Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

A futuristic city for an urban future

India is perhaps on the cusp of an unprecedented round of city creation

Jawaharlal Nehru had said when work began on the new city of Chandigarh, soon after Independence, that it should be an expression of India’s faith in the future. Prime Minister Narendra Modi should give a similar modernist message when he lays the foundation stone this week of Amaravati, the new capital city of Andhra Pradesh. Cities are more than their masonry. They should have modernity in the air. The builders of the ambitious new city should learn from the failures of earlier projects—not just in India, but around the world— that ended up as large construction sites but failed to create an urban zeitgeist.

India is perhaps on the cusp of an unprecedented round of city creation. Amaravati will be the most closely watched project because of the sheer scale of ambition outlined by Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu. It will have a master plan created by urban planners from Singapore, an area six times that of Chennai, promises to build great infrastructure, boulevards and open spaces, 127km of expressways, 135km of mass rapid transport, and a minimal carbon footprint.

And there are several other projects in the works, from private cities such as Lavasa near Pune to the 24 new cities that could eventually come up along the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor to the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City, which seeks to become a global financial hub.

These are important initiatives. This newspaper has even earlier said that India needs a hundred new cities if it is to provide opportunities for a growing population that is clearly keen to move out of villages. The reform of existing cities continues to be a worthwhile project, be it on the governance, financing, infrastructure or job creation fronts. Many of them were also greenfield cities, built by the colonial authorities as centres of administration, military occupation and trade in raw materials to feed the mills of Manchester. They later emerged as the home of a new professional class, the first Indian businessmen, an industrial labour force and were the crucibles of early nationalism.

But it is no secret that most of them are groaning under the weight of a space crunch, poor housing quality, tattered infrastructure and financial stress. Some may even have reached the stage when the economies of scale have been replaced by diseconomies of scale, which sometimes leads to ethnic friction.

It is thus time to build new cities like Amaravati. Why? Take a look at the demographic backdrop. Rural India is in decline. One of the most interesting data points from the 2011 census is that the urban population grew more than the rural population for the first time since the numbers began to be totted up.

This demographic inflection point cannot be explained away as a mere statistical illusion after 2,500 human settlements that were defined as villages in 2001 were reclassified as towns in 2011. Four states actually saw their rural population decline. The rural population of the states in peninsular India grew much slower than the urban population in the decade ended 2011. And that was also the case in states such as Punjab and West Bengal. In fact, most of the increase in rural population came from the two Gangetic states that continue to have immense political heft, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Indians are voting with their feet. There is one useful way to look at this demographic transition. It is a shift from the traditionalist Gandhian view of a country contentedly living in its utopian villages to the modernist Ambedkarite vision of people choosing the freedom of the cities to escape oppression in the villages. What this also means is that the success of new cities such as Amaravati should be measured not just in terms of their physical infrastructure, but also in terms of their ability to create an institutional culture that promotes modernity, cosmopolitanism, economic opportunity, entrepreneurship, creativity and cultural freedom.

Are cities like Amaravati the future of modern India? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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