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Archive for the ‘Infrastructure’ Category

Just last week, McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) published a seminal report on the future of India’s urbanization.  Some numbers they’ve calculated are totally staggering: for instance, did you know that by 2030, 590 million people will be living in India’s cities?  That’s twice the population of the United States today!  And did you know that to help these 590 million people get around, 7,400 kilometers of metros/subways will need to be constructed?!

After reading the exec summary, all I could think was how India certainly has her work cut out for her.  MGI paints a fairly grim picture of India’s cities today (e.g., citizens have access to 105 liters of water when they should have 150, only 30% of sewage is treated) and claims that in order to reverse the “urban gridlock and decay,” the country needs to invest $1.2 trillion in capital expenditure by 2030.

$1.2 trillion!  I feel like Dr. Evil wouldn’t even know what to do with that kind of money.

MGI, however, has a few tips on how to proceed.  Specifically, they believe that India should concentrate its resources – monetary and otherwise – on five areas to be successful:

  • Funding: How can India pull these resources together?  (MGI suggests monetizing land assets, collecting higher property taxes, and forming strategic public-private partnerships… in conjunction with “formula-based government funding”)
  • Governance: Who is the least corrupt group of people to manage this mammoth task?  (MGI suggests that India needs “empowered mayors with long tenures and clear accountability for the city’s performance,” along with building functional metropolitan authorities)
  • Planning: How can India develop the opposite of the existing sab chalta hai, everything goes, attitude towards city planning? (MGI believes that a “cascaded” planning structure, focused on public transportation and affordable housing, can help India save >6 million hectares of arable land)
  • Sectoral policies: How can India create sustainable policies for affordable housing, climate change mitigation, job creation, and public transport?  (MGI concentrates on affordable housing, and says that in order to get it up to par, India needs to increase housing stock through a combination of incentives and subsidies)
  • Shape: How should the country’ population be distributed for maximum benefit? (MGI suggests that India invest in its Tier 1 cities and large Tier 2 cities, while ensuring that services in smaller cities are brought to a “basic standard”)

Can India do all of this?  Can it muster the finances, the political will, and execution muscle to make this happen?  MGI gives the country some lofty goals, but is optimistic that with strong backing from the central government, it can achieve many of them.

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Photo credit - Newsweek

Photo credit - Newsweek

“OMG, isn’t it, like, so disturbing to see all those beggars in India, with their disfigured limbs and stuff?”

You won’t believe how many times I’ve been asked that question. The sad part is that after living here for so long, it’s actually not that disturbing. It’s part of life. Regardless of how one may choose to respond (pay up, ignore, recoil, stare-but-try-not-to-stare), beggars have broadly been accepted as part of India’s daily urban fabric. Which is saying a lot, considering how this group includes children with severe malnutrition, men with missing limbs, broad-shouldered hermaphrodites, women carrying under-bathed infants, mentally retarded adolescents, and blind elderly couples. In certain societies, some of these guys may have a shot at joining a sickly voyeuristic circus; here, many have almost been normalized.

Despite India’s ability to absorb most “unusual” individuals, there is one sub-group that will probably always be shunned: the manual sewer workers. This sub-class of Dalits, known as balmikis, is forever destined to live on society’s extreme fringes. Unlike their brethren in the developed world, who are often provided bunny suits and respiratory gear before entering serpentine manholes, these Dalit sanitation workers usually enter with little more than a loincloth and a split bamboo stick. Upon entering the antiquated sewer pipes, they literally swim through pounds of liquefied feces to clear any blockages, all the while taking care to not touch the cockroach-laden walls. They continually breathe the offensive smell of human excreta, along with her toxic first cousins, Methane and Hydrogen sulfide. When they come up for air, they sometimes bruise themselves on the manhole’s rim, dizzy from the gases.

Within India’s silently strict social hierarchy, these Dalits are the untouchabliest untouchables. Even other so-called “untouchables” won’t go near these guys. (more…)

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The Mumbai Suburban Railway. Mumbai’s arteries, veins, and capillaries rolled into one functional hunk of steel. Even after living in this bulging metropolis for so long, I am continually amazed by the efficiency of its semi-antiquated local rail network. This is not a network built to help, say, a quaint German hamlet go about its daily business. This is a network that carries upwards of 10 million bodies – approximately 60% of Mumbai’s population – up and down its slender archipelagic body on a daily basis. Her compartments (yes, Mumbai’s train system is feminine in my eyes) do not try to please the occasional tourist’s camera lens; they are designed to take space efficiency to the next level. Similarly, the majority of her stations are not aesthetically pleasing in any conventional sense; rather, they are giant containers through which daily passengers… well, pass. But then again, what do you expect from a train whose body parts are called dabbas, or “boxes,” in Hindi? (more…)

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