Where do we go?
Earlier this year, I had the rare privilege of being one of the thirty young Indian and Australian leaders chosen to participate in the annual Australia-India Youth Dialogue (AIYD). The short yet intensive programme held in Sydney and Melbourne in February helped forge friendships that I now hold dear. While hanging out with the Aussie members of the alumni, I observed an ongoing, friendly banter between them on which is the better city to live in Down Under. Sydney and Melbourne, have for years, been competing to out rank each other on the list of the 'best cities to live in the world'. Melbourne currently rules the roost. The rest of us from India made feeble attempts to compare Delhi and Mumbai with Bengaluru and Hyderabad, thrown in for good measure. But frankly, there was no comparison. As far as liveability goes, Indian cities are deplorable and the Liveability Index that is being constituted by the Centre will help in, hopefully, amending our urban woes.
So busy have we been in running after the big jobs and helping push forward the country's gross domestic product (GDP), that we seldom take a look at our living conditions. We work hard in order to earn a living but just the phrase, 'earn a living' should get us thinking. Urban infrastructure and living conditions in most of our metros don't match international standards. We are lucky if they match basic hygiene standards for starters. India has recently been ranked at a low 103 out of 130 nations, in the World Economic Forum's Human Capital Report, 2017, highlighting poor infrastructure to impart education and a low quality of high-skilled employees. In 2015, Delhi and Mumbai were ranked 110 and 115 on the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). In March this year, four of our cities (Bengaluru, Chennai, Mumbai and New Delhi) made it to the world's cheapest cities.
First, take a look at housing. While Delhi scores higher in providing bigger sized and well-planned homes for the working class, Mumbai passes off over-priced pigeon coops as flats, while Kolkata has only the newer condominiums with their compact flats on offer. Bengaluru has better accommodation but there are unregulated, outlandish demands for 11 months rent upfront.
Public transport is generally cheap all across India, though given the humid and tropical climate, travel is hardly comfortable. Thanks to the metro and on-demand cab services such as Uber and Ola, there is relative ease for some of us. For the general public though, it is still those overcrowded, non-AC buses, local trains and shared auto rickshaws, where you are vulnerable to being pushed, shoved, pinched, groped etc.
If you are living in Kolkata or any of the southern cities, food is not an issue. Economical yet delicious, safe food is found in the various roadside stalls or tiffin meal houses. In fact, in Chennai or Kochi, it is a more satisfying experience to eat a sumptuous 'thali' in one of the local lunch places than in one of the fine dining restaurants.
Food may be safe but our women are not. Safety of our work force, especially for women, is suspect in north Indian cities. Delhi is infamous for its 'rape capital' tag and it is generally unsafe for women in the rest of the NCR region too. India still has to provide better conditions for women to take up late night jobs.
But most importantly, some of our cities such as Delhi and Gurgaon with their toxic air, Bengaluru with its poisoned lakes, and Mumbai's age-old rainwater management issue doubled with potholed roads, are pushing the liveability index lower. Air pollution in Delhi NCR is no urban legend. In the last two years, Delhi had only two 'good air' days. The rest of the days, we breathed noxious fumes that get worse post-Diwali every year causing serious breathing problems, psychological issues such as depression, dry eyes syndrome, bad hair and skin, among others.
And if all these reasons were not enough, the educated working class, especially migrant labour, has to deal with various societal norms. If you are single, divorced, Muslim, a pet-owner or self-employed, you can forget about getting a house on rent easily. Building associations and landlords across India are making it even more difficult. Some associations in Gurgaon and Noida have barred members of the opposite sex from visiting flats inhabited by bachelors. In Mumbai, Muslims find it tough to find decent digs while in other metros they stick to areas populated by fellow Muslims; Kolkata landlords only want salaried people with transferable jobs, while Chennai is much too conservative. Having pets is one of the most wholesome and stabilising effects, but try reasoning it out with some building associations that bar them.
We are so very far from establishing cities of international standards where the general living conditions of the urban workforce are comfortable, fluid, and open-minded. The day we will be able to get to work and come back home in a safe, efficient, comfortable manner, we should thump our chest and declare that India has finally arrived in the international arena. Till then, let us only talk about the consumption power of the Indian market. For a country with the youngest workforce, with nearly two-thirds of the population below 35 years of age, we are lagging miserably behind in creating quality living conditions devoid of social discrimination. Only then can we truly claim to be a global economic force when every worker will have access to a good standard of living and not just the white expat who earns in dollars and pays in rupees.
(The writer is a journalist and media entrepreneur. The views expressed are strictly personal.)