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Creating Living, Breathing Infrastructure

By the people, for the people.

28/03/2017 3:03 PM IST | Updated 30/03/2017 9:20 AM IST
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The word "infrastructure" takes me back in time to my childhood days when I saw my first ever TV at school. TV at home felt like a "thing"... an inanimate object, because of its "personal use" limitation. However, and strangely, the same things at public places (schools, hospitals, post offices) felt like they were "infrastructure". The idea of "public use" was tied to infrastructure in my mind, and continues to hold meaning to this day.

During my engineering days, the word evolved in my head and grew in meaning. People, government policies, services, etc., also started feeling like they were the new age infrastructure. Engineers, doctors, lawyers, and police—all of them had a new-found meaning that was allied to public use, and often they represented infrastructure in a personal, more intimate way than merely police stations or courts or hospitals.

At the heart of it, crumbling social infrastructure is about crumbling social relationships.

Isn't it fun to think of oneself as infrastructure deployed for a "public cause?" Having value as a building block of the nation?

The more I thought about it, the more it was evident that the responsibility of infrastructure creation has always rested on governments. Over the years, the government created PPPs in a bid to leverage efficiency and capital access of private players—which incidentally freed them to pursue social agendas.

India Inc didn't disappoint. The airports, the toll roads, housing projects, power plants, telecom—we all have directly benefited from one or more of these infrastructure projects.

While physical infrastructure creation has found its mojo with the market and hence, hopefully, is on auto-pilot, social infrastructure cries for attention every single day, more so in our cities. While we have hopes that the potholes on our roads will go away one day, we are not so optimistic about feeling safe on our streets.

Here is the double whammy: we feel more unsafe despite more infrastructure in the form of more roads, policemen, cars, neighbours, courts, etc.

Here is the double whammy: we feel more unsafe despite more infrastructure in the form of more roads, policemen, cars, neighbours, courts, etc.

What are we going to do with all the infrastructure if mothers still look out of their windows anxiously, waiting for their adolescent daughter to return safely? Or if a father in a small town waits for a confirmation call every night from his son in a city to ascertain his safety?

Is it that cities have grown more unsafe? Or is it that neighbourhoods have walled themselves in, against the ubiquitous outsider? It's ironical that migrants find a city unwelcoming and unsafe, and locals blame their concerns on crime and public safety on migrants.

This "default" suspicion of outsiders has had one collateral effect: migrants have never found a reason to give back to their cities, because they don't feel they belong, or are even welcome. Our neighbourhoods are plagued with biases—some with reason, some part of the collective emotional baggage, and some which are plain financially convenient.

At the heart of it, crumbling social infrastructure is about crumbling social relationships, which I think is best fixed by people themselves. With a little nudge in the right direction. Just as India Inc gave us roads, airports, electricity, we, the citizens of India, need to work together to build a social infrastructure that embraces all comers, and affords all citizens an equal welcome, and enshrines the freedom to live life without fear, and with dignity, at the bare minimum.

In the coming decade, I wish to see our cities allow for belongingness—the next order of social infrastructure.

It's not an India Inc way of intervening, but champions the cause of self-governance— for the people, by the people. I hope many more entrepreneurs join the movement in creating a social infrastructure which frees up the government to solve for poverty and physical infrastructure.

In the coming decade, I wish to see our cities allow for belongingness—the next order of social infrastructure. A city feels like "amche Pune" or "namma Bengaluru" only when it creates an environment where even a one-day-old migrant feels that he is among friends and family. And this sense of belongingness will not come about unless we create an India where "no city is a stranger," and nobody is made to feel like an outsider.

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