The year-end invariably brings with it an urge to look back and take stock. At Citizen Matters, we are caught in a strange bind — on one hand, it seems the year just flew past and there’s so much that we still want to do; on the other, it has been an incredibly busy, crammed 12 months during which we have forged so many new connections and charted so many new urban territories and attempted to bring alive the stories from these places.
2019 saw us reaching over 20 cities, apart from Chennai and Bengaluru, expanding our family to include some wonderful writers and publish some really topical and in-depth stories. Many of these not only describe the realities of the cities they have been reported from, but are, in fact, a larger commentary on the state of cities in India.
As we look back today, there are so many common threads that run through most of our cities, but which are generally discussed in silos: the urgent need for environmental action, the trials and errors in steps towards sustainable mobility, the need to integrate civic issues and society, and perhaps most positive, the awakening and empowerment of the average citizen. It is our unwavering goal to capture these trends across cities and enable our readers to connect the dots to get the larger picture, and we’ve been able to make significant progress in that.
So, what are our favourite stories of the year gone by? It’s a tough call for any editor, it’s like asking you to choose your favourite child. But looking back at the twelve months that Citizen Matters has just completed, here are my twelve picks — stories that combine the elements of meticulous research, vivid portrayal, popular appeal and the potential to spur conversations that could eventually lead to better cities. Of course, there are scores of other stories that I could cite, but let us for the time being consider these as the most indicative of what we stand for and what we are trying to achieve.
The year marked 10 years since the flyover project at Mangalore’s Mahaveer Circle was started under the National Highways Development Project. After countless missed deadlines, failed promises and futile dharnas, citizens finally took to social media and other creative ways to vent their frustration. A detailed story that holds a mirror to how infrastructure projects, meant to ease life in the city, often go awry and end up creating an ordeal for citizens instead, and the many ways of protest in the age of the Internet.
Close to a year later, the structure that has seen multiple deadlines still remains unfinished. In mid-November, Member of Parliament from Dakshina Kannada once again told the media that the flyover will be completed by the first week of January, but the stalemate over the project looks to be far from over. The city is looking forward to the next date that will be announced.
Choked roads, traffic nightmare and regular commute ordeal for citizens — these are common complaints across urban India. In the quest to explore solutions, this article explained the oft-advocated policy of transit-oriented development (ToD), as against the usual development-oriented transit (DoT) that we see in cities. What are these two? Are they two different sides of the same coin to be used differently in different scenarios, or is one better than the other? How have cities, globally, implemented ToD and benefited from it? A very critical analysis when one looks at the core issues faced by our cities today.
One of the most poignant human interest stories that we have done this year, the story depicts the lives of a significant section of urban population whose voices are rarely heard, their stories considered unimportant. Based on a research project in a Goregaon slum, it takes a deep look at how caste, gender and religion get fused in the underbelly of Mumbai, often described as a melting pot and a city of dreams and opportunities.
APRIL 2019: Lok Sabha elections 2019
Elections in the world’s most populous democracy unsurprisingly make for the biggest news in the years when they are conducted. 2019 was, in that sense, the year of elections. Yet one of the biggest challenges in election coverage has always been to cut out the noise and political war-mongering and even misinformation, to present the citizen with authentic and useful information that they need to make the right choices.
The Citizen Matters team worked almost around the clock to present a comprehensive and objective set of news, analysis, data and explainers. The most read story of the year was a voter guide, that gave our readers a no-frills, objective FAQ that answered some of the most basic questions in their minds as they prepared to cast their ballot. This, along with our detailed round-up of manifestos, candidates and constituencies, brought an unprecedented number of views across our channels.
However, it would be unfair not to mention one of our most hard-hitting stories of the year — on the Mumbai slum where residents barely make it to age 40, due to Mumbai’s ever increasing, unsolvable problem for decades: waste management. This was one of the stories published under the Sustainable Cities Reporting Fellowship that we offered this year, and described how accumulating waste in the city’s Deonar dumping ground was exposing waste pickers and residents far and near to serious health risks. Plans and commitments by city and state authorities remain unfulfillled.
Our pick for May 2019 is another Sustainable Cities Fellowship report. Air pollution is perhaps the biggest issue for Indian cities today. Several reports published by national and international bodies have consistently placed Indian cities at the top of the list of the most polluted cities in the world. But sadly, pollution discourse in the country, for a long time, focussed only on a handful of northern cities, most prominently the national capital of Delhi. This report captures the state of affairs in the eastern metropolis of Kolkata, where authorities are yet to wake up to the health hazards posed by the persistent abysmal quality of air, caused by a range of factors — from flawed solid waste management to vehicular emissions.
A stark, detailed report that shocked readers as it revealed that 50-60% of youth in Shimla are caught in a massive drug menace, as addicts, peddlers or both. What has led to this and why is an effective crackdown missing?
After publication of the report, the state government initiated the following steps:
Speaking of common threads that bind several cities together, the impact of unsustainable tourism in popular destinations is impossible to miss. This article looks at the devastating impact on the regular lives of citizens and the ecology, as summer heat in the northern plains saw an unprecedented number of tourists flocking in to Shimla, Kullu-Manali and the scenic Rohtang Pass. Sadly, no action has been taken so far to prevent a similar experience during next summer’s tourist season.
Pune, Hyderabad, Patna — brief spells of extreme rainfall caused many cities to go under water yet again this monsoon season, often due to unregulated, unplanned urbanisation. One of the scariest instances was in Vadodara where flood waters drove crocodiles on to city streets, preying on strays and causing panic among residents. An incisive analysis of what led to this situation — how a callous city administration ignored repeated warnings.
Many of our cities were once known and acclaimed globally for specific industries and products. Today, many of them are floundering due to flawed policies, inability to keep up with modern technology and lack of adequate government support. As we tried to track some of these, one of the most widely read turned out to be this, where the author discusses how slow modernisation, stiff Chinese competition and most recently, the GST has dealt a heavy blow to Jalandhar’s sports goods industry.
One of the demands of the sports goods manufacturers mentioned in the story was the need to set up a modern R&D centre in Jalandhar. The state’s sports minister has announced that such a centre will come up in the city soon.
Indiscriminate commercialisation and systematic exploitation of water bodies has set the clock ticking in Indian cities. Chennai’s water crisis cornered most of the attention this summer, yet the risk lies not only in cities running dry. This story highlighted yet another aspect of what neglect of urban water bodies can do: Dumping of industrial effluents and untreated municipal waste in the Sutlej river, and various other channels flowing into it, is causing an alarming incidence of cancer and other health hazards in the three states of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.
Following the publication of this report, the HP State Pollution Control Board slapped a fine or Rs 1 crore on an effluent treatment plant located on the banks of the Sarsa river which flows into the Sutlej. The High Court had also intervened ordering the closure of tanneries in Jalandhar which were dumping untreated waste into the Sutlej. The Sutlej Action plan to clean up the polluted river is also being speeded up.
“Television channels and newspapers could not stop talking about Kashmir. Every news bulletin, every panel discussion, every TV debate was about Kashmir and its people. Yet, what media did not, or could not, cover was the everyday ordeal in a city of close to two million, where municipal workers had not been able to report to duty for 10 days. Srinagar was stinking.”
These opening lines by the author pretty much sum up why this story was so critical. In the days following the abrogation of Article 370, all normal operations in the city were suspended in Srinagar (as in the rest of Kashmir). Proactive officers and safai karamcharis did manage to tide over the crisis in the face of stiff odds, but waste management in the city needs serious fixes for the long term.
It has been a volatile, tumultuous year-end for the country, as the central government’s legislation seeking to facilitate citizenship to immigrants on the basis of their religion has torn the country apart, evoking vehement protests across the nation. The Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA), when read together with another proposed exercise — the National Register of Citizens — has been perceived by many as the first step towards stripping the rights of millions of Muslims residing in India.
What does the CAA say, really? Is it really discriminatory? What would the implications be if the NRC is in fact implemented across the country? Our second most-read article of the year is again an objective, carefully compiled FAQ that presents the bare-bone facts around this strongly contentious issue, and empowers the reader to conclude on the merits and demerits of the Act.