest to note that despite being reduced to conditions of extreme poverty many of them tried to ensure that their children’s education was continued. Children who were studying in private schools were transferred to government schools where education was free, and the enrolment in government schools in rural areas doubled. As schools were shut, a system of online education was started. Many migrants could not afford to take advantage of this, either because of the absence of proper connection or because they simply could not afford it. Despite financial hardship many of them bought new smart phones to enable continuity in their children’s education. Considering the seriousness poor migrants attach to their children’s education, the whole system of rural schools and online teaching needed to be upgraded as a matter of priority. The government and state authorities have not to date effectively met this need, and the Finance Minister’s 2022-23 budget also makes no mention of these issues. Before life had returned to normal, in June 2020, the government promulgated three new farm laws, relating to the sale price of 17 farm crops. Farmers in villages in Punjab soon realized that these laws would have a significant impact on the livelihood of small farmers and a decision to protest soon spread to neighboring states and the national capital. On 27th November 2020 farmers from around 6000 Punjab villages led a protest march to Delhi. They were stopped at the borders, so along with their tractors, the farmers and their families camped along the roads and set up temporary homes. Over 2500 temporary settlements were set up around the national capital and several protest marches were led from there into different parts of the city. More than 400,000 tractors turned up at a protest rally on Republic Day 26th January 2021.

Temporary settlements that stretched between 15 to 20 kilometers along the roads continued to function continuously until the Prime Minister announced a repeal of the farm laws on 19th November 2021. Before the repeal, on 3rd October 2021 four farmers and a journalist died when an SUV owned by the son of a union minister ran over farmers from behind in Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh. In the ensuing violence three more people were killed. No action was taken for several days against the SUV driver responsible, or his father the minister. The farmers’ protest lasted for 360 days, and 670 farmers lost their lives. In a totally separate incident on 4th December 2021 the Indian armed forces ambushed and killed 17 coal miners in Nagaland’s Mon district. An official report stated that the killings were a case of mistaken identity during a counter-insurgency operation. The union home minister described it as an unfortunate incident, while the chief minister offered his condolences to the bereaved family and assured justice according to the law of the land. Although the above happenings may not be directly related to urban development the Covid-19 Pandemic, the Lockdown, the March of Migrants to their homes, the Farmers Protest, and the killing of innocent civilians in Nagaland, will over time be viewed as major historic events, that will have a significant impact on future development across the country.

There are several important lessons that need to be learnt from these events. First and foremost is the need to alleviate the miserable conditions in all our urban areas where large number of the economically weaker section live, and from where they seek to earn a basic wage to provide for their families. If they were able to live in better homes which they could extend as their income increased, and where they could bring their families from the villages, they would settle down, and over time help to consolidate their long-term relationship with the city. The Covid 19 pandemic has highlighted the need to provide adequate space and better conditions for all residents in cities both in their homes and public areas, in order to avoid the recurring spread of serious illnesses.

This calls for a different approach to planning that avoids steadily increasing the concentration of residents in urban areas. Unfortunately, this kind of change is strongly resisted by politicians and bureaucrats who have over time developed a vested interest in the monetization of land. As a result of this as the population increases in cities there is a tendency to accommodate more and more people on smaller pockets of land. Change is only possible with the development of new townships at a reasonable distance around major cities, with adequate employment opportunities, so that migrants may be diverted to the new settlements. In a country as large as ours with its enormous population, it is possible to use this strategy to gradually develop our large rural hinterland. Settlements with manufacturing industries and industries related to agriculture, along with schools, health centres, universities, cultural facilities, and centres for the development of local crafts, tourist facilities related to monuments and natural features, could help bring about enormous change over time. Such concepts however require a total shift from the current pattern of development which seeks only to monetize land to extract maximum revenue, or blindly follow the pattern of enormous high-rise construction emulating the examples of cities in the Western world.

Planning for cities in our context calls for flexibility of use, a recognition of the fact that cities are like organisms that keep constantly changing in response to changing need. The city of Delhi and the surrounding areas have been steadily changing over the last sixty years. In 1957 the first Delhi Master Plan 1961 was approved, and this outlined the framework of future urban development. Up to the end of the year 2000 despite the precise location and definition of Single Use Zones, District Centres, Zonal Shopping Centres and Local Shopping Centres, around which the Residential areas were laid out, all began to slowly change. This began with the infiltration of offices, banks, medical clinics, etc. into residential areas.

The carefully designed and detailed District Centres which were the focus of demarcated zones consisting of a variety of uses such as shopping, offices, service industry, banks, restaurants, etc. became just a concentration of office units of different sizes. Space designated for shops remained empty as they were too expensive, and this space was occupied by offices and banks. Meanwhile major shopping centres came up in low- income residential areas occupying the ground floor of closely built residential units, and slowly spread out over vast areas. These became the major retail zones of the city.

This process of gradual change of use in response to actual need began to spread across the entire Delhi Urban Area as the city continued to expand in size with steadily increasing migration from the rural areas. Several changes were introduced in subsequent Master Plans, but the planners, the administrators, and the politicians, never quite fully understood the organic process of change. They concentrated on extracting maximum revenue from the monetization of land. As a result of this the needs of the urban poor that consisted of almost 60% of the population of 230 million was never recognized or catered for. As per the Master Plan housing for the urban poor was confined to small areas with residences in the form of one or two room units with an average plinth area of 250 sq. mts. to 400 sq. mts. The development of such units built at ground level with adjoining space for future expansion was discouraged, as this would involve more land and instead such units were incorporated in multi-story structures. This meant the concentration of large numbers of people on small areas of land with little or no support facilities like schools, health centres, meeting spaces, shopping centres, banks, police stations, etc. With the onset of the Covid pandemic these concentrations became the hub from where the disease has spread. Recent happenings are all indicators of the need for a new approach to future development. An approach that takes into account the needs of all sections of society, in particular the needs of the economically weaker section that form the backbone of the labour force. If this is ignored it will inevitably lead to widespread turmoil over time.

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