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Escaping Coketown

The west reeled for centuries from the aftermath of indiscriminate industrialisation following the dictates of wealth over health and well-being. We haven't learnt from it.

Escaping Coketown
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The west reeled for centuries from the aftermath of indiscriminate industrialisation following the dictates of wealth over health and wellbeing. The consequences were that urbanisation increased in almost direct proportion to industrialisation, as Lewis Mumford, in The Culture of Cities records: "Between 1820 and 1900 the chaos of the great cities is like that of a battlefield… In the new provinces of city building, one must now keep ones eyes on the bankers and the industrialists and the mechanical inventors. They were responsible for most of what was good and almost all that was bad... they created a new type of city: that which Dickens, in Hard Times, called Coketown. In a greater or a lesser degree, every city in the Western World was stamped with the characteristics of Coketown."

"This childish belief in the industrialist as the divinely appointed agent of a Higher Power", Mumford notes further, "prepared the way for the complete un-building of the city." There was no limit to the chaotic urban proliferation since all established standards of tradition, order, decency and aesthetics broke down, and the sole controlling agent was ‘profit’.

The lessons of the disastrous consequences of rampant industrialisation are well documented in the centuries since the beginnings of the industrial town. Yet the industrialising countries of the Third World have followed the same path of regressive urbanisation and the ‘Coketowns’ of the West visit almost all cities of the Third World with their anarchic prosperity, smoky industrial pigeon-holes and massive clusters of slums.

Commenting on the sale of Mill land in Mumbai, a national Daily observed: "In a market economy, there can be no development, even or especially for the poor or those deprived of fresh air, if the market is not allowed to function." True words these, but where in any of the industrial cities of India do the poor or those deprived of fresh air have any kind of access to a semblance of healthful living? Will the men who once worked in the now-defunct mills have such access? Mumbai was once, and Delhi is today, a thriving city where the phenomenal wealth of the city is directly proportionate to its growing slums.

The nature and constitution of our industrial cities and towns is stuck in a time warp of, not decades, but centuries. Their growth has not been organic and organised but haphazard and confused, subject to rampant corruption and the dictates of the land mafia. More often than not, these create and produce severe environmental dangers that hold not only urban populations to ransom but entire regions of virgin forest and other ecologically sensitive areas that are scarred and irreparably destroyed. The Bhopal Gas tragedy - to which over 22,000 deaths were ‘directly attributable’ - is one horrific example of what unregulated industry can do, and its massive power of destruction. Factories and industries across the country continue to discharge effluents and noxious gases untreated into the environment, and hazardous industries continue to exist cheek-by-jowl with overcrowded residential areas and slums in innumerable towns.

Since Independence, the government has promoted the labour intensive small-scale industries to help with job creation and encourage decentralised industrial development. These industries account for 40 percent of all industrial production, 35 percent of the total exports and employ almost 17 million people in 3.2 million units. The resultant clustering of these industries leads to serious environmental problems. One small example can be found in the clusters of textile dyeing industries that have led to severe problems for towns situated on small rivers like Pali, Balotra, and Jodphur in Rajasthan, Jetpur in Gujarat and Tiruppur in Tamil Nadu.

In larger cities, polluting industries are required to be located in designated areas, but this is seldom implemented. For years, administrations turn a blind eye to illegal units, ignoring appalling working and living conditions. In Delhi, thousands of such units flourished for decades, and in large parts of the city, residences, industrial smelters and sweatshops melded into an indistinguishable mass, chunks of putrefying hell on earth. Suddenly, overnight, in year 2000, the Supreme Court ordered the closure and removal of thousands of polluting units. In a natural historical cycle, cities continually grow and purge themselves of all offending contaminators without such wrenching anguish, but in Delhi, at one fell swoop, 138,000 workers and their families were displaced, with no provision for housing or other facilities in areas where these industries were relocated.

Unfortunately, the zeal to develop the industrial sector is not backed with a comparable zeal to develop orderly cities. "When you know how to build cities and to rule them," said John Ruskin, "you will be able to breathe in their streets, and the ‘excursion’ will be the afternoon’s walk or game in the fields round them".

But administrations and city municipalities in India certainly do not know how to build cities, let alone how to rule them. Industrial townships set up by corporate entities and business houses, in some cases, however, have done somewhat better. One of the best of these was set up by that great pioneer Jamshetji Tata. Today, Jamshedpur is the outcome of the compassionate and far thinking vision of that one man. Inspired by the ideas of the great planner Robert Owen and his plans for industrial townships built as ‘garden cities’, Jamshetji, who passed away before the town completed, had already set the guiding principles that would shape the city.

In a letter to his son, Dorab, in 1902 he wrote, "Be sure to lay wide streets planted with shady trees, every other of a quick- growing variety. Be sure that there is plenty of space for lawns and gardens. Reserve large areas for football, hockey and parks. Earmark areas for Hindu temples, Mohammedan mosques, and Christian churches."

Today, Jamshedpur is among the greenest of India’s cities, with a 75 percent literacy rate that is unparalleled in eastern India. The water is of such high quality that it is one of the few Indian cities where one can drink directly from the tap. Each year, Tata Steel arranges for the cleaning up of over 120,000 tonnes of garbage, spends Rs. 25 crore on the Tata Main Hospital which takes care of employees and the general public, and expends Rs. 139 crore on the upkeep of the city.

The story of Jamshedpur is heartening, but behind the-well intentioned altruism is another dark secret of industrial development. Set up in the tribal heartland, the success of the township would have come at some cost for the tribal inhabitants of the area.

That is the other face, the flip side of large-scale industries that make inroads into virgin territories, and that provide little benefit to the original inhabitants and the natural habitat. Today, the ecologically sensitive habitat of the Sunderbans, a ‘world heritage site’ and home to the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve, is being threatened by a ‘five star mega tourism project’. The Rs. 500 crore-plus Sunderbans Tourism Project is part of Sahara India’s tourism circuit in West Bengal, and is intended to "develop five virgin islands in the 36,000 square kilometres of water area in the Sunderbans." Similar stories are being repeated with mega projects in, among others, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and that ethereal land of mists, Arunachal Pradesh.

‘Market forces’ must be allowed to function unhindered and development must make inroads into all parts of the country. But when the two run unchecked and bound by no semblance of rule of law, we set in motion a pattern of development that took the West centuries to recover from, harkening back to a model of industrialisation that the West has long turned its back on.

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