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Big cities, small minds

As long as our own lives are not affected, we are prepared to tolerate anything, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Nov 15, 2006 16:32 IST

If you are reading this column in one of the HT’s non-Delhi editions, then a little background may be in order. For much of the last week, parts of the nation’s capital have been paralysed by a traders’ strike against ‘sealing’.

The traders are protesting against a court decision to ask the municipal corporation to seal illegal structures. These include buildings that have come up without permission, illegitimate extensions to existing structures and the conversion of residential premises into commercial property or semi-industrial operations.

At first, the strike was meant to be just that — a downing of shutters. But then, its scope extended to include so-called Gandhian protests, defined here as blocking roads so that children were prevented from coming home from school; and ordinary people were stopped from going to work.

Then, on Wednesday, Gandhi lost out to the goondas. The strike turned violent, property was destroyed, the Metro was forcibly prevented from functioning, buses were stoned and burnt etc.

The Delhi Police did their best to maintain law and order but they were inhibited by the vocal support given to the strike by politicians from all parties. Ram Babu Sharma, the president of the Delhi Congress, declared that his party would “save the traders at all costs”. (Loss of Wednesday’s destruction: Rs 55 lakh. Not cost enough for Ram Babu, clearly.) The local BJP president Harsh Vardhan asked for an amnesty for erring traders. In such a situation, where politicians cheer on the goondas, it is unreasonable to expect the police to do very much to disperse the mobs.

The violence worked. The sealing drive, which was to resume on Thursday, was put off because the Delhi authorities told the Centre and representatives of the courts that “in such a situation, sealing is not possible”.

My guess, judging by the angry public responses on Wednesday as much of the city came to a standstill, is that the traders have overplayed their hand. The violence, the disruption, the arson and the enforced closure of shops have turned public opinion against them. The Ram Babus and the Harsh Vardhans may make their silly little speeches but the people of Delhi have had enough.

My concern this Sunday, however, is not with the specifics of the traders’ strike or with how many illegal sari showrooms flourish in Delhi. It is with the insight that this episode provides into our mentality — and by that I mean the mentality of people like you and me: the wonderful Indian middle class that is now supposed to be the envy of the world.

Whichever way you look at it, the strike, its causes and the responses it evoked, all reiterate the same sad truth: we are a deeply selfish class.

Let’s start with the causes of the strike. Speak to any middle class person who lives in one of India’s great cities (or even our big towns) and you will hear the same litany of woes: the infrastructure is collapsing, our eyes sting from the pollution in the air, the traffic situation is impossible, roads are clogged, officials are corrupt etc etc.

What do you suppose is the main reason for all this?

Basically, it is the unplanned growth of our cities. One reason why Bombay’s infrastructure has collapsed is because neither the drains nor the roads had the capacity to support the concrete jungles of Cuffe Parade and Nariman Point which corrupt politicians sanctioned in the late 1960s.

Delhi is going in exactly the same direction. Municipal officials have been paid off so that small houses in sleepy colonies are transformed into multi-storied apartment blocks, or even, factories and workshops. Naturally, there is no parking, the roads are too narrow, the electricity transformers can’t take the additional load and there isn’t enough water. New shopping complexes sprout up like toxic mushrooms, traffic comes to a standstill and, in some cases, the illegal factories pose a serious threat to the health of the locality’s residents.

You would think that an urban middle class that spent so long complaining about the decline of our cities would vociferously oppose any deviation from the rules and would fight against the offenders to preserve the character of their hometowns.

On the contrary. As long as we can add illegal balconies to our houses, run offices in our basements and let out our garages to small manufacturers, we don’t really give a damn.

The complaints are made in the abstract. The offenders are people we don’t know. As long as we can bend the rules by paying off some official, we are content to hammer one more nail into the coffin of urban India.

There is no better illustration of our selfishness than in our attitude to illegal encroachments by those at the margins of our society: the slum-dwellers.

I am something of a fundamentalist (extremist, even) when it comes to urban planning. Nevertheless, I am deeply saddened by the spectacle of shanties being bulldozed out of existence; of poor people clutching their few pathetic belongings and surveying the wreckage of their homes.

But, as much as all this upsets me, I recognise that the alternative is even worse. We cannot hope to retain any sense of urban planning if people are allowed to construct illegal slum colonies wherever they want. Finally, an encroachment is an encroachment and must be treated as such. It is up to us to be humane in removing the encroachment or in resettling those displaced. But no city in the world can afford to permit the spread of slum encroachment all over its environs.

Most middle class people share my view; they hate slums, they consider them eyesores, they are worried about the security implications (even though they will cheerfully employ domestic help from those very slums) and they treat them as examples of the venality of the political class: the slums survive because they contain voters.

But why is it wrong for poor people to construct illegal structures and perfectly okay for middle class people to do exactly the same thing?

What is the difference between an illegal slum and an illegal sari showroom? Aesthetics, perhaps (though, judging by many sari showrooms these days, I am not even sure of that). But otherwise the arguments are much the same: both are encroachments, both place unacceptable strain on the infrastructure and both destroy any sense of urban planning.

And yet, such is our middle class hypocrisy that the very people who complain about slums and demand that the homes  of the poor be destroyed are content to make crores out of shops  and offices that are just as illegal and illegitimate.

Logic suggests that if there is any sympathy to be directed at encroachers, it should go to the poor slum-dwellers. Instead, nearly all of it goes to the traders, the shopkeepers, the businessmen and the fat cats. And that’s because they are middle class — like us. The marginalised people whose homes we want destroyed, on the other hand, are almost sub-human and worthy of no consideration at all.

And, finally, let’s just examine why the mood in Delhi has suddenly turned against the traders. Nobody  I meet — who is not a trader himself  — seems to have any sympathy for them.

It would be tempting to conclude that this is because we recognise the need to nurture our cities. But, in fact, it has nothing to do with any notion of civic sense.
Our objections are simple enough: we don’t like being inconvenienced. And we don’t like rioters.

If the traders did not have the largely incorruptible courts to contend with, if they had only been dealing with that pathetic bunch of halfwits and crooks who constitute our political class, then they would simply have bought their way out of this mess.

Large ‘donations’ (such a nice word, so much better than ‘bribes’ — don’t you think?) would have been made to both parties and a compromise would have been reached: a few token sealings and then a quiet burial of the process.

If that had happened, I doubt if most of us would have cared too much. We would have let the politicians and traders do their little deals and would have got on with our lives.

The only reason we care now is because we are personally affected. We can’t get to work. Our children are stuck at school. Buses burn in our neighbourhood.  Private clinics are shut. Vegetable prices have hit the roof.

That is yet another measure of middle class selfishness. As long as our own lives are unaffected, we are prepared to tolerate almost anything. It never  occurs to us that our selfishness is short-term and counterproductive. By letting our cities turn into hell-holes, we are destroying the future of our children and their children. By allowing anybody with enough money to pay off politicians and officials to bend the rules, we are creating a society where the rule of law counts for less and less.

How Delhi’s sealing drive proceeds — if it proceeds at all — is a matter for the courts. But our own hypocrisy is a matter that should concern us all.

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