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India: Real Development Or Showpieces For Display?

By Dr. Sawraj Singh

Sometimes I feel that we are creating more showpieces for display rather than having real development. I think real development takes into consideration priorities of the society and it tries to address needs of the majority of the population. On the other hand, showpieces serve the interests for small elite; those are mainly for showing off and really do not serve any other purpose for the majority of the population. For clarifying my point, I will give two examples; developing Chandigarh and opting for a bullet train.

First, I want to clarify my feelings about Chandigarh. I really like to go to Chandigarh and I have to go to Chandigarh very frequently whenever I get a chance to visit Chandigarh. I have many friends there. Still, I always question myself if developing a city like Chandigarh shows that we are following a model of centralized development rather than decentralizing the development? One sees so much construction going about Chandigarh (Mohali, Zirakpur, Kharar, Landran, Dera Bassi, and even up to Banur) that it looks more than the rest of Punjab combined. On the top of that we are developing a new city, New Chandigarh. Compared to Chandigarh, the other cities of Punjab like Amritsar, Ludhiana, Jalandhar and Patiala are falling behind, particularly Amritsar. One may say that Ludhiana was just declared a Smart city and Chandigarh was not. I feel that the main reason for this is that Ludhiana has still some accumulated capital left from the days when its industry was booming. Probably, Ludhiana still has more money than the other cities of Punjab.

I also want to make it clear that I think that for all practical purposes, Chandigarh is still a part of Punjab even though it is different politically and administratively. Whenever I am in Chandigarh, I do not feel that I am not in Punjab.

Amritsar used to be the biggest city of Punjab (after Lahore). In 1947, Amritsar had the largest population in Punjab, followed by Jalandhar and Ludhiana. Now, Ludhiana is the largest city of Punjab. I am not sure if Jalandhar has more population than Amritsar now. Amritsar can be called the religious and the spiritual center of Punjab. Even today, more tourists come to Amritsar than any other city in Punjab. Amritsar has been developed to provide some facilities to the tourists yet, overall, Amritsar seems to be lagging behind in development and its infrastructure is outdated. I feel very sad about this.

Patiala is another important traditional city of Punjab. Patiala is often called the cultural hub of Punjab. However, compared to Chandigarh, Patiala seems to be also losing its old glory. I have vivid memories of Patiala when I was 5-7 years old. I felt Patiala was better than any other city in Punjab or even in India wherever I had a chance to go. One of my doctor friends, who just died and who was born in Patiala and lived all his life here, maintained a strong feeling that Patiala was the best city to live in the world. I can give you the example of how the people of Patiala used to feel about their city compared to Chandigarh. In 1956, PEPSU (Patiala and the East Punjab State Union) was merged with Punjab. The capitol shifted from Patiala to Punjab. Most of the employees whose offices were shifted to Chandigarh continued to live in Patiala and used to commute from Patiala to Chandigarh. Even in 1971, when I went to the U.S., the majority of people of Patiala continued to have the feeling that their city was better than Chandigarh.

However, everything has changed now. Many people feel that Chandigarh life is better than Patiala life. Some people have shifted from Patiala to Chandigarh. Some of our friends have advised us to move to Chandigarh, or at least buy a small house or flat (condominium) there. It is not just the big cities, but the quality of life has deteriorated even in the smaller cities. Last month, I went to Barnala to present a paper. The venue was in the heart of the city. This part of the city is very congested. On the top of that, the railway crossing was closed because a train was passing. It made the bad situation worse and showed the poor and outdated infrastructure of our cities. I felt that instead of developing Chandigarh and New Chandigarh, maybe we would have been better off by improving the existing cities of Punjab.

Starting a bullet train is a similar issue of developing for the sake of prestige and showing off rather than meeting the needs of the society. We are going to have bullet train connecting Mumbai to Ahmedabad. The Japanese are going to help us in this project. I heard that the Chinese were also approached for this project. However, they advised us that we will be better off spending that money in upgrading the existing railway infrastructure in India. This can increase the average speed of our trains from about 100 kilometers an hour to about 200 kilometers an hour; computerize all of our stations, signals and crossings; and make our trains safer and better. Instead of that, we chose to have literally one track where the bullet train train can run at the speed of 300 kilometers per hour. I have extensive experience in travelling by trains in India in the last few years. Except for the Shatabdi trains, most of the other trains can be late by several hours, causing great inconvenience to travelers. The trains are generally overcrowded and sometimes lack the basics like running water in the toilets. I feel many people would have liked to improve the existing trains and railway facilities rather than having one superfast train which very few people will be able to afford. I think the bullet train fare will be more than first-class airline fare. Other than feeling good about having a bullet train, we may not gain much from this project. We should have development which really serves the interests and needs of the majority of our population rather than just makes our ego feel good.

Dr. Sawraj Singh, MD F.I.C.S. is the Chairman of the Washington State Network for Human Rights and Chairman of the Central Washington Coalition for Social Justice. He can be reached at sawrajsingh@hotmail.com.

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