All great cities, except amchi Mumbai, get better with age
Oct 17 2013
Yet, when you travel abroad to the great cities of the world — London, New York, Paris — they have all got better with age. That makes it worse: it’s not an all-round, beyond our control phenomenon. It’s just us. And then I see the huge mug shots of our politicians on the multiple hoardings that further deface the city, and my heart sinks to a new low. It’s with these thoughts that I attended a lecture on the future of cities by Parag Khanna, organised by the Joint Chambers of Commerce and Mumbai First, with Literature Live! and Avid as partners.
Parag Khanna is a desi-American, which means he looks Indian, but speaks American, in an accent which is genuinely Yankee, and not the laughable put-on American accent of radio jockeys on our FM channels. He goes around the world giving Power Point talks, apparently on most subjects under the sun. As a result, I imagine, he is never short of change. But, I thought to myself with an air of magnanimity, let’s not hold that against him.
As advertised, he spoke about the future of cities and how they would cope and develop in the future. His talk was optimistic, and gave you hope while you listened to him. But later, I saw a central flaw in his arguments, which was that his future scenario relied heavily on technology, while we know that technology cannot influence outcomes directly, or find solutions to problems by itself: it needs the intervention of man, and man (as we know) is highly unreliable.
To give an example, when he talked of the shortage of water that will occur as the population in Third World countries grows rapidly in the future, he held out two scenarios. In one, many rivers and streams would be joined together in scientifically worked-out grids to distribute an optimum supply of water to several points on the route. This sounds feasible till you think of the huge problems we face when talks veer around of sharing of waters. We have seen that in Karnataka, and we have seen even its international ramifications with Bangladesh.
Another solution suggested for the water problem was desalination. This, as we know, has been bandied about as a miracle cure for all problems almost as long as solar power, but neither have taken off because they are either unwieldy or too expensive. No one, in the meantime, does the commonsense thing of reducing the consumption of water, least of all the US, which seems to glory in its wastefulness.
One of the striking images in Parag Khanna’s talk was of a new development in China (where else?) This was an exercise in pure gigantism — they are constructing one massive building housing 30,000 inhabitants, self-sufficient in every respect with offices, malls, schools, cinemas, entertainment centres and even a hospital in the building! You could lead your entire life in that structure with no need to go anywhere else! Is that the Brave New World we are dreaming of? The mind shudders.
Technology is, of course, unstoppable and will roll on relentlessly, and — who knows? — may ultimately make the quality of our life better. But there are so many simple things that can be done which will have an instant impact for the better. Like politicians taking an oath not to put up hoardings. Like everyone learning the rules of driving and observing them with courtesy to others. Like bringing religion and its ceremonies inside the house, and stopping these raucous PDAs for god. Like all of us realising that each of us is not as island; that our actions have multiple reactions, especially when they are selfish ones. Impossible? One can dream on.