For India's rich, a new motto: To have, but not to hold
GAUTAM BHATIA | Jul 20, 2014, 05.58AM IST
Along a small secluded stretch off the Yamuna Expressway outside Delhi is a 24-storey apartment block billed as the future of hyper luxury. With one private residence to a floor, each 12,000-square-foot flat is equivalent in area to the main hall of Vigyan Bhawan. Its eight bedrooms, dens and entertainment rooms come fully furnished along with a 30-foot pool, six servant 'residences' and a car lift that raises your Jaguar to your floor. Conceived by an Italian designer, furniture is manufactured in Singapore, with air-conditioning and kitchen equipment from Germany. The apartment is encased in a sophisticated solar shield and protected from the harsh summer sunlight with louvers that rotate on a computer programme. The sale, naturally, is by invitation only.
If you stand on the high parapet on the 24th floor and look beyond the place, your vision will quickly take in the temporary encampments and tarpaulin slums that rise in the near horizon; human forms moving about in the mud are the thousands who made the luxury apartment possible. Such extremes encourage a growing divide: the air conditioned school that mollycoddles the child with weekends in London, at one end, and at the other, a broken ruin of a public school with no teachers, and no toilets for girls; the glass shopping mall with tinkling water fountains pitted against the decrepit municipal market; the luxury hotel with multiple restaurants and spas, and then, the seedy hotel in Paharganj. The private hospital that promotes health tourism where Dubai sheikhs check-in for luxury health overhauls, or the Medical Institute where families lie in corridors waiting for up to three months for an emergency operation.
How do you even begin to reconcile these unfortunate extremes? For the most part, the poor in our cities are treated as residue; they live in leftover spaces under flyovers, over city drains and sewers; their needs of health, education, commerce are performed by an undergrowth of spurious services and half-baked professionals who see profit in the large numbers. But in cities segregated into private and public, and a government run for the rich, they have little choice.
That private institutions have forsaken responsibility for the poor is evident from the vast number of hospitals, schools, and housing projects given land subsidies by the government on the condition they cater to low income groups as well. In most cases, however, the urgency to profit was too great to ever bother with niggling moral responsibilities. Businessmen and industrialists merely returned the favour by directing themselves to other more elitist efforts -setting up a university in their own name, saving a monument, or endorsing an already successful public scheme. Mahindra World College, Shiv Nadar University, Fortis Hospital, Raheja Towers are all symptomatic of self-promotion and image management, and say little about the organization's social intentions.
Doubtless many among these big names are doing laudable charitable work through foundations, but none among them have directed their focus on the awkward space of India's institutional middle ground.
When private ambition is directed to shameless and excessive publicity, the real state of well-being languishes without standards.
Where are the schools without air conditioning but with teachers; where are the health clinics with committed doctors; or housing schemes that innovate for the poor? Without basic facilities, the concentration of wealth into a single act of philanthropy becomes sadly misplaced. Instead of Mahindra World College and Azim Premji University, why not Mahindra Pathshalas and Shiv Nadar rural education schemes? Besides the Raheja Towers and Ansal Plazas, shouldn't there be Ansal low-income housing colonies, Raheja slum sanitation programs, or indeed Fortis village clinics? Bereft of ideals, perhaps it is it the rich who need rehabilitation?
After the industrial revolution, the health of most western nations evolved in cycles of shared wealth. Irrefutable proof from there says that collective prosperity became possible only when private funds were directed -through philanthropy or taxation -to benefit the poor. Sweden's high taxes funded health care and education. Having made his millions, American Andrew Carnegie promoted public libraries. Many other private industrialists stretched their largesse to a belief in the rightness of shared experience and became invested heavily in civic infrastructure, contributing to the social, cultural, physical health of their less fortunate fellow citizens. The museums, galleries, hospitals, theatres, gardens, colleges and libraries that emerged out of private intentions grew quickly into valuable social resource for everyone, and made the city a better place.
If the Indian city is to gain anything from private largesse, tycoons and business houses will need to open their eyes to the more difficult conditions of urban reality, and direct a more compassionate gaze to their less-fortunate citizens.