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India Urbanising: A different Perspective (Part II)

Continued from Part I
'Mamata wants to turn Kolkata into London' - screamed the headline on rediff.com some days ago. Turning Kolkata into London is definitely a worthy goal - London is one of the most livable cities in the world. However, while the creation of (present day) London was in itself challenging, doing the same in India is even more challenging.

Let’s investigate Indian urbanization strategy in a more logical manner by identifying the challenges which India faces today. India’s urbanization effort is challenged by 3 obstacles:
  • A unique combination of large population with high population density never before encountered (in the parts of the world which have been fully urbanized)
  • An existing landscape formed during different periods of history
  • Large sections of populations who have never been exposed to an urban landscape
  • Lack of existing institutions
Of these only the last one had been encountered in countries which have previously attempted urbanization, and the first two have been encountered previously by very few countries (one of them being India’s rival China).

Population Density

If we decide to house all our population only in cities of the size of Mumbai (20 million), we would still need 54 such cities – meaning if we were to convert all our cities with a population above 1 million population (45), we would still fall short by 10 cities. And imagine the gargantuan amount of money only to maintain 54 Mumbai’s, not to mention the money needed to create them.

More importantly, the more densely populated an area, the more complicated the infrastructural development for it - more high rises need to be built, much denser sewage, and more meshed the required transport systems. While a denser system is cheaper on a 'per person' basis, it is much more complicated to develop.

Transform Existing Landscape

I have written earlier how India’s current cities are a juxtaposition of medieval, British and post-liberalization developments which has created dissonance and emergence of a confused landscape. The new cities India requires cannot do with such dissonance for long. This not only leads destruction of our cultural heritage, it creates cities with a disconnect between its soul and body.

Urban Exposure

Large sections of the Indian populace are still living in a world far removed from urban infrastructure - pucca roads, safe drinking water supply, persistent electricity supply, cooking gas connection - things which we take for granted in Indian cities. The reason why these services are still not available in villages is that they are 'expensive' to provide in remote locations. The only exception to this rule are mobile phones (and in future internet access through mobile phones) - which are services being provided already to rural folk.

However, most other urban amenities are expensive and they need a high productivity society to be able to pay for these services. This also means that the only (known) way these services can be afforded are by setting up of cities, towns, townships - which shall require some kind of industry to be present in these areas. Industries will require land and hence result in displacement of existing population.

Any potential displacement would result in opposition from the natives which shall not be completely unfair. Creation of a new city would mean loss of their livelihood and since most modern industries require qualified or at least semi skilled human resource, it is unlikely that the natives would be suitable to take up jobs in the "new cities".

If one can force the rural folk to accept this change - urbanization by creation of cities is a viable option; and they are doing it in China. But in India, democracy means that opposition by the existing population to displacement means a no-no to creation of new cities. India is not China, and frankly China's method of thrusting displacement on villagers for the 'greater good' may not necessarily be a great strategy.

The only solution in hand for India is gradual and ‘in place’ modernization which shall be geographically and culturally less disruptive. This would mean providing more and more urban amenities to rural areas without displacing them. Creating an awareness about better standard of living which awaits them, if they are ready to change.

The Stumbling Block
Providing urban amenities in rural India is not just a question of reaching the rural masses. As explained above, urban amenities are 'expensive' to provide and we need to create a pull in the rural society for these services. Part III of this series would focus on answering this question.

Lack of existing institutions
Gradual growth of cities in the west allowed development of institutions both public and private. For example, cities had strong mayoralties before they became metropolices; industrial institutions became local / regional brands before they aspired of becoming global MNC behemoths and local bodies had a well defined structure before they could handle huge piles of population.

As I have highlighted earlier, prior to the British invasion, Indian cities too were developing on a similar curve, but the Indian institutions were destroyed by the early invaders. When an independent India took reigns from British administration - most of these institutions were in shambles, while the population of our cities had grown.

Now that we are re-approaching urbanization, we need to gradually develop, empower and strengthen these institutions which can only be done by first building them at a local level and the transforming them into urban scale systems.

Read Part III or the whole series.

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