The immigrant arriving in Mumbai has bigger worries than Raj Thackeray-style nativism: Poor infrastructure forces him or her to accept chaos as a fact of urban life. Four years ago, when the government launched the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), it appeared that this problem was at least being addressed. But, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reminded last week at a conference on JNNURM’s fourth anniversary, “urban chaos is becoming a way of life”.
Part of the problem is that there happens to be only a handful of “mega” cities with attractive opportunities for immigrants. The answer would then be to build more towns and smaller cities—a policy these columns have pushed for before—or at least spend more on infrastructure in the existing megalopolises. Even then, poor local governance could continue to hamper sound planning, as it does today.
Mint reported on Friday that real estate developers are emerging from the downturn by focusing on tier II, III and IV cities. Developers can reap profits—land is cheap and opportunities are untapped in Lucknow, compared with New Delhi—while smaller cities build capacity and generate employment. Everybody seems to win, but what if a developer encounters the same problem— land acquisition—in Lucknow, too?
Land acquisition is a thornier problem than most, but this suggests that the root of urban chaos is as much lack of governance as it is lack of physical assets. To put it plainly, cities in India are neither empowered nor accountable enough. The Maharashtra state government meddles in Mumbai affairs, as the Union government does in New Delhi—politicizing questions over what flyover goes where. And without the necessary political will to curb corruption, no amount of planning or spending can help.
That is why Singh last week emphasized the need for municipal reforms where urban local bodies are empowered. If smaller tier II cities can internalize this point soon, they may avoid the governance problems entrenched in the megalopolises.
The good news is that a small city such as Surat bagged most awards at last week’s JNNURM conference. The bad news here is that the clock continues to tick for Mumbai or New Delhi, even as more and more of India’s tired and huddled masses flock there for a better life.
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