The urban inflection plant

The urban inflection plant
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First Published: Mon, Feb 26 2007. 06 09 AM IST
Updated: Mon, Feb 26 2007. 06 09 AM IST
My first job out of business school was on Citibank’s New York trading floor. Armed with my discounted cash-flow logic, I suggested that the market was over-valued. A wizened trader leaned over kindly—a rare emotion in the industry, as I soon discovered—and said, “Remember, young fellow, the trend is your friend.”
I have since found many applications for this term, often outside the financial market. It is hard to find a more apt phrase to describe urbanizing India. We were 28% urban in 2001, we will be 50% in 2030—600 million urban Indians. Absorb this for a moment. Because nothing can stop it.
Unfortunately, quality of life in urban India stinks. While the upper classes get terrible urban services—poor quality roads, water supply, public spaces—we can at least secede from the system: sumps and pumps, UPS systems, security guards, chauffeur-driven cars, private schools and hospitals. The ones really getting shafted are the poor: no water supply or sanitation, no affordable housing, poor public transport, abysmal public education systems and health-care delivery. Can our cities ever dig themselves out of this hole?
The world’s great cities weren’t born great. Consider this:
“Household liquids and wastewater were cast on the ground (and) wastewater and stormwater (flowed) through the streets… It was common for citydwellers to use streets as a dumping ground for all manner of refuse.” New York City, 1900s, from Sanitary City by Martin Melosi.
“The ‘Abyss’ is an economic pit of despair, one into which pours a flood of vigorous strong life that perishes by the third generation. The city is a large maw into which tumble down the exploited millions, who eke out their lives in misery, dumb desperation and filth”—London, 1900s, in Jack London’s People of the Abyss.
While these western cities face challenges even today, they have come a long way from overflowing sewers and intergenerational hopelessness. The message: cities change.
Urban India is changing as well. I say this because I see the stirrings everywhere. Some of this is from our institution’s work, others because of my role as National Technical Advisor to the Government of India’s Jawarharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), among the world’s largest urban initiatives today. Let me describe what I have seen just in the past few weeks.
I heard chief minister Y.V.R. Reddy in Hyderabad 10 days ago, when he spoke of the need for ‘Rural AND Urban, rather than Rural OR Urban’, acknowledging cities while remembering how Chandrababu Naidu lost. Last Thursday, I was in Ahmedabad for the state’s first-of-a-kind Urban Summit. Chief minister Narendra Modi said: “40% of Gujarat lives in cities, but already 50% of our people are impacted.” Skillfully weaving the rhetoric of politics and progress, he stated: “We can’t wait any more, our cities have been ignored for too long.” Gujarat has put its money where its mouth is: the 11th Five-Year-Plan for 2007-12 envisages spending Rs25,000 crore for urban infrastructure, a TWENTY-FOLD increase from the previous plan. Wow.
It’s not just top-down stuff. Two Saturdays ago, I was in Juhu, holding a workshop for the newly-elected independent ward corporator, Adolf D’Souza and his area sabha representatives. They made history in Mumbai’s municipal elections by converting Juhu’s well-known history of civic activism to political legitimacy.
The corporate sector is also getting engaged. Nandan Nilekani was for long corporate India’s urban lone-ranger. There are others now. The newly-formed EuroIndia Forum, co-chaired by Anand Mahindra, held its first conference in Goa in early February. The theme—Urban India, 2020. A few days before that, Lakshminayaran of MICO co-hosted an ‘Urban Conclave’ for CII.
Academia, too, is interested: Raghu Rajan of Chicago and Tarun Khanna of Harvard want to kick-start urban datasets, while Oxford University’s India Research Centre wants to include an urban theme.
Old hands like Rakesh Mohan and O.P. Mathur say they have never seen this kind of energy for urban change before. This is key because the most important ingredient for change is the attention and creativity of a critical mass of people. Only then can we visualize vibrant, livable urban centres in India, with something for everyone: great public spaces, high quality, affordable mass transport, housing for all, 24x7 water supply. Looking at our urban chaos today, it seems foolish to be optimistic, but I have no doubt. We are at the inflection point of urban change in India.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder of Janagraha. Mobius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, will blur boundaries. It will be about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at
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First Published: Mon, Feb 26 2007. 06 09 AM IST
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