Strapline: His latest book, The Indian Metropolis, highlights the challenges of urban India and is written over “three tumultuous years”
Feroze Varun Gandhi has been in the news for speaking his mind. And often he has spoken against his party BJP’s stated line or diktat, be it on unemployment or the politics of polarisation. Gandhi’s latest book, The Indian Metropolis, highlighting the challenges of urban India and written over “three tumultuous years”, attempts to stoke a conversation on “humanising our cities”. In a pluralist society, the book talks about an “inclusive, hopeful future”. Sanjay Basak speaks to Feroze Varun Gandhi on his journey to write the book:
Why did it take three “tumultuous” years to write the book?
As the past few years have gone by, the challenges we face living in cities with decrepit infrastructure have gotten worse (seen particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic). The sheer tumult faced by urban migrants during the lockdown was a seminal moment in understanding the lack of humanity and inclusiveness in our urban model. Indians still migrate to cities, but face limited income and irregular work, and are challenged by crime, lack of sanitation and limited options for housing. Their aspirations have been dulled by the effort to move up the social ladder. Understanding this pain and aspirations was a tumultuous experience.
With your writings, you are in a different league of politicians. Have you been duly rewarded for your leadership qualities?
Imbibing this tome’s themes has left me with a greater appreciation for the challenges that our municipal administrators, urban policymakers and leaders face, as they seek to shape our cities. I have travelled far and wide, across a multitude of Indian towns and cities, listening to the ordinary urban Indian’s everyday stories, and admiring the dignity with which they face the daily struggle.
What prompted you to write this book?
As I interacted with thousands of Indians living in our cities and recovering from the pandemic, it became evident that life in our cities was challenging. Policymakers in their ivory towers have seemingly lost connect with the daily grind and are unaware of how our cities are becoming unliveable and expensive. We need a national conversation around such topics.
Are the state governments and the Centre doing enough to make urban areas future ready?
We need a different model of urbanisation — our current one seems to keep existing cities in squalor, while seeking to expand their dysfunction to our villages in the name of urbanisation. We need greater focus on education and healthcare, with a focus on urban poor. We must move away from prioritising large cities – breaking them up into separate units if required, to improve governance
The Covid pandemic triggered reverse migration. Is there a way to reverse this trend?
India has a varied mix of migration patterns — some urban Indian citizens have moved permanently for work and family, others have adopted a seasonal pattern. There needs to be a systemic policy to deal with urban migration. Urban migration is not viewed positively in India, with policies often seeking to reduce rural-to-urban migration. But preventing such migration is often counterproductive. It would be better to have policies and programmes in place to facilitate the integration of such migrants into the local urban fabric, building city plans with a regular migration forecast assumed. Lowering the cost of migration, along with eliminating discrimination against them, while protecting their rights will help raise development across the board.
In the past few Budgets, the Centre’s focus has been on addressing challenges due to rapid urbanisation. Do you think the government has taken adequate measures to address the issue?
Historically, the Indian State has neglected its cities, not recognising their role in driving economic growth. Our cities have been witness to multiple transitions over the last century, with barely any time to recover and adapt. The British creation of three metropolitan port cities, combined with the rollout of the railway network transformed India’s urban landscape, relegating erstwhile prominent Mughal era towns like Surat and Patna into provincial backwaters. The creation of hill stations in northern India and the advent of the plantation economy, along with industrial townships, transformed trading networks. The creation of cantonments and civil line areas, along with railway stations, in our major cities, led to the haphazard growth of our urban areas away from bazars and towards railway terminals. Transforming them into sustainable and organised urban spaces will not be easy.
Urban flooding, water shortage, air pollution, etc., are the new normal for cities and even peri-urban areas. While measures are being taken by government agencies, do you think enough is being done?
A total of 116,000 infants are likely to have been killed by air pollution in India in 2019, almost immediately after being born, with the deaths caused due to the entrance of PM2.5 particles in their lungs. Over the past few decades, India’s track record on climate adaption and mitigation, particularly with respect to urban planning, has been rather dismal. India’s cities are filled with concrete, which turns urban areas into heat sinks. Over time, India’s cities are increasingly losing green cover. Our cities need to incorporate environmental planning, include natural open spaces. Also a there should be plan to protect “blue infra” areas. Most urban stretches of rivers in India are now dead. I look forward to the day when my daughter can swim without health concerns in a river or lake in any Indian city.
Indian cities continue to struggle to fix the urban transport problem. What needs to be done?
Our cities have neglected buses, and instead encouraged private transportation or, in select cases, build a metro line. Beijing has ~30,000 buses for public transport. Delhi’s Transportation Corporation had 3,910 buses in August 2022. Heavy traffic routes should have a bus running every two minutes on dedicated routes. Only then can we incentivise public to shift away from private vehicles.
Affordable housing for urban poor continues to be a challenge. What’s your take on providing affordable housing?
The role of the government in urban housing is that of being a facilitator as well as one involved in created the housing stock. Migration within India is fundamentally cyclical, with migrants moving from rural to urban spaces and back again, depending on seasonality. Our affordable housing initiatives have focused only on permanent migrants to urban areas, while ignoring the millions who move with agricultural seasons. A focus on seasonal migrants would lead to policies to creating low-rental accommodation which are better suited to this population’s transient nature. Our housing schemes need to cater to both segments — permanent job seekers and seasonal migrants.