India launched a five-year program in 2017 to rebuild 100 cities using digital technology and smart energy infrastructure. Known as the “Smart Cities Mission,” the program aims to make them suitable for a new world order by 2022.
Cities the world over are being developed in an irreversible way. Historically, they housed only a small portion of the population but rapid changes in the mode of production over the last 200 years sparked their unprecedented growth.
Globally, the rate of urbanization crossed the 50 percent threshold in 2014, and India is expected to hit the same mark by 2050.
Indian cities are already bursting at the seams. The country’s 10 most populous cities accounted for 94 million people in 2011. Meanwhile, 370 million Indians live in 475 major cities and towns, with poverty rampant.
Since it opened up its economy in the 1990s, India has witnessed rapid changes, driven largely by the broader process of globalization.
A city by definition is an inclusive space that creates opportunities for everyone, with systems and methods put in place to best share the available space. Even the poorest of the poor can eke out a living in cities.
One example of this would be India’s notorious slums. There are spaces that over time have accommodated the personal servants of the rich, and workers in factories. Many generations of Indians have lived in such places, suffering inhuman conditions, calling shacks their home.
With the single-minded goal of turning a profit, the midwives of globalization have targeted the slums as a source of capital. Corporates have teamed up with government agencies to make the land more profitable.
The result has seen the large-scale eviction of the poor, driving them even further to the peripheries of society.
The unabated modernization of Indian cities has turned them into exclusive zones for the rich and the neo-rich. The preferred new homes of the wealthy sit within secure and digitally controlled gated communities, or within self-contained townships, with many services outsourced to various agencies.
The urban working class — waste collectors, domestic workers and service providers like plumbers, electricians, butchers and fishmongers — are not welcome in these smart habitations.
If economic relationships in the past were marked by the exploitation of the poor, today a vast number of people find themselves largely irrelevant in the grander scheme of things.
The cathedral or basilica was once considered the chief meeting place for the urban Catholic elite. Well-heeled non-Christians benefited from the services the church offered in terms of education and healthcare.
But these services are becoming more and more irrelevant to the aspirational urban elite. The best schools and hospitals in many Indian cities used to bear a Christian name. But nowadays this is not the case.
The church has to physically, psychologically and voluntarily move to the periphery of society to protect human rights, create gender parity and help reduce the impact of climate change.
While many agree to this, it requires the answering of a couple of painful questions: Should we dwell in the peripheries with the poor? What will we do with all the church’s properties and institutions?
The answer is that the best of times for the church was when it was footloose and prophetic enough to “go where the Holy Spirit beckons, according to the urgency of human needs.”
Today, this call comes to the church from the poor of our cities, who are being driven into irrelevance by the current development paradigm that relies more on outsourcing jobs to corporates, leaving less room for the impoverished to find ways of eking out a living.
This calls for a process of deschooling among the church leadership to enable them to relocate to the new urban milieu.
The first requirement for this is to understand that the immense properties of the church in cities belong to everyone, but the poor should be first in line.
The leadership, along with the community, needs to evolve mechanisms that will help them make the transition from being managers and custodians of wealth and properties to actualizing their vocation as disciples and prophets in uncertain times.
Another way for the church to become more relevant to the lives of the poor would be for it to make its presence felt at forums discussing the policies that affect them the most. Church representatives are almost totally absent from such policy-making meetings at present.
Gone are the days when its contributions were much valued. But given the changed political and social context, we could also argue that we are being deliberately excluded from policy decisions.
This calls for the church community to step up and strive harder to advocate policies on behalf of the poor.
Furthermore, the church has to make itself part of the social mainstream when it comes to debating issues of importance to the poor and the excluded. The church is too timid and silent when it comes to dealing with key social issues that are plaguing the country. The possibility of doing something “wrong,” or making themselves unpopular with the powers that be, has stopped Christian leaders from speaking the truth to power. In addition, the leadership of the church is so preoccupied with settling internal issues that they hardly have the time or energy to contribute to larger debates. The church in India now stands at a crossroads. Whichever direction it takes — neutral or as a champion of the poverty-stricken — will have long-lasting impact.
Varghese Theckanath SG,
Founder Director of the Montfort Social Institute,