The future for urban India

The future for urban India
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First Published: Thu, Aug 13 2009. 01 15 AM IST

Photo: Ramesh Pathania / Mint
Photo: Ramesh Pathania / Mint
Updated: Thu, Aug 13 2009. 11 36 AM IST
A slow but unstoppable change is taking place in India. It will affect everything people do, the very way they live and work. No, I’m not talking about climate change, but the ongoing urban expansion. The problems are staggering, and it is imperative that we pay attention immediately to the possibilities and consequences.
Photo: Ramesh Pathania / Mint
In 2001, when the last census was taken, only 28% of the Indian population—about 285 million people—lived in urban settings. Using a conservative assumption that India’s historically slow rate of urban increase will not change dramatically, the widely accepted projection is an urbanization level of around 40% in 2030. This, it should be noted, would be below the current global level of 50% and far below the 80%-plus level of Europe and North America. By 2030, India’s total population will be around 1.5 billion—the largest in the world—therefore, the urban population will be around 600 million, more than twice as much as in 2001.
Let us consider five questions with far-reaching implications:
First, where will these additional 300 million people live? Where will urban growth likely take place? Over the last two decades, a fairly clear pattern has emerged in which employment growth is concentrating in a few regions. For instance, the western corridor, stretching from Ahmedabad, through Vadodara, Bharuch, Surat, Valsad, Nashik, and Mumbai into Pune, is the country’s major industrial region today. Similarly, the Bangalore-Chennai corridor, while much smaller, is a significant region of employment and population growth. By contrast, there are vast stretches of the country where there is little employment or urban growth, other than through natural increase.
Second, what type of settlements are likely to absorb such a large population growth: new or existing ones? India’s experiment with creating new settlements has resulted in some sedate cities— Ranchi, Bhilai, Durgapur—but no metropolises. Moreover, few new “cities in the fields” are being created, none by the state. It is clear that the bulk of the coming urban growth will be in existing settlements. These are already densely packed and are being made even denser as a result of the demand for urban land. Developers are making bold—and potentially outrageous—proposals for converting slum land. And, most visibly, the existing settlements are spreading outward into massive developments such as Gurgaon and Dwarka, New Delhi.
This raises the third question: How large can a metropolis become? Mumbai has gone from a population of eight million in 1981, to 12 million in 1991, to 18 million in 2001—a 50% growth rate per decade. How much bigger can it become? 25 million? 50 million? Even the latter—which would be far larger than anything that’s ever been seen anywhere—would absorb just 10% of the projected urban growth by 2030. Imagine the possibility: 10 Mumbais, each with 50 million people, or 20 Mumbais, each with 25 million people. The arithmetic is jaw-dropping.
Fourth, how will people get into and around a city that has grown to a population of, let’s say, 30 million by 2030? How many airports and miles of highway will it need, and is there a train system that can handle this amount of people? If a subway system is not feasible, should elevated rail systems be used? What are the local environmental and energy implications of moving so many people around on a regular basis? It is not clear that there has been much thinking on transportation alternatives for this impending city.
Fifth, where will the poor live in this city? Whatever else one may say about Gurgaon or Navi Mumbai, these places are not designed for the poor. If anything, they are designed to keep the poor out. If current trends continue, it’s quite possible that Indian cities will become symbols of a new apartheid, with vast slums surrounding enclaves of middle-class comfort. Therefore, it is necessary to design policies that cross-subsidize housing from the middle class to the poor. This could be done by adequately taxing the sale of land and buildings, charging the real cost of utilities such as water and electricity, and enforcing low-income housing quotas on private sector real estate firms. All of these options will face serious political opposition, as the policymakers and implementers come from the very class that will have to lose its subsidies and pay for this.
Each of these questions, as well as many others not mentioned here, is complicated. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that there does not exist an institutional framework to approach the questions comprehensively. One institutional barrier is India’s Constitution; urban development is a state subject, and therefore the solutions, such as they are, remain piecemeal. The second major problem is the dearth of institutional capacity. India does not have trained urban professionals, the data that do exist are fragmented, rules are made on the fly, land transactions are opaque, and there is no strategy or vision, nor a way to get to one. If India is going to have any hope of handling an urban growth of at least 250 million people in the next two decades, it has to begin by creating institutional capacity. It is time to get serious about the coming urban age.
An earlier version of this article appeared in India in Transition (http://casi.ssc.upenn.edu/iit). Sanjoy Chakravorty is a professor and chair of the department of geography and urban studies at Temple University. Comment at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Aug 13 2009. 01 15 AM IST
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