Paradox city

The glaring contrast in lifestyles between the rich and poor in India’s cities is becoming as striking as its urban-rural divide. According to a report commissioned by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and the UNDP, over 54 per cent of Mumbai’s population lives in slums ie one in every two persons is living with little access to clean drinking water or sanitation. The poor are living in extremely congested conditions. Slum residents while accounting for 54 per cent of Mumbai’s population live on just six per cent of all its land. With a per capita income of Rs 65,361, it is India’s richest city. But the picture is far from pretty if one goes into details. Around 10 per cent of its population earns less than Rs 20 a day. India’s ‘Maximum City,’ which boasts of the largest number of billionaires in the country, also suffers maximum poverty. This might be the ‘city of dreams’ for some but to millions living in the utter squalor of its slums, life is more than a nightmare.

It is unfortunate that India’s approach to slums has been coloured by the perception of them as eyesores. This has led to emphasis on slum clearance. The aim has been to get rid of slums, not by improving their amenities but by demolishing hutments and driving slum dwellers out of the city. Slum clearance has aimed at making our cities pretty by moving slums out of our line of vision rather than tackling urban poverty and improving lives and livelihoods of people living there. And politicians have added to the woes of slum dwellers. They have treated slums as vote-banks and divided slum dwellers along communal and caste lines to build support there. In the process, they have turned slums into zones of violent urban conflict.

Mumbai has witnessed several riots in recent decades. Several of these erupted in slums but quickly spread across the city. There is a danger of Mumbai’s rich-poor divide exploding in far more violent conflict in the years to come. This is not a problem restricted to Mumbai alone. The economic divide in cities like New Delhi and Bangalore is just as serious. It has the potential of triggering conflict between locals and ‘outsiders’, among linguistic groups and religious communities. The figures in the BMC-UNDP report provide pointers to the future. They must be acted upon immediately.

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