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Late last year, the Delhi high court dismissed a petition that sought to challenge the state government’s decision to create a bus rapid transit system (BRT) by shrinking the road space for private motor vehicles across the city to facilitate smoother public transport.

The clinching evidence the court cited in delivering its ruling was illuminating of the political economy of the emerging debate on urbanization that puts public good above private space.

The court noted that two cars occupied the same road space as a single bus. But the two cars would transport three people each while the bus would carry 40 people in non-peak hours and about 60-70 in peak hours; including those who disembark in between terminals, the number of passengers carried by the bus would rise to 200.

Implicitly, the two-judge bench of Pradeep Nandrajog and Manmohan Singh joined the debate on urbanization with their ruling. It was a recognition of a new trend wherein decisions on the desirable contours of urbanization are often found to be in conflict with a newly acquired sense of private space among the affluent.

Some of the conflicts, as in the case of BRT, are now being adjudicated on by the judiciary while the others are beginning to be debated in legislatures.

India’s haphazard urbanization is leading to attendant consequences that can no longer be ignored.

Take the example of Bangalore, which, from being a retirement abode, has rapidly emerged as one of the fastest growing cities in the country. The city’s population rose by nearly 40% in a decade to 5.68 million people in 2000, while the built-up area grew by only one-fifth from 194.54 sq. km over the same period, according to data analysed by the Indian Institute of Human Settlements (IIHS). Inevitably, the mismatch led to congestion.

In the subsequent decade, the situation went from bad to worse; and today, the city represents almost everything that can go wrong with a city.

The bad news is that policy mandarins are still struggling, not just in Bangalore but across urban India, to respond to the situation. The good news is that, undoubtedly, the Bangalore experience has brought the debate on desirable contours of urbanization to centre stage; consequently, policies are now being tweaked, as in the case of the introduction of BRT in New Delhi and Ahmedabad, to address the challenge of urbanization.

“Growth of urban agglomerations, especially outside urban administrative boundaries, is incoherent and un-coordinated, driven by real estate developers and market forces, rather than urban planning," says H.S. Sudhira, an urban researcher and author of a working paper on land cover of Indian cities, to be published by IIHS, an institution that focuses on urban transformation.

Analysts believe that sensible urbanization that seeks to improve the quality of urban life for all demographies can actually be monetized through a multiplier effect on the economy.

For instance, an efficient public transport system will disincentivize the use of cars, not only lowering pollution but also reducing the dependence on crude oil imports. In other words, it can pay for itself. Better cities are also about improved human capital, less incidence of disease, more opportunity for leisure and, thus, less stress, making for a more productive, happier workforce in general, which will also contribute to the economy.

“Urbanization is seen as inevitable, when it should be seen as essential to economic growth. I think we are in denial about it," says Isher Judge Ahluwalia, chairperson of the Indian Council for International Economic Relations, a think tank, and also chairperson of a government-appointed High-Powered Expert Committee (HPEC) that in March 2011 published the influential Report on Indian Urban Infrastructure and Services.

While preparing the report, she said she realized that “although there were many experts in specific aspects of urban development, the urban debate itself was not part of the larger policy debate in the country".

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A file photo of the Bangalore Metro’s trial run in October 2011. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Ahluwalia equates the discourse on urbanization today to the debate surrounding the pros and cons of liberalization in the 1980s, predicting that it will gather momentum in the near future. “If we could move from a heavy industry-dominated, public sector-dominated, closed economy in the ’80s to liberalization in the ’90s, I have no doubt that the transition (of the urbanization debate) will be faster."

While the merits of urbanization are often contested, there is little debate that Indian cities are driving India’s gross domestic product (GDP).

“The top 100 largest cities are estimated to produce about 43% of India’s GDP," says a report titled Urban India 2011: Evidence, published by IIHS. Economic output is concentrated “in districts that host some of the largest cities, across most economic sectors, especially services, but including manufacturing".

The HPEC report says that “higher levels of per capita income are associated with higher levels of urbanization" across Indian states, and predicts that the urban share of GDP will “increase to 75% in 2030".

“Cities could generate 70% of net new jobs created to 2030, produce more than 70% of Indian GDP and drive a near four-fold increase in per capita incomes across the nation," says the McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of consulting firm McKinsey and Co., which, in 2010, published a provocative report titled India’s Urban Awakening: Building Inclusive Cities, Sustaining Economic Growth.

Cities such as Mumbai and Delhi, and their immediate metropolitan areas, could each sustain an economy of more than $250 billion annually by 2030, according to the report. That exceeds the annual GDP of many countries.

However attractive the idea of cities as economic growth engines, the ground reality of urban life in India is far less palatable. Congestion, pollution, vast proportions of uninhabitable accommodation and impoverished living standards characterize most fast-growing Indian cities. Delhi and Mumbai featured in the bottom half of a list of 95 global cities in terms of prosperity and urban development, according to State of the World’s Cities 2012/2013, a recent report by United Nations Habitat, the UN agency for human settlements.

For Indian cities to fulfil their potential, “spatial development must be linked with economic development", emphasizes Ahluwalia.

The straightforward argument has complex implications.

First, it suggests that the physical growth of any urban agglomeration must be planned for it to keep pace with a swelling population and activity. Second, urban agglomerations must evolve in ways that adequately accommodate the changing nature of their economies.

Most Indian cities fail to meet either criteria.

“Apart from a few relatively well-managed cities such as Surat and Ahmedabad, built-up area has been growing faster than population in nearly all of India’s largest cities for the past two decades, implying low-density sprawl, " Sudhira says.

Cities’ official, administrative boundaries are often smaller than actual boundaries, and municipal corporation jurisdiction varies considerably across India.

In cities such as Kolkata, the municipal corporation jurisdiction is a small subset of the actual built-up area of the city’s urban agglomeration.

“Growth first, development later is the reality," admits a senior town planner in a large municipality in Maharashtra who requested anonymity. “Artificial land-use and development control regulations inhibit planned development. When infrastructure is provided after growth has taken place, service parameters are compromised."

Haphazard growth near a city’s periphery translates into inadequate municipal services, such as piped water supply, sewage systems or solid waste management.

Deepak Parekh, chairman of Housing Development Finance Corp. Ltd (HDFC), India’s biggest mortgage lender, echoes the need for a greater focus on urban development. “Our state governments are totally unaware of the problems that their cities will face 10-20 years from now," he says, adding that it stems from “a lack of awareness, a lack of initiative, a lack of resources, a lack of foresight and a lack of planning".

Rather than waiting for population growth to take place before providing services, states should move fast to form new municipalities and take the initiative to develop areas on the outskirts of urban centres, Parekh says.

Indian towns and cities are characterized by a particularly dangerous combination of low-rise construction, high-density population in their central areas, and almost non-existent mass rapid public transport. Simply put, more and more people are squeezed into limited spaces without sufficient provisions to move from one place to another.

Most cities with a low-rise built environment are either generously laid out (such as Los Angeles) or are well-defined, compact cities with low-density populations and extensive public transport networks (such as European cities). The core of most Indian cities, with a few limited exceptions, lacks both sufficient space for vehicular traffic and adequate public transport, inevitably resulting in traffic snarls.

This myopia of policymakers is attributed to the prevailing mindset that the majority of India still resides in the villages, and that urban centres account for a minority of the Indian population.

According to the 2011 Census, 68.8% of India’s population lives in the villages and is thus classified as rural.

However, “barely half of our workforce remains in agriculture, with about one-third of the rural population engaged in non-farm work", says Partha Mukhopadhyay, senior research fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, a think tank.

“India has a very restricted definition of urban, which could contribute to the size of its urban population being undercounted," adds Jessica Seddon, senior research adviser to the IIHS.

Seddon highlights the 2008 research paper Agglomeration Index: Towards a New Measure of Urban Concentration by academic researchers Hirotsugu Uchida and Andrew Nelson. The paper proposed a new urban “agglomeration index" as a more precise, and universal, measure of urban concentration.

According to the agglomeration index, as much as 52% of India’s population, based on 2001 Census data, could be regarded as urbanized, as compared with the government’s official estimate of 31%. Using Census 2011, the figure is likely to be significantly higher.

The debate is also skewed by “myths which equate urbanization with migration", says Mukhopadhyay.

Migration only accounts for 22% of the growth in urban population, according to census data, he says, clarifying that the re-classification of population from rural to urban, as places themselves “morph" from villages into towns, is responsible for nearly 30% of the growth of India’s urban population. Natural growth of population in pre-existing cities accounts for the rest of India’s urban population growth.

Weak urban planning principles and processes are also responsible for these problems, says Bimal Patel, an experienced urban planner and president of the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology, one of India’s leading architecture and planning schools.

“If (Prime Minister) Manmohan Singh changed economic planning philosophy in 1991 (as finance minister), we should change the urban planning philosophy so that it is less Soviet-style, zoning-driven and, instead, more liberal and pragmatic," he says.

This is the first in an eight-part series. Next: Avenues of growth.

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