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.

In this new paradigm of development where hi-tech companies dominated the economic landscape, the cities became the primary driver of India’s development. The most profound impact was on cities hitherto dismissed as B and C class cities: Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad. In less than a decade, Bangalore, taking advantage of its higher educational facilities, skilled workforce and salubrious weather transformed itself from a ‘’pensioners paradise’’ to the ‘’Silicon valley of the east’. Leveling of the playing field, as Thomas Friedman has termed the flattening of the world accorded these cities a near-equal opportunity to boost their economic growth. No longer were megapolises like Delhi and Mumbai the magnets they once were. It is not as if the importance of these cities has necessarily diminished—they have continued to grow at a fervent pace—however, the belief that easy movement of labor and capital facilitated by advances in telecommunications and transportation is more important than geographic location has gained credence leading to the growth of several mofussil regional centers. As land prices in cities like Bangalore and Pune skyrocket, companies are increasingly looking towards smaller towns like Ludhiana and Coimbatore. It is quite clear that India would continue to experience en masse movement of populations within and to urban regions. Given the continuing dominance of the state even in the post-liberalization era, has the state taken the right steps toward building India’s future cities. The answer, unfortunately, is an emphatic no. India’s urban infrastructure has crumbled in the face of this rather rapid growth: roads are overcrowded, shortage of electricity and water is a perennial problem, and in most major cities, almost half the population lives in slums.

In fact, it could be argued that the overbearing influence of the state is responsible for many of the problems which plague urban India. State continues to remain the largest landowner—worse, there is little distinction its role as a property developer and as a regulator. In cities like Delhi, government bodies like the Delhi Development Authority have completely monopolized urban development. Their extremely tardy performance—people sometimes have to wait for as many as 25 years for their cherished flat or a piece of land—has led to the growth of slums and illegal colonies. Land needs to be freed of government control and private developers should take the center stage. Along with it, legislative reforms are essential. Laws like the Urban Land Ceiling Act (ULCA) and Urban rent Control Act( URCA) are dinosaurs from another era that need to be scrapped immediately. Unfortunately, special interest groups like the trader bodies have continued to resist reform. Considering that they have harmed the poor the most by sending land prices to astronomical levels, a government which ostensibly speaks for the aam aadmi should have no hesitation in removing them from statue books.

The second crucial issue is the lack of infrastructure. State electricity boards continue to supply power to most Indian cities. Their services are poor and erratic and transmission and distribution (T&D) losses—an euphemism for theft is close to 50%. The situation is not much better in case of water or for that matter sewer. Here again the government needs to step down from its commanding heights and let the private sector do the job. The example of BSES is illustrative; the company, India’s oldest private sector electricity distributor has ensured almost uninterrupted electricity supply in Mumbai—surely, a luxury by Indian standards.

Even worse is the state of urban transport. With rising income levels, and a more consumerist culture, Indian roads are groaning under the weight of cars and other modes of private transport. The government has responded to this challenge by constructing an ever greater number of flyovers in cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. As many urban transport experts have pointed out, flyovers provide only temporary relief. What is required is a modern, efficient urban transport system Unfortunately only two cities in India currently boast of a metro system. An efficient mass rapid transport system with feeder buses would go a long way in solving the problem of overcrowding in Indian roads. The example of Navi Mumbai is illustrative; it only took off when the local trains service was extended till Belapur and eventually Panvel. The rapid commuting option, as with the suburbanization in American cities put the development of Navi Mumbai on the fast track. Most urban transport systems in the world are unprofitable due to the extremely high capital costs. However, they more than recover their costs in the form of indirect saving: reduction in pollution and commuting time. Hence, the state should take the lead in developing urban transport system adopting the hugely successful Delhi metro model. This will also allow the state to utilize other policy tools for reducing private transport: enhanced parking rates and congestion charges in the Central Business District (CBD) areas to give just two examples.

Perhaps, the biggest challenge Indian cities face is solving the problem of slums where millions of Indians continue to live amidst poverty, squalor and disease. The state’s response has been to let the slums grow, largely under political pressure and then attempt demolitions. It is quite clear that millions of people simply cannot be thrown out of their homes. Currently in Mumbai, the Slum redevelopment Agency (SRA) is attempting the re-development of Dharavi slums by involving private parties. While the jury is still out on how successful will this model be, it is quite clear that only this kind of private-public partnership with active involvement of the slum dwellers can help solve the problem of slums. Needless to add, this policy will only succeed in conjunction with legislative and administrative reforms advocated above along with a zero tolerance policy towards future squatters.

Finally the philosophical question: What should be our urban planning model? Some policy makers have often looked up to the Singapore model and advocated the benefits of central planning in directing the growth of the city. As the example of India’s previously planned cities like Chandigrah and Gandhinagar has shown, that may not always be the best answer. City planning is one of the few sectors where the public and private sector can work individually toward common goals. The government should take a backseat in macro-planning, invest in essential infrastructure, tackle environmental issues, and simply creates opportunities for businesses to prosper. India doesn’t necessarily needs the ‘central planning-oriented’ government policies that have worked in China or the Singapore model—rather, by simply deferring to indomitable Indian entrepreneurial spirit that has worked wonders for the business sector; she can see the consequential effect on the form of Indian cities as well. Cities need not compete in attracting the best of all businesses (or industries) and talent but instead work at developing their competitive advantages to target the demographics and businesses best suited to its region and character.

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2 thoughts on “Rejuvenating Urban India

  1. Radha Chanchani

    Dear Sir,
    I am writing to you from Alchemy Urban Systems Pvt. Ltd, an urban planning firm based in Bangalore. We are in the process of compiling a paper titled “Techno-Legal Framework for Urban Planning in India: Lacunae in the Existing System and an Agenda for Reform”. For this purpose, we needed to study the existing planning legislation/ laws in India / different States (i.e. Regional / Town and Country Planning Acts, Land Acquisition Act, Urban Land Ceiling Act etc). We have tried an extensive web search that has turned up little in terms of documents giving the Bare Acts for these. We would greatly appreciate it if you could guide us on where one could find or access this information on the net.
    Thanking you in advance.
    Best ~
    Radha.

  2. Bharat Singh

    Well written synopsis of the state of Urban Planning in India. I would however, add two aspects that are also key in improving the urban quality.
    1) Reduction of rural to urban influx by dispersing urban/economic development stimulus to tier 3/4 cities to provide better socio-economic opportunities closer to rural areas. i believe the national level transportation projects are moving in that direction but sadly very little is being done to guide the economic stimulus that will be generated by that. There needs to be physical planning and policies that need to be put in place prior to the completion of the big highway/freight corridor projects. Our urban megacities cannot cope with the rapid increase in populations if they want to achieve better urban quality of life standards.

    2) Physical Planning standards for urban areas need a systemic overhaul to shift the focus from just providing land of development to creating sustainable urban communities. We are loosing the urban social systems that are key to a healthy society with every 20 story, isolated, gated building that pops up. If this is not regulated soon, we will end up with a very isolatory lifestyle wherein obesity and mistrust would be the norm of urban Indian living; almost mimicking the scary futures we see in dark apocalyptic futures we often see in Hollywood movies.

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