Indianama

A rough monsoon has left India’s ramshackle cities more decrepit than ever. Get used to it

Prospering cities are swelling at a time of climate change and crumbling urban infrastructure.

My excitement at being on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra for the first time lasted all of two minutes. The great river, I was told, was at its narrowest here in Guwahati, yet the far bank appeared to fade into the far hills. For a minute, my eye ran over two islands dripping with vegetation and the vast volume of water sluggishly rolling by. That’s when I saw the small mountain of garbage, carelessly and indiscriminately dumped outside a rusting fence next to the river. Since I am as fascinated by the detritus of urban civilisation as by natural beauty, I spent another minute gazing at the composition of the trash: plastic, thermacol, rags, rotting food, a dead cat.

A sudden wave of revulsion ended the investigation and my tryst with the Brahmaputra.

Elsewhere in Guwahati, it was hard for my municipally oriented mind – my wife says my true calling is the public works department – to ignore the shattered roads and smelly drains under uneven pavements. Outside my homestay in a neighbourhood called Hatigaon Chariali, there were no pavements, the drains filled with black gunk were frequently uncovered, and intermittent hints of asphalt amid the loose gravel, dust and ditches indicated there was supposed to be a road here.

Regardless, life, as it always does in India, flowed on, accepting and understanding of the chaos.

The chaos has been heightened in urban India this year because of an unusually rough monsoon, which has repeatedly battered cities such as Mumbai, Bangalore, Ahmadabad and Guwahati, leaving them more ramshackle and smellier than usual. Roads have repeatedly turned into rivers, neighbourhoods in low-lying and poorly drained areas have stayed inundated for days, and commuters have spent large parts of their days stranded in traffic stalled by water, trash-choked drains and broken roads. Such infrastructure-challenging days are likely to increase as the effects of climate change and concretisation accelerate, bringing more intense, damaging downpours.

To be sure, India’s urban population has surged, from 109 million in 1971 to 377 million in 2011. Of this 268 million increase over 40 years, more than a third, or 91 million – the combined current population of Germany and Sweden – occurred over a decade from 2001. But this data is now six years old and does not appear to reflect the ever-accelerating pace of urbanisation. Satellite images indicate that half of India may now be living in cities, instead of 31% as Census 2011 showed. Most countries would struggle to prepare cities for more than 650 million people. China has, of course, but it does not allow village folk to live in cities without permits. India, unlike its richer neighbour, does not and cannot stop unfettered migration.

An unusually rough monsoon has left cities such as Ahmadabad more ramshackle than usual. Photo credit: Reuters
An unusually rough monsoon has left cities such as Ahmadabad more ramshackle than usual. Photo credit: Reuters

Worse for wear

Indian cities were not always like this. Consider the 1970s, a time when I was growing up. There is no question that cities were cleaner, greener and better run. Of course there were vast slums, built of sackcloth and stick and, in many ways, more miserable than those of today. But large swathes of primary cities had a sylvan, clean core, and you could argue that a (smaller) middle class had a better quality of life. Today’s cities have become engines of growth and improved material prospects for many more millions of Indians – the proportion of city dwellers living in slums has fallen by half since 1991 – but the quality of life has, in many ways, plummeted. Half of the world’s top 20 polluted cities, for instance, are in India.

The effects of this tide of humanity migrating to cities are made worse by a simultaneous crumbling of urban administrative authority. Cities without strong power centres and accountability can no longer cope with exponential growth. Prosperity has made cities richer but it has increased opportunities for corruption, or – as academics like to call it – rent-seeking. Very little gets done without multiple levels of authority charging rent, which comes from their share of a city’s budget. Prime Minister Narendra Modi may boast of reducing corruption, but he’s referring to only the corridors of his ministries. In the cities beyond, roads are not built, garbage is not collected and crimes are not investigated without payoffs. A reasonably dedicated, professionally qualified core of engineers, planners and administrators has given way to venal, ill-prepared replacements who place their interests above the cities they serve.

New authorities have come into being, each reluctant to cooperate with the other. In Bangalore, commuters risk life and limb trying to change over from new metro stations to older railway stations: linking bridges or pavements are not being built because metro, railway and civic officials squabble and spend their time communicating through letters. Many flyovers have been hanging in mid-air for years because contracts were handed out and payments made without land being made available for flyovers to made landfall. In Mumbai, a spanking new monorail isn’t used because its stations are in the middle of nowhere and do not connect to other means of transport; a new monorail line took so long to build that the Malaysian company making its trains discontinued the production line, which is now being upgraded while Mumbai waits. Road-building contracts are repeatedly given to so-called blacklisted companies. In Delhi, as a garbage mountain ravages the lives of those who live around it – collapsing once in a trash avalanche that swept away vehicles and shanties and killed people – a web of feuding authorities controlled by central and state governments fail to launch the only long-term solution possible: garbage segregation. Some smaller and traditionally better-run cities, such as Mysore and Chandigarh, are better at garbage collection and general order, but they too are fraying at the seams. Every city is being denuded of its trees because there exists no plan or coordinating authority for roads, metros, flyovers and parks, for each city. From Shillong to Ahmedabad, from Srinagar to Rameshwaram, the urban governance crisis is visible and worsening.

Mumbai's new monorail isn’t used because its stations are in the middle of nowhere and do not connect to other means of transport. Photo credit: AFP
Mumbai's new monorail isn’t used because its stations are in the middle of nowhere and do not connect to other means of transport. Photo credit: AFP

In for hard times

Do not expect a political solution. Indeed, as many experts have pointed out, politics is at the heart of India’s inability to create empowered, directly elected leaders and power centres responsible for taking charge of cities. Every city has a mayor, but he or she has no real powers, which are vested in a set of bureaucrats running various departments. Many of these officials are earnest and honest, but lone rangers cannot ensure metropolitan transformation. Big-ticket plans and budgets are controlled by state politicians, usually elected from the hinterland and with no interest in individual cities. In many emerging and advanced countries, mayors make their careers by transforming cities; in India, they make their money, cut a ribbon or two and fade into oblivion.

Urban reform is one of India’s greatest political and administrative challenges. To dismantle corrupt interest groups will not be easy, as Bangalore’s inability to deposit salaries directly into the bank accounts of its street sweepers has shown. A cabal of garbage contractors – who hire the sweepers, keep a host of ghost sweepers on their rolls and take a cut in the salaries – has successfully stalled reform, stopping trash collection every time the municipality attempts direct cash payments. The sweepers are cheated, as is a city that has gone from being known as a garden city to a garbage city. The bad news: India’s cities are likely to worsen. The good news: There is none.

Samar Halarnkar is the editor of IndiaSpend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.