Lucknow needs to look beyond politics

Lucknow is at a momentous crossroads. It is not only the capital of the politically most significant state in India, it is also among one of the fastest developing cities in the country. The city now has to choose whether it wants to race ahead to reserve a place in the list of the most livable places in India, or whether it is content with remaining the political hotbed it is now.

Without doubt the city and its people enjoy living in a city where political developments invariably make national headlines. They take pride in knowing real or imagined stories about political goings-on in all political parties, and this pride swells manifold anyone from outside Lucknow asks them about the latest in politics. They instantly convert into a profound political commentator, putting forth their views and making definitive political forecasts.

But at the same time, they never hesitate in running the city down when it comes to the prevailing disorder, increasing crime lawlessness, lack of good higher educational institutions entrepreneurship and employment opportunities. It is as if all the drawbacks are okay as long as the city enjoys the political limelight it has inherited.

Lucknow has many things going to make it a happening city. Its location, almost mid-way between Delhi and eastern India makes it an ideal choice for all employment-seekers and opportunity hunters. In fact, for entire central and eastern UP, there is no place like Lucknow in terms of business, comparatively better power and water supply and quality of living. The steep growth in number of people living in Lucknow is partly due to the skewed development elsewhere that has led to proliferation of commercial activities but fewer job opportunities in other towns. Facilities like health, education, infrastructure, roadways, telecommunication, airports, railways etc are unsatisfactory in other cities. It is mainly because the government and policy-makers do not think enough about other cities. Even big cities like Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi, Agra, Meerut, Bareilly etc do not have a representative who is vocal enough to demand and get better facilities for their cities. As a result, the influx into Lucknow is unending.

Many residents of Lucknow rue the fact that today the city and its culture are dominated by people from the eastern districts and adjoining states. Eating habits, vocabulary and behaviour in public places is now largely dominated by those who are first or second generation immigrants. While this may be true to some extent, it is also true that this influx is an essential trigger for urban growth worldwide. The strength of a city’s culture and traditions is put to test by this influx.

Should Lucknow, then, remain content with being a political driver, or look at other aspects that make it a better place for non-politicians too? Several initiatives have been taken in recent years to give a makeover to the city’s image. While cultural and film-making facilities have seen some improvement, the city still remains low on employment generation, public transport and policing. Creation of infrastructure is marked by lop-sided priorities. Rows and rows of multi-storeyed housing projects are lying unoccupied. Roads and public spaces are gasping for space. Slums are coming up quickly and in newer areas.

Several studies worldwide have established that rapid urbanization increases the threat of conflict and insecurity. Many fast-growing cities create conditions of significant disparities in standards of living, which create a natural environment for conflict over resources. Widening inequalities also tend to be more starkly visible in urban than rural areas. As urban slums become a haven for criminal elements, youth gangs, and many illegal trades, they also create insecurity for much of the population. This lack of security and violence also has great costs to the general population, both economic and social. Needless to say, politicians add fuel to this conflict, in turn reinforcing the status of the city remaining politically relevant.

For quite a number of years, successive governments have kept their focus on rural areas, setting aside massive funding for villages, but despite this largesse our villages have not prospered. Talking about the welfare of villages has almost become a religion. Our entire folklore and culture looks at villages as being a model of virtue and cities being just the opposite. Yet, all politicians prefer living in cities and doing their trade from here. It is therefore but natural that they seek to exploit urban tension to their advantage.

Ultimately, urbanization creates opportunities but also increases risks, and the speed at which it is happening challenges our capacity to plan and adapt. Urbanization is by no means bad and well-managed cities are both efficient and effective, enabling economies of scale and network effects. Politicians – in power and waiting to grab it – must keep in mind that good cities make for good politics.