India’s ‘Urban’ Myth: Instead of Imitating West, Can the Poor Be Taken Care Of?
The State has neglected its responsibilities towards its poor population in the hope to make India a ‘global power’.
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Indians are global citizens today. Compared to any other country, the Indian diaspora is not only restricted to developed countries like the United States of America, Britain, Japan and Germany but also migrated to African countries like Burkina Faso, Uganda, and Madagascar.
With a whooping number of around 2 crore migrants, India emerged as a country that sends the largest working-class population overseas. Interestingly, it is the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that attracts the most number of Indian migrants (in 2020, it was around 34 lakhs).
Especially parts of UAE like Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah are bursting with a vast Indian population, almost making these places look like a ‘mini-India’. Ironically, similar claims cannot be made for any big metropolitan city in India.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) attracts the most number of Indian migrants (in 2020, it was around 34 lakhs).
Our educated middle class and the skilled professionals are overtly aspiring to leave the country for better opportunities, social security and a sense of good life.
India has failed to build even one city of similar caliber and qualifications. Instead, often it is suggested that India has not learned much from Dubai’s experiences.
Restructuring of Indian cities for aesthetic values often appears secondary as for the government, it is imperative to think about its poor population first and later, propose a giant plan to build a global city.
More than thinking about building a better cosmopolitan city of international ranking in India, it's required to evolve and execute a substantive developmental model that reduces urban poverty, provide basic civic amenities to all residents and generate more employment.
Behind the Great Indian Migration
India is blessed with great cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Chennai. However, no city surely fits to suggest that it will attract the international working-class population and impress them to make it their own land.
In contrast, many amongst our educated middle class and the skilled professionals are overtly aspiring to leave the country for better opportunities, social security and a sense of good life available in other countries.
For example, though the UAE imposes restriction on alcohol consumption, dress codes for women in public spaces, public display of intimacy (including ban on homosexuality) and curbs on real estate acquisition for migrants, a large Indian population has made cities like Dubai their second home.
Marvel of the Dubai Economic Model
Dubai emerged as a significant modern and cosmopolitan city only in the last three decades. Early to 1970s, it was seen as a small fishing village in the desert that has almost nothing to attract outsiders. In 1966, Dubai’s fortune suddenly changed as they found oil reservoirs. It was the first boost to emerge on the global map and the political leadership tapped this opportunity in the most calculative manner.
Interestingly, the oil-related economy in Dubai is extremely small today (around 1 per cent of GDP), and there are other economic spheres (like real estate and tourism) where Dubai is doing better than many other developed cities. Dubai has suddenly emerged as the busiest trading port in the Middle East, providing maritime services to major businesses, thus adding another chapter to its growth story.
Dubai has also emerged as a fascinating luxury business hub (with the world’s largest shopping mall) and as an elite tourist destination very recently (with a range of five star hotels). Since the 1990s, Dubai started showcasing its priority in building world-class buildings, swanky towers (like the Burj Khalifa), modern monuments, museums, lakes and superior roadways to attract businesses and tourists. It has now allowed the foreign investors to purchase a lease of 99 years on private properties and made necessary amendments to support business developments by the migrants.
Though there are no provisions for citizenship rights to foreigners, Visa facilities for a longer period (10 years) are increasingly becoming easier. The Indians have profited much from these developments and many have favoured it over many popular European cities for businesses and residence.
Examining such a remarkable growth story, it is often been argued that, India has failed to build even one city of similar caliber and qualifications. Instead, often it is suggested that India has not learned much from Dubai’s experiences in which a small, post-colonial nation with its climate condition, is a disadvantaged region (paucity of water and hot weather), has suddenly bloomed on the global map as one of the top cities.
Though Mumbai, Hyderabad and Delhi can score better than Dubai on many accounts (like individual freedom and democratic institutions) but Indian cities lack the basic infrastructure, proper civic amenities and international capital inflow that is crucial for the rapid development of any world-class city.
Is Urban India Underdeveloped?
The growing quest to have a globally recognised city is important as it shows the country’s dynamism, technological innovation and political will of government. Though on many accounts, the Indian government has showed certain possibilities (like building world-class facilities of good road connectivity) but failed miserably in executing impressive developmental plans in other spheres of public life.
For example, the excessive visibility of poverty in Kolkata, or the air pollution in Delhi or the terrible traffic jams that Bangalore has been experiencing, disallow Indian cities to make a claim for dignified international recognition.
One of the major problems that have often been cited about Indian cities, especially in the case of Mumbai, is the huge population influx that makes the city's governance almost unmanageable. It is also mentioned that a significant majority in Indian cities consist of poor working classes, mostly living in ghettos, jhuggis or shabbily conditioned congested colonies.
There is unavailability of good ‘well-paid’ employment to many and most of them survive on minimal wages or remain unemployed for many days. Further, there is a visible absence of basic civic services (like good health facilities, affordable public transport, quality education for the children and emergency financial support during the crises) that keep the majority of poor population under deep distress and anxiety.
Restructuring of Indian cities for aesthetic values often appears secondary as for the government, it is often imperative to think about its poor population first and later, propose a giant plan to build a global city.
Ironically, the current State has also neglected its foundational responsibilities towards its poor population in the hope to make India a ‘global power’ in mega projects of infrastructural development, road construction, building big monuments (the Statue of Unity in Gujarat) and developing tourist destinations. However, similar consideration and accountability are not shown for the cause of poverty reduction or, in erasing the everyday troubles of the average city-dwellers.
Can India, in Its Aim To Be ‘World-Class’, Ignore Its Poor?
The local or state governments often ignore the presence of the poor working classes. Further, civil society also treats them as a menace, responsible for making the city dirty, polluted and unlivable. Often in the name of beautification, restructuring and urban development, the squatters of the poor are demolished (even during the terrible winter seasons), forced to vacate habitats and even asked to leave the city (as witnessed during the Covid Pandemic). Such deep hatred, negligence and even absence of human sensitivity towards the vulnerable groups, give Indian cities a bad name.
It is high time that the government must think about the holistic development of the cities, keeping in mind the welfare and inclusion of the poor masses in its planning. Though the claim of building ‘ world-class cities’ in India is attractive and shall be followed, the historic conditions in India often disallow the planners to simply mimic the Western developmental model.
More than thinking about building a better cosmopolitan city of international ranking in India, it is required to evolve and execute a substantive developmental model that reduces urban poverty, provide basic civic amenities to all the residents and generate more employment.
It is necessary that the government prioritises its policy implementation towards guaranteeing social security, good primary education and better public infrastructure. Once these claims are fulfilled, the government shall take bold measures towards developing the aesthetics of the city, making it a desirable destination for big business and tourist destinations.
As a significant chunk of urban population is now introduced to global cities like New York, Tokyo, London and Dubai, it is but natural to compare their infrastructure, culture and developmental model with Indian cities.
Here, it is easy to suggest that the Indian State has failed in developing world-class cities. However, such a claim will be half-rational as it ignores many ills that the urban population is contaminated against which the state has not offered a favourable cure. Unless we address our social, cultural and economic problems that have historically burdened our land, any project to complement the Western model of development will be half-successful.
To find a recognisable place as the great cities on the global map, Indian cities must show readiness to reduce the glaring social and economic inequalities between its citizens first and then dream to be part of the superior league of great cities.
(Dr. Harish S Wankhede teaches at Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi. He writes on identity politics, Dalit questions, Hindi cinema and the new media. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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Topics: Urban India Poverty Dubai
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