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.

Resolving Poverty

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Attempts to resolve poverty and to grant economic justice has been the aim of planning ever since Charles Booth’s studies in London have shown it as a bane to the urbanscape. Planners have oscillated between objectives of eliminating poverty from the neighborhood and eliminating poverty from the people; both of which claim to achieve common ends through very different means. The former merely shifts the problem elsewhere and the latter puts the concerns of the people often in lieu of the economic process.

However one common strand has been to throw money at solving poverty, the logic being isn’t poverty defined as the lack of monetary resources so more of money would be good, right? On the contrary such methods have not only failed to make a dent in the larger issue of poverty but have often compounded the problem. Neoclassical economists will believe in letting the people choose what they want by giving them financial means to do so and if they fail to alleviate their problem, central planners will say, see we told you they cannot make the best decisions for themselves but we have to make it for them. Thus goes the struggle in trying to resolve poverty and only more money gets thrown at a problem that isn’t even close to being solved. The poverty issue has once again found its place in the limelight thanks to John Edward’s Two Americas presidential campaign.

However contrary to the popular opinion, poverty is more of a sociological problem than an economic or political one. But approaches to solve it from a social perspective by first trying to understand its underlying causes have often found lacking. I don’t propose to offer a silver bullet solution for poverty alleviation in this article (if I had one, wouldn’t I be running for President?) but rather shed some light on recent attempts especially at MIT and other top universities in trying to understand the problem and work toward finding a solution.

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