A hefty, scholarly book on a topic not directly concerned with the author surprises you. And when it is coming from a practitioner politician, it is rarest of rare surprise in the Indian literature world.
Jairam Ramesh, a Congress MP, has written books on Indira Gandhi, his party’s top leader, as also on environment and rural development but then we must realise he had held these portfolios and knew the topics well.
But when I saw Feroze Varun Gandhi’s fat tome at a book stores in New Delhi, I was in two minds whether or not to buy that expensive book. Given my deep interest in urban planning, I finally decided to drill holes in my pocket. Let me be very frank, I don’t regret having read it from flap to flap. He is a Member of Parliment but is neither a Union minister nor a member of the parliamentary Standing Committee on Urban affairs. Yet, he has written this magnum opus, if I may say so.
The young politician appears to have done his home-work for a very long period, along with his research team, to produce a book of this standard, class and gamut of knowledge that one hardly finds in other books on this fast emerging sector. Books on urban planning, cities and other aspects of urban life have been, of late, hitting the book stands, with a degree of regularity, but Varun’s book beats them hands down.
As you read it page after page, you realise that he has gone about his business very professionally. The nine-chapter book is neatly arranged in sub topics. What struck me, however, is the range of topics he has chosen and has approached his subject from a common man’s perspective. For example, he wonders, in the beginning, why glass facade buildings be made in a hot and humid country ? He is also agitated by the fact that : Why does Delhi, with most investment and development, continue to face dengue annually ? Why the ground water and air is polluted after many years of identifying the problem ?
But then the author is not only talking of the present problems. He has taken a very deep dive in India’s history and has, on numerous places, provided references to cities as old as 600-700 years old and few beyond that while talking of growing urbanisation in modern era. Truly, his canvas is extremely large and dealing with multiple issues has made this bulky book a treasure for students of urban planning, politicians, police officers, doctors academia, architects and journalists.
Most books on urban issues that one had read, had been confined to urban planning history and futuristic aspects, some statistics for chosen mega cities and critiques of the present policies etc. But no…this Gandhi’s scion has included issues like public transport, urban crime, healthcare, affordable housing, urban unemployment and business, water availability and finally, urban financing in his book and has dealt with them with greater details. What is important he has suggested way forward after almost each chapter.
In the beginning, he has picked up a few cities Delhi, Kanpur, Moradabad and Patna to deal with their local issues. In Delhi, he observes: Delhi’s 45% solid waste is not collected by civic bodies; and when landfills catch fires, city’s already toxic air quality drops even lower. Quoting the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), the author says, in 2018, the water was most contaminated across India. He also terms the capital as the crime capital of the country. He also refers to bad planning while touching upon the ISBT, set up near Sarai Kale Khan and ridicules the chaos there for passengers.
Delving into history, at another place, Gandhi points to an observation of a traveller Francois Martin of Ahmedabad, a city that was perceived to be well-designed. ” …it still had a confused mass of houses with some made of stone, others of wood, some other of mud and thatch–the city did not seek to pave its roads with stone or bricks…”.
Giving Patna’s example, the author says that the city is declining over the past few decades from a good governed, education hub to a city where air-quality, ground water and other facilities have deteriorated.
Varun has taken up a very long period of India’s urban history and by giving right references, he has questioned why Indian cities are not aesthetically beautiful, why do they look like Western cities despite huge history of creating cities like Mandu, Gwalior, Panipat, Jaunpur–cities that were there since medieval era but are no longer the main cities.
The author has used the expression ” cities remain stuck” in the sense that they have not been progressing and citizens have to keep suffering. He mentions Bengaluru or Chennai for water issues–scarcity to water logging while picking up glaring and simple points in bad urban governance across India.
Abhilash Khandekar is a renowned journalist, television personality and a leading sports administrator in his present capacity as President Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association. He is also an acclaimed conservationist and is member Madhya Pradesh State Wildlife Board.