Preliminary data from the 2011 census shows that Delhi has just witnessed its slowest growth in population since 1931. While not presaging a dire turn of events, a usual interpretation of such data, it does mark a new phase in the city’s life.
At a conceptual level a city is nothing but a collection of individuals and firms which get together at one location. This happens because of benefits from reduced transport costs for goods, persons and ideas. In modern times, these effects have been most pronounced in places such as the Silicon Valley and various towns that sprung around industries. This process of enlargement continues until disadvantages from very large size set in. The advantage of transportation slowly disappears as travel time for workers and managers increases, leading to real opportunity costs in terms of time. Crime and social problems, pollution and other issues also tend to make megacities lose their attractiveness as a destination for people, ideas and goods alike.
Whether Delhi has reached that point must await fuller releases of data, not only from the census, but from other sources as well. Initial indicators, however, point in that direction. While Delhi’s population grew by 20.96% in 2001-2011 (in contrast to the huge 47.02% in 1990-2001, the city’s centre—the New Delhi and central districts—witnessed a –25.35% and –10.48% growth in 2001-11, respectively. In other words, the heart of the city emptied during this period. There is some debate that a part of this change was due to a slum clearance drive by the Delhi government. But this can only be a part of the change as anecdotal evidence of large population increases in its periphery—Gurgaon and Noida—are indicators of the process of the change sketched above. Data releases in the days and months ahead will throw more light on this process.
Is Delhi, then, doomed? Not the least. But there is enough evidence to show that the state government needs to take remedial measures now to prevent a slide in that direction. There are technological fixes to some of the problems such as pollution. Others—crime, congestion and social problems—clearly require better policy responses. Even a cursory look at the data from the National Crime Records Bureau shows that crime in Delhi —whether it be murders, kidnappings and abductions—is unacceptably high when compared with all-India averages. For the city to remain an attractive destination for work and business, stemming this tide of trouble ought to be the first priority of the government.
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