How should India urbanise?

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Focus on urban centers and focus less on far-flung regions in terms of infrastructure development (even providing reliable high-speed Internet access can open up numerous business opportunities). Instead divert those resources on making our metropolitan regions more productive and efficient. Foster an entrepreneurial climate by creating knowledge corridors around institutions of higher learning. Do not fight the natural trend of clustering by trying to spread economic growth around. Some regions will always be more productive than the others. We can instead focus on making them stronger by playing to its strengths.

If there is anything we can learn from the urban development of Silicon Valley or Research Triangle in the U.S., it is the underlying importance of the feedback loops of higher education institutions and the talent they attract. The trick in making the graduates stick around by offering them a climate of entrepreneurship through social & professional networking and heavy investment in infrastructure that focuses on quality of life. Urban areas with great weather already have an upper hand and India seems to be blessed with such regions.

Obviously, this is just a big-picture comment and specific details will be subject to debate.

My answer to “How should India urbanize?” asked here Big Ideas for India Contest: Question 8: How should India urbanise? was selected as one of the 11 winners in the Big Ideas for India contest. Rajesh Jain and Atanu Dey have been exploring solutions on India’s future developmental challenges and they rightly believe in the strength of the cities as an important factor.

India’s Urban Slum Population

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As per estimates of the Committee set up by Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation under the Chairmanship of Dr. Pranob Sen, Principal Adviser, Planning Commission (former Secretary, Ministry of Statistics & Programme Implementation, and Chief Statistician, Government of India) the slum population in the country is expected to touch 93.06 million by 2011.



India too conducts its census every ten years and the sheer size of numbers blows away your mind; Uttar Pradesh, one of the states in northern India now has a population of 200 million – almost two-thirds that of the entire U.S. Although 93.06 million in slums sounds like abject poverty, in reality its not exactly true. Some 'slums' in Mumbai are hotbeds of grassrooots entrepreneurship and although living conditions could be better, not all hope is lost.

[Link to India’s Urban Slum Population]

Design Lessons From India’s Poorest Neighborhoods

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"Jugaad" is a Hindi term referring to the ingenuity of citizens living in resource-constrained environments, a concept from which New Yorkers might derive some enlightenment. Enter Jugaad Urbanism: Resourceful Strategies for Indian Cities, an exhibition created with the help of curator Kanu Agrawal that opens at New York's Center for Architecture next week.
The exhibition is "design by the people, for the people, of Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, and Pune," says Agrawal, and showcases everyday innovations of slum-dwelling residents and the designers and architects who work around them.

[Link to Design Lessons From India’s Poorest Neighborhoods]

Indian Megacities

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As the capital of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most-populous state, Lucknow has attracted hundreds of thousands of migrants from rural areas, swelling the city’s population. Yet the city hasn’t completed any major new sewage infrastructure since before the country won independence in 1947. As much as 70% of residents don’t have sewage service, leaving much of the waste to flow directly into the main river, the Gomti, which has become a stinking cesspool.

Wall Street Journal has an article on India’s megacities with the tagline that they are choking India. But is that really what is happening in India? There is an inherent understanding that there is a conflicting dichotomy between urban and rural regions. But even if it does exist, quotes in the WSJ article itself contradict its byline:

Shami Shafi, a 35-year-old laborer in Lucknow, has seen his daily income drop by half in recent months to 50 rupees, or about $1, for carrying bags of potatoes and other goods in a local market. But “I’m not going back to my village,” he says. If work gets harder to find, “I’ll just go to another city.”

Atanu Dey, noted economist and widely-respected proponent of urban India points at the real culprits of urban problems.

Rejuvenating Urban India

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co-authored by Rohit Pradhan

Back in the days when Doordarshan (Indian state television) ruled the airwaves, if you tuned in during the weather forecast, you wouldn’t be completely off the mark if you thought that India’s urban regions comprised solely of Delhi, Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras – conveniently located in four corners of India. It was the natural corollary of India’s development since independence that has always been centered on its millions of villages. The idea of making villages self-sufficient drew its sustenance from the rather utopian Gandhian ideals. India’s early leaders also believed in heavy industrialization which led to development of cities like Jamshedpur–modeled primarily along industrial cities like Detroit in the developed world. The ‘Great Leap Forward’ (in stark contrast to its Chinese counterpart), came only after the post-1991 liberalization when India embarked on a path of economic reforms and globalization. The impact of rapid liberalization and expansion of opportunities were profound especially on the morphology of Indian cities.

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Gated Communities – now available in India

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The ‘white flight’ to the suburbs was followed by other citizens who well, were not so white. When the Fair Housing Act criminalizing racial discrimination in housing came into effect followed by the gradual decline of exclusionary zoning practices like redlining, etc, communities hunkered down further by creating the ‘gated community’. Justified in the name of keeping out crime and other evil social conditions [although not always true], the gated community was the ultimate in creating a Truman’s Show world provided you had the money and of course, the right ‘attributes’. The homeowners association probably the strongest private body that can at times be so un-American played the role of the gatekeeper and of course, law-enforcer and isolator if you ever managed to crash the gates.

gated communities

In a increasingly globalized world and with the leveling of the playing field that Friedmann mistook for the flatness of the world, gated communities are making a foray in Indian cities. Expats are returning home and wish to duplicate the good life of their U.S. experiences. The market obliges and provides them with their own haven. Welcome to Palm Meadows:

It is a gated community of about 600 single family homes, with 10 or more security guards manning the gates at any given time. Some houses are big and some are small, but most houses have at least three bedrooms each. Residents of Palm Meadows are a mix of original owners, returning Indians and expats .

Heck, even the name is U.S.-centric and trust me, I have never seen a meadow of palms. But leaving that aside, it does appear to provide all you could wish for to eke out a luxurious living. Of course, considering the clients and homeowners are considered to be rich and ‘earning in dollars’, prices are steep and as Sujatha mentions, collusion among the real estate agents have hiked up the rents further. Of course, some of that wealth trickles down to the domestic help. In India, it is quite common to have domestic help, even the middle-class families have them. The only difference is in the price.

Of course, you can enjoy all you want while you are inside Palm Meadows but once you cross the gates, not even God can help you navigate through that dreaded Bangalore traffic.