Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

The trouble with cities

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What the migrants’ crisis in India and systemic racism in America have in common is turmoil in the cities.

Column in Business Standard, June 13, 2020

Cities, it is said, are the crucible of opportunity, the engine of progress. They are places where fortunes are made and talents flourish; the fount of governance. But events have lately turned this wisdom on its head. Cities are being seen as simmering cauldrons of disease, social injustice, poverty, and police atrocity — the darkest cesspools of despair. Two recent events, two months apart, are triggers of how cities can wreak countrywide havoc.

On the eve of March 25, Narendra Modi took the nation by utter surprise with his sudden announcement of a three-week lockdown. Neither Mr Modi nor his government could have reckoned the scale of human misery unleased as hundreds of thousands of starving jobless migrants began to flee cities in one of the biggest humanitarian calamities, entirely man-made, that India has known.

On May 25 an act of wanton cruelty by a white police officer that killed a 46-year-old African-American named George Floyd in Minneapolis paralysed America. Not since the civil rights movement culminating in the urban uprisings of 1968 has the country witnessed what the New York Times calls “a vast American reckoning with racism”.

Despite the galloping rise in corona infections, thousands of masked protestors have marched through numerous cities, from Miami to Seattle, to oppose “systemic racism”, demand the shutting down of police departments, and face arrests. Rioting, ransacking shops, and defacing statues of Jefferson and Columbus have led to curfews in cities including Washington DC, and bringing out the National Guard to defend the White House.

With an election looming in November, President Donald Trump’s response is of a leader cornered by cascading public anger. He threatens a crackdown on protestors, denounces Republican opponents as “domestic terrorists”, and casts the confrontation as a law-and-order problem. Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s tactics were similar when faced with widespread anti-Citizenship Amendment Act last winter, most prominently the prolonged sit-in by women in Shaheen Bagh. Armed police entered the Jamia Millia and JNU campuses, the BJP lost the Delhi election in February, and communal riots (that left more than 50 dead) followed in the backdrop to Mr Trump’s India visit.

Unlike India, where law enforcement agencies are under the jurisdiction of state governments (with the exception of Delhi, where they are under the Centre’s thumb), in America local mayors and sheriffs appoint police chiefs. It is a trigger-happy society. Civilians account for 393 million (about 46 per cent) of the worldwide total of civilian-held firearms, that is, 120.5 guns for every 100 residents. The police are a highly militarised force. Casualties on both sides are high: Between 2000 and 2014, 2,445 police persons died on duty. In turn about 1,000 civilians a year perish at the hands of the police. The African-Americans are among the worst-off segments of the population and three times as likely to be killed as the whites. According to a survey in The Economist this week, “blacks comprise 13 per cent of the population but 33 per cent of the imprisoned population”.

In the recent crime drama Paatal Lok (Underworld) that filmmaker hails as reflecting “the dark heart of India, communal and casteist India”, the discrimination against a young Muslim cop, Imran Ansari, eager to rise in the service, is repeatedly highlighted. And though the series tracks the criminals to their origins in the hinterland, Delhi is the pivot of the criminal world. Indeed, the city is sub-divided into four loks, mythic worlds — of the celestial upper class, the earthly middle class, and the underworld of desperados and migrants across the river.

As the unmanageable number of migrants desperate to return to their villages after the corona outbreak showed, the idea of the metropolis as melting pot and refuge for rural wage-earners is a mirage. The spread of Covid-19 has proven the opposite to be true.

As seething hotbeds of inequality and prejudice, cities are dangerously insanitary and inhospitable in a health emergency. Those unsupported by any safety net stand little chance of survival.

Despite legislation and sustained campaigns for racial equality since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the lot of black Americans living in high-density areas (where more than one-fifth live below the official poverty line) has grown by 57 per cent since 2000. “And black children are seven times as likely as white children to experience this more corrosive form of poverty.”

Big cities have also emerged as home to, and biggest carriers of, the corona virus. If America leads the world with 2 million cases and more than 116,000 dead, urban agglomerations like New York top the chart as the most infected places. India now ranks fourth globally, with Mumbai a mirror image of New York. States with densely populated cities — Maharashtra, Delhi, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and Gujarat — continue to record the highest daily jump in infections. In the tragically conflicted geography of our time, the reputation of the Mahanagar has never been at greater risk.


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