India's legacy of partition

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 August, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 August, 1997, 12:00am

It is August 15, 1947. The British have departed, fully expecting to be called back in desperation when the shocked Indians discover they cannot rule themselves after all without the superior skills of the imperial administration.

Over the border between India and the newly created Pakistan stream refugees in their millions, forced out of their ancestral homelands by the stroke of an ignorant bureaucrat's pen. Muslims pour northwards; the Hindu victims of partition head south.

Amid the fear, the bloodshed and the boiling anger at Britain's last wanton act of empire, the dispossessed hordes make for the relative wealth and comfort of New Delhi.

The city has never recovered. Almost overnight, the population grew from 700,000 to 1.1 million, swamping the limited services for Indians the planners had provided. That was just the beginning. The momentum begun by Partition has never let up.

Even today, when the population of the capital has reached 10 million - 15 million if you include the vast urban sprawl of the neighbouring cities and satellite towns it has swallowed - services designed for five million are expected to serve.

Delhi was not unplanned. Nowhere did the British Empire work harder to build monuments to its own magnificence than there.

After partition the planning continued. But the newcomers from Pakistan and the dirt-poor provinces to the east were not given two-hectare properties reserved for top British administrators.

Hanwant Rai Suri - former president of the Institute of Town Planners of India, whose own family moved to Delhi as refugees from Rawalpindi - explains the efforts the government made to resettle the newcomers. He shows off kilometre after kilometre of planned development, where refugees were given small plots to compensate for their lost land.

Later arrivals were also resettled by the Delhi Development Authority, and various housing societies.

In between the official settlements (many now sprouting illegal third and fourth storeys), unsanctioned homes and markets have sprung up like weeds. They have gradually been accepted as legal.

But Mr Suri is adamant. 'Without the planning there would have been chaos,' he maintains.

Even with the planning there is chaos. Delhi is filthy and congested, and lacks basic services. Open drains run beside even the official developments. Flies swarm over uncollected garbage. Water shortages and power cuts plague even the wealthy areas. The outer suburbs often have power and water only a few hours a day. Illegal developments on once-fertile farms - and especially the shanty towns along riverbanks and railway embankments and the invaded open areas designated as parks in the city plan - are ill served.

'That is the problem in India,' says Mr Suri. 'The building is for the wealthy and those not quite at the bottom of the pile. The really poor are left to drift into the areas which should be set aside as lungs for the city.' The Yamuna River, vital for drinking water and irrigation, is a stinking open sewer, thick with human waste, industrial pollutants and pesticides. Sewage treatment plants are being set up in 16 Delhi locations, following action in the courts.

The air, filled with industrial chemicals and filthy sulphur-laden exhaust fumes - from more road vehicles than India's other big cities put together - is almost too thick to breathe. With no mass-transit system to take the pressure off the roads (the national railway authority, which has lines criss-crossing the city, refuses to take on the job of local commuter transportation), Delhi is forced to travel by car or in dangerous, smoky motor-rickshaws.

Official efforts to clean up - despite the public-interest legislation brought in the courts and the fact that politicians are susceptible to the same respiratory diseases as the wretches who elect them - have been sporadic and minimalist. Lead-free petrol is available, but not clean, low-sulphur fuel. Old, badly maintained vehicles are not banned from the road.

Delhi shares with Calcutta the dubious distinction of having the highest levels of airborne pollution in the country. At 460 micrograms of suspended particulate matter per cubic metre (the World Health Organisation safety limit is 200mg/m?, and the level in Bombay is 220mg/m?), they are among the most polluted and unhealthy cities in the world..

Sixty per cent of Delhi's air pollution comes from motor-traffic.

Lawyer Mahesh Chander Mehta, whose environmental campaigning has won him the Philippines' coveted Magsaysay Award, warns: 'Cities are choking on pollution. Diseases are spreading fast. This is a matter of survival. We can't wait for a crisis. The time will come when the diplomatic community will refuse to come to Delhi. Even businessmen won't want to stay for long.' In Calcutta, the air feels dirtier. A few minutes outdoors, and your face and clothes are grimy. The main culprit is coal-fired industry. Only six per cent of the city is devoted to roads. There is a clean and functioning mass-transit railway.

Yet those who know Calcutta say it has improved beyond recognition. Mr Mehta and the environmental litigants have been at work there, too, forcing the closure of polluting industries, such as the Chinese- and Muslim-run tanneries, despite the threat to employment. The West Bengal High Court has even set up a Green Bench, which sits once a week to hear environmental cases.

But, by contrast with Delhi, the state government and municipal authorities have been working hand in glove with the non-governmental organisations, forcing the pace on environmental improvements.

The old Marxist administration in West Bengal, under the veteran communist Jyoti Basu, understood the message Mr Mehta has been selling so hard elsewhere. If Calcutta wants foreign investment - and aid from the World Bank and Britain's Overseas Development Administration - it has to start by making itself a decent place to live. Hence the 'socialism of the market'.

Municipal Commissioner Ashim Barman has reorganised and computerised the collection of household garbage, bringing in private trucking companies to collect the waste. 'Rag-pickers' make a living of sorts on the dumps sorting the solid and resaleable from the organic wastes. What is left will be processed by specialist waste-recycling companies into organic manure and methanol.

The methanol is new, the rest is a century-old tradition. According to Dr A K Ghosh, ecology adviser to the government of West Bengal, about 320 hectares of year-round 'garbage farming' have sprung up. The farmers buy the manure and produce about 13 crops a year. 'It's a marvellous use of the waste,' he says.

Calcutta is lucky. Its wetlands provide a natural waste-treatment system, although reclamation threatens to upset this valuable ecosystem irreparably. Closer to the sea, fish farms complete the waste recycling process by living off the nutrients washed down from the city. There is some debate as to whether the fish sold in the city's wet markets are really fit for human consumption.

But as in Delhi improvement also has its victims. The government's determination to clear the roads of hawkers - on the grounds that faster traffic flows reduce pollution and that clear streets are more pleasant for the visitor - has left stallholders smouldering with resentment. It was the communists who invited the hawkers on to the pavements in the first place, as a source of votes. The government says it is building indoor markets for them. Critics say they are simply waiting in the side-streets until the official campaign dies down.

And while registered slums have been given electricity and other services, 'encroachers', canalside and streetside squatters, will eventually be moved on.

Geeta Bar lives on a muddy, foul-smelling canal bank with her husband and five children. Their home is a leaking hut made of rags and bits of broken wood and metal. Pigs snuffle outside. The family bathe and wash their clothes in the canal, constant prey to gastroenteritis and waterborne disease. They do not drink the water. The conditions, as Commissioner Barman puts it, are 'disgusting'. But Mrs Bar's family has lived there for 40 years, since her grandparents drifted in from the countryside. She was born there and knows nothing else.

Their income, from her work as a housemaid and his 'in transport', comes to a mere 500-1,000 rupees a month (about HK$110 to $220), ensuring they can never work their way up the canal bank to a better life. The children go to the local hospital if they contract serious diseases such as malaria, otherwise they get little medical care. Eventually, the family will have to find dowries for the daughters.

But, like most parents in Calcutta, Mrs Bar is determined her children will receive an education. The youngest are taught at canal-side missionary schools, the older students sent to local high schools.

She has not been told of any plans to move her. But Mr Barman says all the encroachers will eventually be cleared and settled in new areas.

Mrs Bar makes no comment. She can wait.