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MANY years back, architect and social activist Jai Sen grabbed attention with a thought provoking essay, ‘The Unintended City’ (Seminar 200, April 1976). Though focused on Calcutta, Sen’s essay disrupted the then dominant conceptions about the city, arguing that unlike western cities which stand in sharp disjunction from the countryside – in their occupational profile, social mores and values, modes of generating wealth, consumption patterns – our cities represent more of a continuum, the village seeping into the city. A few years later this was followed by a study on hand-pulled rickshaws in Calcutta, making a strong case for reconsidering the policy of their proposed illegalization and forced phasing out.

It did not seem to matter that hand-pulled rickshaws not only employed well over 100,000 people, moved close to a quarter of all goods within the city as also a large number of people, particularly in the less well-off, older and congested parts of Calcutta, much of it not accessible to motorized transport, more so in the monsoons. Nor that despite many decades of effort by city authorities to freeze the number of licensed hand-pulled rickshaws and issue no fresh licenses, the number of vehicles, far from slowly disappearing, had grown manifold. Yet, instead of seriously examining the phenomenon and then evolving workable policy options, the city elite – politicians, bureaucrats, and opinion makers – in a search for improving the city’s image seemed obdurate on rooting out what they felt was a pernicious and offensive mediaeval practice of man pulling man.

Four decades on, despite – much more detailed research on our urban spaces, and multiple programmes to usher in urban renewal and improvement, little seems to have changed, either in the way we think about city spaces and inhabitants or our choice of policies for infrastructure, transport, living and working. In Delhi, for instance, there is little knowledge, and even less appreciation, of the vast numbers, constituting well over half the population, who live in unauthorized settlements – and what they need for a more dignified and secure existence. If, at all, the real desire (though rarely publicly articulated) of the elite denizens seems to be for their less fortunate compatriots, many of them migrants in search of a better life, to be available as labour and subsequently stay out of sight.

Like in Calcutta (now Kolkata), despite years of research and advocacy by various groups ranging from Manushi to The Institute for Democracy and Sustainability (IDAS) which has recently produced a remarkable set of booklets on cycle-rickshaws and urban transport, the policies governing the licensing and operation of non-motorized vehicles still await finalization. Even the current concern about dangerously high levels of urban pollution, ostensibly because of the large number of polluting vehicles and industry and its implication for the health of citizens, has failed to soften the deep disdain for what are seen as ‘anti-diluvian’ technologies and practices. Sustaining ambiguity about the status of these vehicles and the areas they can legally operate in, creates a vast shadow market in which civic officials and policemen can arbitrarily harass the rickshaw puller and extract hafta.

In contrast, all proposals to limit and regulate the use of motorized vehicles, particularly private cars – be it through higher taxation, increased parking rates, penal charging for ‘unauthorized’ parking on pavements, declaring specified areas as car free zones, and so on – generate howls of protest. Consequently, we have no earmarked lanes for cycles and even hesitant attempts at increasing road space for buses (viz. the BRT corridor) meets stiff resistance.

One may have through that an extension and a deepening of democratic politics, particularly after the 74th Constitutional Amendment wherein competing parties have to vie for winning the approval of the majority, would moderate the blatant elitist bias of our urban policies – on housing, transport, water supply and drainage. Equally, that there would be greater understanding of if not sympathy for the survival activities of the working poor – as informal labour, street vendors and hawkers, rickshaw pullers and so on. Unfortunately not.

And while politicians, particularly at times of elections, invariably promise cheaper, if not free, civic services – water, electricity, transport – and a legalization of their unauthorized settlements, these promises are soon forgotten, only to be repeated in the next round. Evidently, continuing subsidy to targeted sections, despite the higher fiscal burden it entails, appears more politically acceptable than policies that might undermine the ‘patronage and bribe system’ that weighs down the poor. Resolving the genuine conflicts between competing demands of different strata requires going beyond smart slogans of smart cities. How prepared we are for the needed politics is, however, uncertain.

Harsh Sethi