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Home >Opinion >The Gurgaon syndrome in Indian urbanization

In many ways, Gurgaon is the exemplar of economist Edward Glaeser’s contention that cities are the ideal form of modern civilization. It has grown organically due to economic imperatives and incentives; has followed the vertical growth model that Glaeser believes is necessary for achieving the urban density best suited to creative and financial collaboration; and displays the benefits of that collaboration achieving critical mass. But it is also, as the chaos created last week by the monsoon shows, a warning of what happens when the state abandons its role of shaping and enabling that growth.

This failure has undercut the Millennium City growth story from its inception. Two decades after its creation by the Haryana government in 1979, its boom started with General Electric (GE) opening an office in 1997. Where GE led, others followed. All this, however, happened without adequate local government. There was no municipal body, with the state-level Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA) expected to build the connective infrastructure. This meant the lack of any semblance of planning—not helped by malfeasance where private developers were able to push projects through without adequate development plans.

The state of Gurgaon today reflects this. From security and electricity to water and transport, the private sector must fill in for the state’s deficiencies. Commercial and residential complexes are oases connected by decrepit urban infrastructure. Sewage disposal, a major issue, becomes a health hazard every time flooding of the kind that was seen last week occurs. There are also negative environmental consequences. The lack of adequate water supply infrastructure means that over 30,000 borewells have been dug, resulting in a rapidly receding water table. According to a Resource Optimization Initiative study, Gurgaon will have 48 litres per capita per day by 2020; the international standard is 130 litres.

Gurgaon might be one of the most visible examples of the shortfalls in Indian urbanization, but it is hardly alone. Bengaluru is currently in the midst of monsoon-created chaos as well—its transport infrastructure is terrible at the best of times—and Mumbai’s potential has been trammelled for decades by its lacking infrastructure and byzantine land market. Some common threads run through the issues these and other Indian cities face.

Firstly, urban planning in India is a strange mix of not enough planning and too much of it. On the one hand, several cities have no holistic 20-year or 40-year guidelines at all. When such plans are created, as in Mumbai and New Delhi, the process is so protracted that the end result is irrelevant. On the other, urban planning continues to be based on the UK’s Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 with an emphasis on land-use zoning and all the rigidity that comes with it; witness the floor space index constraints that have contributed to distorting Mumbai’s land market. This is contrary to current global best practices: flexible planning with local governance bodies accommodating market forces and seeing land use and urban transportation as complementary, simultaneous processes.

Secondly, the devolution of urban governance envisaged by the 74th constitutional amendment never really took place. Urban local bodies (ULBs) lack both accountability and authority. The lack of an effective mayoral system is particularly keenly felt in metropolitan regions. Devolution of urban financing is another aspect of this. Central schemes like the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission are ad hoc measures and run contrary to the principle of sustainable devolution. There are several other avenues innovative planning could explore—from monetizing state land assets to user charges for urban infrastructure such as road networks in prime areas.

Urban governance bodies also function within a tangle of overlapping jurisdictions. In Gurgaon, for instance, HUDA, the Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon, the Public Works Department, other government bodies and private developers all play in the same sandpit. The end result isn’t pretty.

According to the 2011 census, a little over 31% of the national population resides in urban areas; this is expected to grow to 40% by 2030. The increase in pressure on urban infrastructure will mean a corresponding growth in the consequences of these urban governance shortfalls. Glaeser is far from the first to speak of urbanization’s centrality to development and growth. From Jane Jacobs onwards, this has been an economic axiom. But if India is to exploit this, it must address its many, often contradictory problems where the state abandons its necessary roles and has a presence in areas that would be better served by its absence.

How can Gurgaon’s infrastructure problems be addressed? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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