India's Crumbling Cities
Image Credit: Axel Boldt

India's Crumbling Cities


One of the best things about Kahaani – the Hindi thriller that’s doing spectacularly well at the box office these days – is the way the bustling metropolis of Kolkata (once Calcutta) has been captured.

Cinematographer Setu has filmed the city in all its manic glory – people-filled streets, the grime of a city that has seen better days, and the sudden and unexpected beauty of a well-lit Howrah Bridge, an iconic Kolkata landmark, in the evening. That the movie is set over the span of a week or so during the Durga Puja festivals, the biggest festival of the Bengalis, just amplifies the sights and sounds in the movie.

Yet, while watching the movie – transfixed as I was by the smart storytelling and tight plot – I couldn’t help but think that the while the cinematographer deserves praise for his excellent work, India has generally failed when it comes to the look of our cities today.

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Beyond romanticizing the “soulfulness” of a crumbling, but spirited city, the failure in administration of our urban areas is almost criminal. Kolkata isn’t alone. Barring Delhi and Hyderabad, where there have been tangible infrastructure enhancements, our other big cities – especially Bengaluru and Mumbai – are falling apart before our eyes.

In December 2005, India launched the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), the largest national urban initiative to encourage reforms, and it fast tracked plans for the development of 63 identified cities. As the JNNURM report stated, according to the 2001 census, India had a population of 1.03 billion, with approximately 28 percent of those people living in urban areas. By 2011, an estimated 65 percent of India’s gross domestic product was coming from urban areas, and by 2021, more than 40 percent of the total population of the country is expected to reside in urban centers.

As that happens, our cities need to be braced and prepared to handle this influx. If Kahaani’s realistic portrayal of Kolkata is a snapshot of what one of our biggest cities looks like, our preparedness seems less than satisfactory.

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