Nagpur: A year ago, this relatively small, nondescript city in the heart of India did not have an air-conditioned cinema. In the sweltering heat of May, the rich here were known to fly one hour to Mumbai to see a movie. There they stocked up on Levi’s jeans and Domino’s pizza and other big-city treats that Nagpur failed to provide. But in a social experiment highly unusual for India, the government has handpicked Nagpur to be fattened and primped into an international metropolis.
Lush parks and smooth roads have been laid, and malls and multiplex cinemas have sprouted. A drastically renovated airport is to become the cargo hub of India, with a terminal that is 100 times larger than the existing one and is to handle at least 100 jets at a time instead of the current five. An ecofriendly mass-transit system is being planned to absorb an expected surge in road traffic, years before the average Nagpurian owns a car.
The government is building a special economic zone (SEZ) with tax breaks and ready-to-use water, electricity and fiber optic cable, in the hope of attracting 100,000 technology jobs to a city long dominated by coal mining.
Borrowing a chapter from China’s playbook, the government has begun working to make metropolises out of smaller, isolated cities, from Jaipur in the north to Vijayawada in the east to Mysore in the south, garnishing them with fresh infrastructure like international airports and financial grants linked to improvements in governance.
“One hundred million people are moving to cities in the next 10 years. It’s important that these 100 million are absorbed into second-tier cities instead of showing up in Delhi or Mumbai,” said Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman, Planning Commission.
Since its independence in 1947, the city-building philosophy of India has been, to put it tenderly, laissez-faire. Except for the recently developed technology hubs of Bangalore and Hyderabad, India has not added cosmopolitan, globally connected metropolises to its old ones: Kolkata, Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai. As the population tripled, the 1.1 billion people living on about three million sq. km were left to scramble for space and opportunity in the few thousand sq. km that contained well-paid jobs, 24-hour electricity and air-conditioned cinemas.
To take just one measure of the shortage of developed metropolises, there are 65 million Indians for every airport with the 3km runway required by large jetliners, according to the US Central Intelligence Agency. In the US, the figure is 1.6 million people; in China, 25 million.
No one knows if India has the stamina to build Nagpur to completion, and then build 20 more. But many experts regard metropolis-building as a silver bullet for India, slaying many problems with a single shot.
“Much of India’s future will undeniably be made in the second-tier cities,” said Ashutosh Varshney, a specialist on Indian political economy at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. New metropolises could erode poverty, easing the load on cramped, Dickensian cities and creating more hubs where rural migrants can go for jobs in textile mills or the retail sector. More international airports could help raise incomes for the 700 million rural Indians by making it easier for their produce to reach export markets.
The metropolis-building might also be an environmental boon. Cities such as Nagpur can grow on an ecofriendly model, with green spaces, mass transit and rainwater harvesting.
Investors have long known this. What is new is the enthusiasm of the government, which has pledged in the last two years to spend $29 billion (approx. Rs1.2 lakh crore) over seven years to upgrade 63 cities. More than half the funds are reserved for 56 cities with populations below four million.
One fact separates Nagpur, with an estimated 2.5 million people, from the other 55: When the government selected it as the air cargo hub, it guaranteed sceptical investors that this city would eventually rank with the busiest airports in the world. Nagpur was chosen because it lies near the geographic centre of India and is a crossroads of road and rail traffic. “It has the potential to be the growth nucleus of central India,” Lokesh Chandra, the Nagpur municipal commissioner, said. And, in Nagpur, the blueprints of the new airport suggest that here, at least, India has genuinely broken with its old build-it-only -after-a- catastrophic-shortage approach to infrastructure, adopting something closer to the Chinese if-you-build-it-they-will-come philosophy.
Today, the Nagpur airport is an airstrip. But the blueprints foreshadow radical change. Nagpur got its first international flight just 18 months ago, but it is already planning a second runway long enough for jets like the Airbus A380. A new terminal, already being built, will occupy 300,000 sq.m, up from 3,000 sq.m. It is designed to accommodate 14 million passengers a year.
Next to the airport is a vast SEZ. Boeing Co, the plane maker, is setting up a maintenance hub there, and in an adjoining technology park Indian outsourcing vendors such as Satyam Computer Services Ltd and HCL Technologies Ltd have signed up for land.
Together, the airport, cargo operation and park are expected to employ more than 100,000 people. The project has made Nagpur’s renaissance a fait accompli for many investors, and their enthusiasm has bid up real estate prices. A decade ago, an acre of land on the main street, Wardha Road, sold for Rs1,00,000. Today, it costs 20 to 40 times more, developers say.
To some, it feels like a bubble. Alok Tiwari, executive editor of The Hitawada, the local newspaper, said investors were anticipating a boom, but that the underlying fuel of a boom had yet to arrive. “We’ve got to create opportunity, not just take land and build a mall there,” he said. Some entrepreneurs accuse the government of building the SEZs at the expense of clearing the thicket of taxes and regulations that hinders growth outside those rarified enclaves. “Government is not trying to help,” said Vijaykumar, a developer whose family-run company built Nagpur’s first shopping mall. Yet the boom is real enough that Vijaykumar is investing heavily in new office towers, houses and malls.
That may be enough. Nagpurians marvel at how, with every new mall, the young discover wants they never had before. They work harder to afford those wants. More malls are built to satisfy them. And after a time, the cycle acquires its own momentum. Vishwas Chaknalwar, a builder, put it this way. “Once you wear Pyramid clothes,” he said, referring to a new mall here, “you cannot wear anything else.”