Irrespective of whether it is rural or urban, the reality is, poverty exists!

Since the story of India’s apocalyptic growth rate and its inclusion in the coveted and prestigious BRIC Report of Goldman Sachs became a daily affair, another issue that became equally regular, is the Great Indian Rural-Urban Divide. Though ironic, there has been reality in this evolving contrast, and much of it also has been substantiated by empirical studies across the nation. It is also true that this divide has not been brought about by default, but more of a manifestation of policy designs. This “intellectually safe and morally right” issue is becoming more ‘passé’, particularly after the Planning Commission stated that poverty is on a decline in rural India and the trend is reversing in the urban areas.

To understand this conundrum, one doesn’t need to have access to the most confidential governmental files. A simple walk around the A-plus category metros of the newly crowned trillion dollar economy would suffice by itself. Whether it is Dharavi of Mumbai, the Jhuggi Jhopdi colonies of Delhi or the miles after miles of slums beside railway tracks in most of the urban centers, all of them stand as perfect metaphors of the evolving crisis. Consider this: an estimated 54% of the population of Mumbai, India’s financial capital, stay in slums. In fact, Kolkata is not very far behind with almost 32.5% of population living in slums, followed by Delhi with 20%; and 18.9% and 17.2% in the case of Chennai and Hyderabad respectively. The most ironical of them is Kolkata; all the more after all the tall claims of the state government’s pro-poor policies, this is the best figure that they could come up with. In fact, according to the 2001 census, the estimated number of slum dwellers in this country has rather staggeringly increased from a level of 27.9 million to 61.8 million in just two decades. Reports also state that in Mumbai alone, an estimated 6.5 million people stay in Dharavi slums in perhaps such conditions that even animals might abhor.

Amidst this brutal reality, the Planning Commission’s claim, which has been taking considerable media space currently, also needs to be scrutinised. Irrespective of the fact whether poverty is largely a rural phenomenon or an urban phenomenon, the reality remains that poverty exists, and that too amongst 200 million plus! That is the primary issue. The claim that the reform process has touched upon the rural poor more than its urban counterparts, is itself questionable. If it were true, then what we observe in the form of Vidharbha and the likes would not have been true.

For most in the rural hinterland who stand perennially starved of any potential opportunities, migrating to cities and towns has been the only option. So, starved for opportunities, the hope of making it big drives flocks of people from rural India to cities like Mumbai and Delhi. These cities can still provide productive engagements to these people, but unfortunately, lack the much needed social and physical infrastructure. On account of myopic, restrictive and Jurassic Age laws like the Urban Land Ceiling Act (ULCA), buildings cannot be made in huge numbers to accommodate them.

Whichever buildings come up (by oiling the government machinery), are anyway so expensive that they remain beyond the reach of the middle class, let alone the poor. As a result, the poor are forced to stay in illegal slums, often devoid of even the bare minimum that people need to survive with dignity. The bigger irony than this is that while the ULCA remains in place, these slums pop up on government land, and stay there, as, due to obvious reasons of vote bank politics, no government dares to demolish these clusters; and yet neither makes them legal. So, in the absence of decent sanitation and other public amenities, there is not just contamination of water and eventual water-borne diseases that take place, but also the accumulation of untreated garbage, which consequently chokes the sewage lines and rivers, and thereby reduces our cities to a cluster of ghettos! It does not require a rocket scientist to figure out the real problem. The first problem lies in the number of cities and major areas of business activities that currently exist in this country. For a country of India’s size and population, we don’t have more than 35 to 40 cities and towns. And almost all the major economic activities of the country are concentrated in these hubs. For the rest of the country, opportunity is at best a chimera! The second problem lies along the falling agricultural income, lack of capital formation and credit infrastructure in rural India.

So, in the given scenario, there is only one workable solution: create hundreds of more economic hubs and cities to check the pressures on the existing ones. At the same time, agriculture will have to be made remunerative through drastic reforms and infusion of capital. If this does not happen, and that too on a war footing, then it would not be long before our existing cities acquire some new meaning altogether and become nauseating museum exhibits for the rest of the world...

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