India should build new cities for the new century. Immigrants build cities, but those who have come in earlier do not like the idea of new immigrants coming into “their” cities. A bit like what happens in a crowded bus: Once you have hopped on board, you don’t want the bus to stop and accommodate new commuters.
Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit’s controversial reported comment—which she subsequently denied—that there is no way to prevent the inflow of people from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar into Delhi, has been quite rightly condemned. Dixit, too, suffers from the crowded bus syndrome—her own family is originally from UP.
Her statement is the latest manifestation of anti-immigrant sentiment in our cities. Shiv Sainiks have thrashed Bihari youth entering Mumbai to appear for an examination that could give them a railway job. Terrorists in Assam have gone even further and shot dead labourers from other states. In a twist to the tale, cities such as Bangalore fester with local anger because outsiders have taken over many of the best jobs in the city’s booming outsourcing shops. Immigrants are usually the most enterprising people in their villages, and the places that receive them inevitably benefit from their skills.
India is urbanizing at a rapid pace, and will be a predominantly urban society in the next few decades. People move into cities not just in search of jobs, but also to escape the oppression of the traditional village. B.R. Ambedkar encouraged his followers to migrate to the cities to escape caste discrimination. Like it or not, the steady flow of villagers will continue for many decades to come, for economic and social reasons.
Dixit’s comment may have been a politically incorrect one, but it is not altogether baseless. Just about every major Indian city is groaning under the weight of growing population. Try driving along Bangalore’s airport road or getting into one of Mumbai’s suburban trains, for example. These cities are trying hard to tackle their infrastructure problems, but the race between new civic amenities and the influx of new immigrants is skewed towards the latter.
Where do the millions trying to get out of their villages go? One option is the second-rung cities, where the quality of life can be better, but job opportunities are still inadequate. Jaipur and Nagpur, for instance, are transforming themselves—building better infrastructure and attracting older manufacturing industries as well as new-generation businesses such as retailing and outsourcing. These non-metropolitan cities could take some pressure off the main cities.
But given the sheer force of urbanization, even that may not suffice. India needs to build new cities for the 21st century. These can act like growth hubs for various regions. Though we are generally suspicious of government intervention, the task of building new cities is clearly a job for the state—either on its own or in tandem with private developers. The economic reasoning is that building new cities entails economies of scale and positive externalities. They are a public good.
India has been obsessed with the idea that poverty alleviation is somehow linked to the quest for rural development. That is changing in recent years, perhaps for solidly political reasons. As more people live in cities, the voting power of the urban centres grows as constituency limits are periodically redrawn. In Maharashtra, for example, the Mumbai-Pune belt is likely to elect more legislators than the state’s sugar belt in the future—a power shift that the political class cannot ignore. The irresistible force of demographics will come into play in other states as well.
Recent governments have discovered the need to spend on urban development. The Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission is one result of this attitudinal change. But while India’s villages do need public investment, the country’s future lies in its cities.
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