A Taste of Urban India
By Kieran Micka-Maloy
“So would you rather live in this kind of world, or a world full of war, famine, and strife, with more and more people living in crowded cities?” We were asked this question by the leader of an organic farming organization at the end of a presentation he had given. “This kind of world” described a small town in Ethiopia that, through the magic of an NGO, has been transformed into a place where everyone farms organically, the environment has been remediated to its full glory, and everyone lives happily ever after. But I couldn’t help but think: not only do we not live in this kind of world today, we’re quickly moving even further away from it.
Humanity is urbanizing quickly. For the first time in measured history, the world’s rural population is expected to start decreasing within the next several decades. So while some people might rather fantasize about a future in which everyone grows their own food and lives in a pastoral dreamland, if we want to make change, we need to think about the world that actually exists. Our field trip this week to Coimbatore, coming right on the heels of that organic farming paradise vision, provided a stark contrast to this fantasy.
We were exposed to many other contrasts in our twenty-four hours in Coimbatore, too. I think in part, these contrasts are what define urban India. A major theme of our trip was rhetoric vs. reality. A “septic tank” is really just a pit in the ground. A government official tells us that less than five percent of residents live in informal settlements, but we pass by four different slums on a fifteen-minute drive from his office to a restaurant. Burning trash is illegal and strictly enforced, but on practically every block there is a pile of burning garbage. Obviously the organic farmer isn’t the only one who has fallen into the trap of describing the world he wants instead of focusing on the world he has.
We saw another interplay in Coimbatore between the global and the local. The Gates Foundation funds the construction of a community toilet in a slum on the outskirts of the city. In a Tamil movie, the characters all drink at cosmopolitan, Western looking bars, but whenever alcohol appears on screen a stern warning about the dangers of drinking is shown below.McDonalds doesn’t have hamburgers, but it does have “McAloo Tikki” burgers. Globalization is ever present, but always filtered through local context.
And of course, there was the yawning divide between rich and poor. We drive from a slum on the banks of an open sewage channel to a gleaming six-story shopping mall in fifteen minutes. At that mall, a shopkeeper offers students with white skin free samples and then quickly walks back into her store as darker skinned students walk by. Meanwhile, government officials funnel money into private “special purpose vehicles” to fund a ticketed bike path and free wifi for the city, while the city’s poor struggle with water borne diseases caused by nonexistent sanitation infrastructure. Like everywhere, those with money are those with power.
In terms of what I took away from our short visit to urban India, I learned about the balancing act that is required to work in such complex urban environments. Keystone is inching carefully into Coimbatore after spending the last thirty years in the hills. Its main project in the city is an effort to end open defecation in two outlying slum neighborhoods. A seemingly simple solution—building toilets—becomes inadequate when you consider that to build those toilets, Keystone must cultivate a friendly relationship with the same government officials that care more about wifi than sanitation, make sure that there is adequate containment so that waste doesn’t seep into drinking water supplies, bridge the divide between local populations, municipal governments, and international organizations, and convince sometimes resistant locals that the new toilets are an improvement on their current open defecation practices. Urban challenges can be daunting. But visiting Coimbatore showed me that with persistence, even the most intransigent problems can be addressed head on.