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Preeti Taneja

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Dussehra Tragedy In Amritsar Exposes India's Urban Powder Keg


India suffered its worst Dussehra disaster this year.

A train barrelled through revellers spilling over to the tracks in Amritsar, killing at least 62 of them.

What followed was a blame game. Leaders in the state government and opposition traded charges at each other. The chief minister ordered a "thorough investigation".

Dussehra Tragedy In Amritsar Exposes India's Urban Powder Keg

Inquiries are a routine exercise whenever such events unfold. At times, they aim to ease public pressure and sooth passions.

While India waits for yet another report, this time from the Amritsar investigation, the Dussehra tragedy laid bare the country's urban vulnerabilities.

Most of those who died in Amritsar in Punjab on Oct 19 were migrant workers, many of them from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Preliminary reports suggest the Dussehra organisers didn't have adequate permissions to hold festivities in that densely populated neighborhood along the railroad.

That in no way surprises me. Leave alone Amritsar, how many effigy-burnings right in the national capital were carried out with official permits? Every street in MCD neighbourhoods of Delhi had a couple of Ravans going up in the flames, with loud, polluting fireworks resonating through the city in the evening.

Did all of them obtain permissions from environment, fire-brigade, police, municipal and health departments? It needs no investigation to establish not many would have.

Studies suggest India’s urban population is set to grow by more than 400 million -- more than the population of the entire United States -- to 814 million by 2050.

This dramatic advance is primarily attributed to economic village-to-city migration.

What the Amritsar wreck illustrates is that our cities are unprepared to deal with this astonishing influx.

From policy-makers to common masses, a "chalta-hai" attitude has deeply afflicted basic mechanisms. Public safety has been consigned to files and the laws governing it are activated only after major accidents strike.

The Punjab chief minister's inquiry will in all probability be no different from numerous other investigations that many other Indian states had ordered in similar situations. Some prosecutions, some suspensions and long-drawn trials.

But what unfortunately will remain untreated is a chronic malaise -- a passive approach towards designing policies and practices to tackle India's uneven growth.

This year, Forbes quoted an American economist, Paul Krugman, as sounding an alarm for the cheerleaders of growth.

“In Asia, India could take the lead but only if it also develops its manufacturing sector,” Forbes quoted Krugman as having said at a New Delhi summit. “India’s lag in the manufacturing sector could work against it, as it doesn’t have the jobs essential to sustain the projected growth in demography. You have to find jobs for people.”

He was spot on.

Decision-makers in impoverished states, such as Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh, are required to drive greater energy and resources towards boosting employment opportunities for their large working-age populations in order to contain the outflux.

A 2015 Mint analysis of data on organized manufacturing employment published by the

Annual Survey of Industries shows that large factories -- or those employing more than 1,000 workers -- now employ a smaller share of India’s organized industrial workforce than they did three decades ago.

"Between 1980-81 and 2011-12, the share of these large factories in total industrial employment fell by 16 percentage points to 28.5%. While the share of small factories (those employing less than 100 workers) has increased only marginally, the share of mid-size factories in total industrial employment has increased significantly over the past three decades," the Mint wrote.

Major cities are already bursting at their seams. With no sustainable policy in sight to tackle urbanization, they will explode if states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand didn't develop labour-intensive industries to absorb their workforce.

If this breakneck urbanization is left unchecked, it will spell nothing else but destruction. Amritsar has been a pre-cursor.