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The migrant crisis points to a need for more megacities

  • Urbanization is key to ensuring that newer cities are able to provide employment so that workers don't have to travel far in search of work.

As thousands of hapless workers trudge across our highways, we all feel a sense of collective and individual guilt. The ongoing migrant crisis has seared our conscience and shaken our smug sense of a shining India rising through the global pandemic while all others collapse around us.

That's not going to happen, not at least till we recognize this crisis as symptomatic of how little we have actually achieved as a nation in the last 73 years.

That we are surprised by what's happening around us is a bit thick considering that the tragedy has been playing out in our megacities in front of our eyes. The lives of these workers in their cramped ghettos never really interested us till they finally spilled out on the streets, shocking our delicate sensibilities. Make no mistake. It isn’t just the political class, both at the Centre and states—which just refused to take responsibility for its marginalized citizens or the emasculation of the once vibrant trade union movement in India—that is to blame for the enfolding tragedy. We are all complicit in its making.

But after all the hand-wringing and the outpouring of outrage on social media, we need to recognize the roots of this tragedy.

One clear fault line is the concentration of our economic growth in a handful of large cities.

Six years after the Smart Cities Mission was launched in June 2015, we still have a situation where half a dozen large metros continue to be the drivers of our economy. This week, as thousands of people from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Madhya Pradesh crowded Bandra Station in Mumbai to go back home, the lopsided nature of our growth was evident.

The four major business centres of India, Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta and Madras, were all built by the British with their own objectives in mind. In the last few decades, Bengaluru and Hyderabad have joined that list. On the flip side, there has been an alarming fall in the fortunes of cities like Kanpur and Ludhiana, as also the relative decline of Kolkata—once the premier port city of the country, which attracted fortune-seekers and workers for nearly 300 years. Kolkata’s decline has been a double blow, robbing the eastern part of the country of a magnet to which people from nearby states like Odisha, Bihar and UP earlier gravitated for work opportunities. In addition, the drying up of industry in the state has also led to an outflow of its workers to other cities in search of livelihoods.

This concentration isn't unique to India. Most countries have a set of cities that are front runners. Mint recently quoted a study by Pierre-Alexandre Balland, Cristian Jara-Figueroa, and Cesar A. Hidalgo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to which, just 10 innovative cities in the US account for 23% of the country’s population, but 48% of its patents and 33% of its gross domestic product. Yet, when in February this year, Business Insider carried a list of US cities currently seeing the most rapid economic growth, there were names like Lehigh Acres in Florida, Bend in Oregon and Concord in North Carolina.

It is this dispersed urbanization, with newer cities emerging to stake a claim to the development engine, which prevents the kind of pressure that’s built up in India's mega cities.

Urbanization is the key to a country's growth. Successive governments have recognized that and launched urban development schemes like the Smart Cities Mission, the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation, the Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana. But these schemes haven't delivered either because of being under-funded or their inability to draw anchor investors. This is despite the fact that we now have many more cities with an economically viable size of population. According to a paper titled Imagining Smart Cities in India by Arunabha Ghosh and Mohit Sharma (bit.ly/3cORApt), there are now 53 cities in India with a population of over a million, and 468 with a population of over 100,000.

The promise of building brand new cities from ground up has been belied not just in India, but across the world. Ordos in China is an example of a city built from scratch, with the loftiest of intent. But as an inorganic entity, planted in the middle of nowhere and decreed to grow by official fiat, it has been a consummate failure. In India, a similar fate befell Lavasa, which was conceived with similar fanfare only to turn into a ghost town.

Instead of starting greenfield projects, it may be a better idea to revive some of our older centres of trade and commerce. With an extensive coastline spanning 7500kms, India has a rich tradition of maritime trade. Bharuch, for instance, was a prominent terminus for several trade routes nearly 2000 years ago. Similarly, Calicut, modern-day Kozhikode, was a great centre of trade between Europe, China and India. In more recent times, glass and glassware hub Firozabad, silk centre Bhagalpur, and even Ludhiana, once a flourishing entrepreneurial city, haven't been scaled up to become viable alternatives.

Admittedly, it isn't easy. These Tier 2 cities are still coping with basic infrastructure issues as they find themselves starved of potable water, waste disposal and sewage treatment plants, hospitals, airports and entertainment options. But all that will happen once they can attract investment from large businesses. That will obviate the need for people to travel large distances in search of work and hopefully prevent the next migrant crisis.

Sundeep Khanna is former executive editor of Mint.

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