The Staggering Ugliness of Cities

Punit Pania
7 min readMay 23, 2022

One of my favorite statistics is that the city of Mumbai has to kill at least 1,000 rats everyday to keep plague and other diseases from breaking out. ‘Rat catchers’ are appointed area-wise and given targets. All the dead rats are gathered at a single location and counted ward-wise. It is then the job of a lone microbiologist to dissect at least 10% of the dead rats looking for signs of leptospirosis in their livers every day. While this microbiologist also waits on this Canada Visa application, he is serving a crucial function.

The number of mosquitoes that has to be killed daily must be uncountable. The city generates around 2,400 million liters of sewage every day. One fourth of this sewage reaches the sea untreated. The more cities expand the more they seem to be bursting at the seams. Extreme criminal behavior gets locked up in prison, extreme poverty gets huddled into slums. The ugliness society generates is staggering and hard to miss. We still keep trying to sweep it under the carpet, quite literally. And we learn to ignore what leaks out. If it still gets to you, we have pills to dull your kindness.

Every serious crime is a failure of society. A majority of crimes from fraud to rape to murder are committed by a family member or a person known to the victim. Instead of getting to the root of this derangement we choose not bring it up in the interest of the greater good or lock up the convicts and forget about it. If the prisons overflow, we outsource the problem to service providers like in the US or simply let some of the prisoners walk out like in India. Perhaps this is the only way society can function, through a clusterfuck of power structures. The greater good is often only good for a few Queen bees at the top. What works for the collective need not work for the individual. What is profitable is very often not healthy and almost always polluting. So with great effort one must learn to think like a person and not a corporation.

A majority of the world’s population lives in urban conglomerates, crowded psychotic masses of greed and compulsiveness. The market that emerges also rewards anxiety. Calm and balanced workers are seldom rewarded in business and artistic spheres. The answer is always more, not less. Metros over highways, flyovers over existing flyovers, towers over towers till the entire sky is blotted out. If at all you remember to look up, only haze can be seen. All of this monstrosity just so that you can own 8 different pairs of sneakers!

The sheer distance one has to drive away from a city to be free of billboards and advertisements tells you how fucked the city is. Mumbai and Pune have almost merged into one continuous real estate project. Eventually the only meadows left will be the ones in the metaverse. And there will be digital hoardings there as well.

Many of you reading this can afford a life in the mountains starting next week. But you will only day dream about it, never actually do it. We can’t quit the toxicity of the city, it is the ultimate drug. And we have all sabotaged our freedom with EMIs we don’t need and relationships we didn’t choose. The constant noise also provides the trance we need to avoid any real introspection. And; of course, cities have facilities like hospitals that treat the very diseases the city gave you in the first place. Great writers emerge to talk about human struggle against unnatural odds that only industrialization can provide. Innovations are produced to solve problems that only a metropolis can make possible.

And then there are some model cities to aspire to. The ones which have more plants per person than the minimum required to stay alive and a couple of bicycle tracks. We learn to strive for these photo ops and forget that a potted plant is about as healthy as a caged animal and just as tragic. ‘Plant Mommies’ and ‘Cat parents’ are doing little more than filling their emotional voids with childish self-affirmations. Cats are in fact invasive species that prey on birds and their eggs further reducing the bio-diversity in urban areas.

Individuals may claim innocence in this train wreck that they didn’t choose to be a part of. But our actions or lack thereof are reflected in the total output of humanity, most of which is plastic. A cascade that started with the first plant being domesticated and is now a roller coaster of costly vices and even costlier solutions. The offset of all of these sins gets absorbed by nature till it collapses. We then replace gardens with plastic roses and real animals with miserable but marketable pet breeds. We mass produce food to the point where it has no nutritional value left, then substitute it with multivitamins. We fill our boredom with so much entertainment that we are paralyzed. We build market and work cultures that feed on pure stress, then go to therapy so that we can stay functional in these toxic systems.

Sure we are about to reach Mars but we have a greater percentage of the world’s population living in misery than 500 years ago. And the very inventions that got us to Mars led to the population explosion that led to more misery.

A great economist once said, ‘There are no solutions, there are only trade-offs.’ And it only gets better from here, or worse, depending on which side of the equity market you are, fat cats or starving dogs. The only thing you can do is become aware of the giant hamster wheel that you are on and try to exit, or at least run slower. For most, exiting the grind may never be possible because of debt, denial or plain circumstance. But the lesser you draw your self-worth from your position in the rat race the happier you will be. Fight the good fight but know that it is a game you are playing on someone else’s turf and life is so much more than where you end up in the pecking order.

Even if you do not believe in reincarnation or any other spiritual voodoo, know that all of this has happened countless times before. Your life with its ups and downs, small joys and petty struggles has been lived many times before by other people. Only the costumes change, slavery remains the same. Chariots get replaced by cycle rickshaws which get replaced by Uber Motos.

All the incredible struggle and goal posts that add up to your life may often seem to be overwhelming but in the larger picture of life it is merely more drama. For a majority, the weight of routine and inherited conflicts is too much to allow them to take a deep breath and even look up. But the lockdowns seemed to have changed that. Many more were able to see that life is possible beyond the boiler rooms of the cities. That we can survive without malls and 24 hour dining options. I feel this has led to a less professional but more somber population. Customer service may not be what it used to be but it is far more tolerable than the other extreme of co-founders who claim nothing short of saving the world while selling their click-farms to shady VCs.

If you have survived the lockdowns relatively intact and and are reading this blog, you have at least an outside chance of hitting the eject button. All around you are sloppy Big Foots jostling for elbow room. Forgetting that we are only guests on this planet. The more lightly you tread the smaller your pile of regrets and lower the carbon footprint for the next generation. The only legacy we are leaving behind is a wreckage of our ungraceful attempts at immortality. Steve Jobs wanted to “put a ding in the universe.” Now the world has more sweat shops and selfies than it ever needed.

Cities will continue to grow into bigger abominations for…the greater good. They are engines of growth and growth is roughly equal to decadence. No amount of human strife or ecological distress will stop it. Because efficiency always wins over empathy. But the individual can always choose to save his soul instead.

  • Punit Pania