Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

A new cartography for catalysts, not just cities

The notion of cities as places distracts the urban governance movement from the deeper institutional design challenge

Twenty-seven new smart cities were announced last week, bringing the total to 60. Sixty sites around India whose plans for infrastructure, services and citizen-friendly governance have risen above the fray to attract the government of India Smart City seal of approval and partial funding for “area-based developments" that can serve as “lighthouses" for others.

It is the latest visible manifestation of the growing recognition that cities and the evolution of cities will play a critical role in India’s development. “The growth story of India shall be written on the canvas of Planned urban development," proclaims the ministry of urban development website. Other offices, from chief ministers to Prime Minister to Niti Aayog, seem to agree this time.

Yet, as the momentum builds up, it is important to make sure we have our eyes on the right goals: that we identify, benchmark, and reward the kinds of urban evolution today that will deliver on national aspirations for tomorrow. And that’s where we need to recalibrate.

Most of the discussion about cities, their problems, the solutions and progress has focused on them as places; particular territories with infrastructure penetration, economic output, built-up areas, crime rates, air pollution, and so on to be compared, commented on, and somehow governed more effectively.

These metrics ignore the bigger picture: how what happens in these places interacts with processes unfolding elsewhere around the world. A territory’s achievements can be measured based on what happens within its boundaries. A catalyst’s effectiveness is judged by how it interacts with its surroundings; what larger reactions and dynamics it enables. We can’t expect our cities to be catalysts for national and global development if we continue to evaluate them as particular sites severed from the context of the rest of India.

If we want our cities to be innovation hubs, for example, we cannot just count the number of maker spaces, universities, incubators and start-ups. The impact of these developments depends on the flows of people and information between these interchanges and the rest of the world, including rural India.

If we want our cities to be “opportunity generators," “engines of growth," “poverty digesters," and “flywheels" for social, economic, and political change—to borrow some terms from the urban conference circuit—we cannot just count up the people and jobs within the administrative boundaries. We have to look at how urban economies fit into larger economic, infrastructure and resource networks. We have to understand the dimensions, dynamics and larger reach of cities’ ambient populations—the people who pass through and the people who stay. We have to track the infrastructure that allows information and objects to enter and exit in addition to upgrades that enable these raw materials to be transformed on site.

If we want our cities to pioneer new, more sustainable relationships between our species and the rest of the environment, we need to institutionalize attention to how the ecosystems within their boundaries connect to the watersheds and airsheds outside their jurisdictions. We need to track the indirect energy and resource use drawn from outside the boundaries as well as direct use within the boundaries.

The current focus on cities and the conditions within their territorial boundaries also distorts the politics of urban investments. It turns a discussion about a critical element in overall national development into a zero-sum struggle for allocation of limited attention and public investment.

We need to shift the frame. How many voters in rural constituencies depend on remittances from a family member in a city, and might have an interest in anything that makes that family member’s wages higher or costs lower? Not clear, but the National Council of Applied Economic Research’s National Survey of Household Income and Expenditure estimated that more than Rs41,000 crore worth of domestic remittances were flowing to 9.8 million rural households as of 2010-11. How many rural voters work at least part-time in the city and might benefit from infrastructure-easing mobility across urban-rural boundaries in addition to mobility within? S. Chandrasekhar and Ajay Sharma (2014) found that the number of workers commuting between rural and urban areas quadrupled between 1993-94 and 2009-10. More data on remittances, indirect job creation, migration, and supply chains crossing urban-rural boundaries would paint a clearer picture of the importance of urban for rural and vice-versa.

The notion of cities as places distracts the urban governance movement from the deeper institutional design challenge. We need mayors to look after the territories, but we also need diplomats who have the institutional wherewithal to interact with and form agreements with their neighbours and peers in local government elsewhere. We need to rethink the foundations for horizontal interactions as well as vertical distribution of power.

Cities are unlikely to play the same roles in overall economic growth that they have played in the past, given the changes in information flow, global supply chains and social habits. We will need to navigate new terrain, and for that, we will need a new cartography that shows us catalysts, not just cities.

Jessica Seddon is managing director of Okapi Research & Advisory and writes fortnightly on patterns in public affairs.

Comments are welcome at views@livemint.com

Close
×
My Reads Logout