Urban disasters, unseen but lethal, are lurking in all corners. The tragedy at Elphinstone Road that snuffed out 22 lives is a tragic reminder of the every day risks that city-goers have to confront with.  Our creaking city infrastructures are simply unable to bear any more human load.

Let’s look at some numbers to add some perspective. 30%, 400 million of the national population currently lives in urban areas. This is slated to reach 50%, 850 million people during the next 30 years.  Millions in search of jobs and a better life are the key magnets for the ugly and unsustainable urban transformation.  This influx, in turn, is creating a massive burden on our cities.

Closer home, in our very own state of Uttarakhand, the situation is no better.  Migration, the bane of successive governments, seems to be on a rampage with a vast majority shifting base to cities like Dehra Dun, Haldwani, Kotdwar and many others.  There is also a western influx-taking place in the state from Bijnor, Muzzafarnagar and Saharanpur. Well known boarding schools and colleges attract large droves of parents and students to our cities. The natural, population increase is the extra burden on the infrastructure.

While we still do not have the overflowing millions like Mumbai and Kolkata, we have our own set of dangers. Climate-change induced rainfall is creating havoc within minutes of downpour. Swirling water surrounding the seven to eight lakh slum dwellers along encroached rivers is inviting death in its torrents.  The outbreak of public health disasters, like last year’s dengue and chikungunya, are capable of damage on a massive scale. Mounds of garbage, increasing pollution, lack of clean water and traffic-induced stress are some other manifestations of the Uttarakhand urban sprawl. Vast areas of the state fall in Seismic Zone four, the section that is considered high risk from an earthquake perspective.

Mountains, glaciers, rivers, flora and fauna have occupied center stage in the Uttarakhand narrative. Legislation has largely been influenced by the hilly nature of the state. It is time that the policy makers realize and act according to the fast changing, urban ground realities. It is also time that we come out and acknowledge that we are as much of an “urban” state as we are a “mountain” state.

There are largely two areas where we need to focus. First is to sustainably invest in our urban systems and structures. Investments have to be scientific and thoughtful, neither episodic nor sporadic. Water, sewage, drainage, waste, roads, bridges, parks, pavements, traffic systems and all other urban facets need to be audited and developed. Apart from the physical infrastructure, the second, and perhaps as important, is the component of citizen infrastructure. Today, the conversation of governance between the government and its citizens lies broken and lacks interface. Callous and unconcerned citizens need to be encouraged to participate in the growth of their cities. Bit by bit, brick-by-brick, it is only together that we can build safe cities that we can call home.

(Author is the Founder Chairperson at SDC Foundation. He tweets at Anoopnautiyal1

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