Library of India

Looking in vain for Urdu in New Delhi’s world of books

How long can a literature survive if there is neither fresh blood nor publisher enthusiasm?

When I visited New Delhi in February to attend the World Book Fair as part of the Singapore Delegation, one of the things I was looking forward to was to explore Urdu and Hindi literature – something that I missed in Singapore. Although Singapore’s libraries are well-stocked with English language books, as well as books in Chinese, Tamil and Malay, they don’t have Hindi and Urdu literary works.

As I have grown up reading both Urdu and Hindi, I often yearned to read literature in these two languages in my adopted homeland. And hence my curiosity to discover some new gems in Hindi and Urdu literature during my trip to India.

A meagre display

As Singapore was the guest of honour country at this year’s NDWBF, our pavilion had been given a central location in the foreign publishers’ hall. We were surrounded by the pavilions of Korea, Iran, Indonesia, China, France, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Poland and some other countries. Interestingly, there were three booksellers from Pakistan too who had set up shop in the same hall. I was happy to spot them and started looking at their ware even before they could set up their stalls properly.

Among the three Pakistani booksellers, one had displayed more literary stuff than the other two – works by Mumtaz Mufti, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, books on Allama Iqbal and his poetry and so on. The other two stalls had plenty of Islamic literature on display – commentaries on the Holy Quran and biographies of Muslim caliphs and warriors. Looking at their displayed literature, I got the impression that Urdu was doing fine in Pakistan. A lot was available beyond your typical Ghalib and Iqbal.

However, when I looked for publishers of Urdu and Hindi literary books in India, I found them in a distant corner of the fair. I was glad to see sprawling pavilions set up by some of the leading Hindi publishers (Vani Prakashan, Bhartiya Gyanpeeth, Rajkamal, etc). The National Book Trust and Publications Division (both run by the government) too had plenty of books in Hindi. At least in terms of space, they seemed to be competing with leading English language publishers such as Penguin Random House, Hachette, and Rupa, among others. There were also plenty of discussions and book launches organised by Hindi publishers.

But my heart sank when I saw the pathetic condition of Urdu booksellers. Their small kiosks, in stark contrast to what even the Hindiwallas had to show, stuck out like lacklustre paan shops in an otherwise five star environment. One or two organisations – supported by government funded bodies – had slightly bigger stalls, but they were too were selling only 19th and 20th century Urdu literature (books on or by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Hali, Ghalib, Maulana Azad, etc).

In search of new writing

Where was the new work by Urdu writers? Looking at, and through, these stalls, one could clearly sense that Urdu literature is dying in India –  the slow and painful death of a sweet language that claimed its birth in this great country called India.

I spoke to one of the booksellers from Daryaganj who was sitting on a stool with a shelf of books behind him. He had some relatively new literature from Pakistan. How did he publish those books in India, I asked him. Did he have the rights?

He answered, and I appreciate his honesty, that there was no problem (yes, he used the word ‘problem’) between India and Pakistan as far as copyright was concerned. He also made the claim that he supplied books to Urdu readers all over the world.

I was hunting for works by Indian Urdu writers, or, at least, writers who wrote in Urdu. For example, I was looking for Urdu novels by Shamsur Rehman Farooqui. Alas, I did not find them in the Urdu book stalls. I found the English and Hindi translations of his novels in the Penguin Hindi and Penguin Random House stalls.

Hindi film industry veterans Gulzar and Javed Akahtar’s books could only be seen in the lush pavilions of Rupa and other big English language publishers. And the latest collection of poetry by Bollywood lyricist Irshad Kamil, which was released during the Book Fair, was not to be found in an Urdu book stall. Rather, it was proudly displayed by a Hindi publisher in their sprawling pavilion.

I bought some dust-laden and moth eaten Urdu books from the Publications Division and NBT. These were books printed 20 or 30 years ago, and the publishers had not bothered to print anything new. I bought them as mementos – a biography of Tagore, a treatise on India’s secularism by Dr Rajendra Prasad, and a Ramayana for children in Urdu.

The only book of Urdu poetry that I bought for a friend was a collection of poems by Ali Sardar Jafri – a book in Devnagri, published by Bharatiya Gyan Peeth. I also bought a few Hindi novels for a friend and for my own consumption.

Can a literature thrive on performance?

To be fair, the Book Fair did organise an Urdu mushaira (a poetic soiree). And I was intrigued by this. Mushairas and Kavi Sammelans have been flourishing in India, and abroad (Urdu and Hindi poets, just like their gahazal singing and musician brethren, regularly travel out to rich first world countries to entertain the Indian and Pakistani diaspora). Then why was it that I could not see the new works of contemporary Urdu poets in the book fair? What was going on, I asked a part-time poet friend over coffee.

He reasoned that there was no money in, and hence no motivation, for publishing Urdu poetry books or anthologies. The money was in mushairas, which helped poets put food on their families’ table.  A decent poet would get anything between Rs 20,000 and Rs 30,000 for a night’s performance, my friend said. If a poet manages to get three to four gigs a month, he can earn a decent income for himself.

Some Urdu and Hindi poets who are in high demand can fetch much higher remunerations. For example, Hindi poet Kumar Vishwas (who is also a member of Delhi’s ruling Aam Admi Party) gets a couple of lakhs for his performances.

While I understood the economics of mushairas, I am not convinced that mushairas alone could keep a literature alive. The printed word has to be there. New work has to be written, published and critiqued. While a few good men in India such as the Farooqis (novelists and writers, and also the force behind the Dastaangoi movement) and Sanjiv Saraf (the man behind the fantastic rekhta.org) are trying their best to keep the train of Urdu chugging in India, I can see the dead end coming.

At the Book Fair, I gathered the sense that the future of Urdu literature in India is bleak. It might survive as a branch of Hindi – Urdu appearing in Devnagri, like the treatment Jafri’s book has received. And as long as there are madrasas in India, there will be religious publications in Urdu. Similarly, departments of Urdu in colleges and universities will keep churning out PhDs in Urdu. But how long can a literature survive if it is denied the fresh blood of new talent?

Hindi and Urdu are sister languages and both could enrich India so much. However, if the Indian elite had thought that Hindi would slowly replace Urdu, then Urdu has taken its revenge: it is English, and not Hindi, that is having the last laugh in India. And no matter what the likes of Bhalchandra Nemades say, we will have to live with this post-colonial irony.

Zafar Anjum is a Singapore-based journalist and writer. He is the author of many books, the most recently of Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician (Random House), and Startup Capitals: Discovering the Hotspots of Global Innovation (Random House).

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

We need solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders.

According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

Any comprehensive solution to address the water problem in urban India needs to take into account the specific challenges around water management and distribution:

Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

Addressing these challenges and improving access to clean water for all needs a combination of short-term and medium-term solutions. It also means involving the community and various stakeholders in implementing the solutions. This is the crux of the recommendations put forth by BASF.

The proposed solutions, based on a study of water issues in cities such as Mumbai, take into account different aspects of water management and distribution. Backed by a close understanding of the cost implications, they can make a difference in tackling urban water challenges. These solutions include:

Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

Also, alternative rain water harvesting methods such as harvesting rain water from concrete surfaces using porous concrete can be used to supplement roof-top rain water harvesting, to help replenish ground water.

Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimise the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

Testing and purification: With water contamination being a big challenge, the adoption of affordable and reliable multi-household water filter systems which are electricity free and easy to use can help, to some extent, access to safe drinking water at a domestic level. Also, the use of household water testing kits and the installation of water quality sensors on pipes, that send out alerts on water contamination, can create awareness of water contamination and drive suitable preventive steps.

Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem. For example, measures such as water credits can be introduced with tax benefits as incentives for efficient use and recycling of water. Similarly, government water apps, like that of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, can be used to spread tips on water saving, report leakage or send updates on water quality.

Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

For BASF, the proposed solutions are an extension of their close engagement with developing water management and water treatment solutions. The products developed specially for waste and drinking water treatment, such as Zetag® ULTRA and Magnafloc® LT, focus on ensuring sustainability, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the water and sludge treatment process.

BASF is also associated with operations of Reliance Industries’ desalination plant at Jamnagar in Gujarat.The thermal plant is designed to deliver up to 170,000 cubic meters of processed water per day. The use of inge® ultrafiltration technologies allows a continuous delivery of pre-filtered water at a consistent high-quality level, while the dosage of the Sokalan® PM 15 I protects the desalination plant from scaling. This combination of BASF’s expertise minimises the energy footprint of the plant and secures water supply independent of the seasonal fluctuations. To know more about BASF’s range of sustainable solutions and innovative chemical products for the water industry, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.