Just the way Trump uses the Mexican border wall to deflect from America’s problems, India finds cover in building religious and political symbols.
After the Statue of Unity and the Kasi Vishwanath development, construction of the Char Dham highways and the Shivaji statue is in progress.
Following the recent inauguration of the Ram Mandir project, the next big deflection is the new Parliament, hastily pushed through environmental and land-use clearances, and already awarded to a building firm with a 21-month construction deadline. The combined budget for all these projects stands at a whopping Rs 650,000 crore (Compare this to the combined annual budget for the country’s most essential services of health, education and housing at Rs 230,000 crore).
This is only the tip of the financial iceberg. Vast sums are being spent on expensive western-type infrastructure, without any visible improvement in people’s lives. The Rs 600 billion Golden Quadrilateral connects the four largest Indian cities with high-speed 6-lane highways. Rail expansion is also underway. Manufacturing hubs and industrial zones continue to be established in ecologically sensitive areas in Himachal and the Northeast. Is this a relevant version of development? Is heavy industrialisation, the kind seen in 19th-century Europe and road building, like early 20th-century America’s, the right image for 21st-century India?
Obviously to propose no construction in a country that has an inexhaustible demand for housing, schools and roads, is a perverse sort of contradiction. But just look at recent infrastructure history and its destructive scope. A third of new residential construction in most cities today remains unoccupied. Six-lane highways have been completed between Delhi and surrounding cities in Rajasthan, UP and Haryana. The Delhi Metro is expanding to include smaller satellite towns like Sonipat, Palwal and Alwar; soon 40-50 kilometre distances will be traversed easily. Such travel conveniences not only enlarge the environmental footprint but produce the shortsighted view that any and all connections are worth the construction expenditure. At a time when the pandemic has already imposed severe restrictions on movement, enhancing localised forms of home and work life would make much more sense.
What does excessive infrastructure, invasive and continual construction do to natural systems? Extensive concrete bridge constructions in Bihar and the Northeast, banal new state capitals with endless housing in Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh, eroded hills and landslides in Uttarakhand, tunnels and viaducts in Himachal and Kashmir, all continue to alter nature in the most cataclysmic way. When infrastructure itself becomes a form of desecration shouldn’t we naturally build less?
Polluted rivers, reduced tree cover, rising dust levels, overheated concrete cities, and a marked reduction of agricultural and forest land-mass, physically and visually, India is today one of the most degraded places on earth. Sure, there are enough pollution, health and livability indices as proof, but you merely have to look across the border into Pakistan to see a more conservative view of building, and to neighbouring Bhutan for a similar attitude to landscape. But where daily demands are raised by economists, bureaucrats and politicians related to how much we lack in public housing, roads, factories and institutions. As the backlog increases, we need more, more, more… Could the answer lie in creating more imaginative types of infrastructure and a less destructive development model?
Obviously, the limited resources of land will be strained if they are overtaken by corridor cities, endless concrete highways, and expanding metro lines. The real question then becomes how we can progress without excessive construction. In the long term, what would be the effect of increasing truck and car traffic between cities? Can we afford to have twelve people live in a single room, and two in a 12-acre farmhouse? Does expensive marble achieve more in a hotel lobby than if it remains in the quarry? What is the value of replacing a 900-seat Parliament House with a 1,300-seat parliament at Rs 20,000 crore, even when it has been reliably demonstrated that the increased capacity can be accommodated in a renovation of the old structure? As a genuine experiment of conservation, can we try to house our population in our existing stock of buildings instead of constructing more cement structures into the countryside? The answers lie in building differently, and building less.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.