When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Japan, the US and China, his busy schedule included meetings with Daisaku Kadokawa, Bill de Blasio and Yang Xiong, respectively—the mayors of the cities of Kyoto, New York and Shanghai, respectively. On the other hand, most of the residents of Indian cities don’t even know the names of their mayors. With such weak city-level institutions, it is not a coincidence that Indian cities find themselves in the morass that they are in.

A quick look at the problems of major urban agglomerates in the country paints a grim picture. Chennai finds itself reeling under devastating floods that have killed more than 300 people. While unprecedented rainfall was responsible for the deluge, the fact that the city was not prepared to face the calamity was exposed—unfortunately, at the avoidable cost of many lives. The development of urban infrastructure over marshes and river basins, with scant regard to regulatory norms, means that the accumulated water had hardly any escape route. Add to that the spectre of climate change, which has already begun to show its impact, and the coastal cities have their work cut out.

While coastal cities have a natural advantage of fresh sea breeze in tackling air pollution, the geography of India’s land-locked capital is such that it creates a trap for severely polluted air. Currently carrying the dubious distinction of being the world’s most polluted city, New Delhi is home to people who live in an undeclared state of public health emergency. Admonished by the Delhi high court for the lack of a comprehensive plan to tackle the deteriorating air quality, the Delhi government has announced that private vehicles with odd and even registration numbers will be allowed on roads on alternate days starting from next month. While desperate times call for drastic measures, there is no substitute for the conventional tools of economics—like congestion pricing and parking charges. The rationing of roads has been previously tried in many countries with none yielding either citizen compliance or any significant long-term improvement in air quality.

A different kind of pollution has reared its head in Bengaluru: the discharge of untreated industrial waste that has converted lakes into toxic froth. Winds carry this froth to the streets and into homes, greatly inconveniencing commuters and residents. With added inflow of combustible fuels, flames have been spotted in these lakes.

It is undeniable that urbanization is a veritable opportunity in the growth trajectory of any nation. However, poor administrative design, utter lack of foresight by policymakers and acute deficiency of regulatory capacity mean that India is engaged in a bittersweet negotiation with urbanization. Take for instance, the absurd ceilings on floor space index that have kept Indian cities—as Edward Glaeser puts it in his masterpiece work Triumph of the City—“too short and too expensive" where “too few Indians can connect with each other and with the outside world". Such policies, while benefiting the builder mafia-bureaucrat-politician nexus, produces an urban sprawl with long commuting distances, a culture of private vehicles and, hence, traffic congestion and poor air quality. In the process, the essence of a city—where proximity allows smart people to meet and generate new ideas—gets lost.

Mahatma Gandhi once said: “The true India is to be found not in its few cities, but in its 700,000 villages." The growth of the nation depends not on cities, but on its villages, he added. Glaeser is unequivocal: “The great man was wrong. India’s growth depends almost entirely on its cities." One can also recall B.R. Ambedkar’s view of villages as sinks of localism, dens of ignorance and institutions of oppression.

It has now become a cliché to say that cities are the engines of growth. In India, these engines, at the moment, are choking. Indian cities need better infrastructure, intelligent regulation of their activities and transparent enforcement, a modern public transport system with much higher capacity, capabilities to deal with borderless problems like terror and climate change, better pricing strategies for energy use and amenities like roads and parking spaces, and most importantly, greater devolution of fiscal, administrative and political capital.

In short, give them the attention and resources they deserve and the Indian cities will show their magic.

Should the Indian cities be empowered to face the challenges of the new century? Tell us at views@livemint.com

Close