Transforming (Urban) India—bit by bit

Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhyay and Dr Arjun Kumar

India is urbanising at a fast pace and is expected to house half of its population in urban areas by 2040. However, the increasing pace of urbanisation hasn’t been met by comparable planning, governance or infrastructure development. It is riddled with serious infrastructural deficits and high incidence of poverty which undermines the competitiveness of cities and their potential as drivers of economic growth.

The impact of the pandemic has further exposed the shortcomings of Indian cities and has forced us to rethink the narrative or urban sector in the last few decades. The engines for economic growth have been derailed due to major disruptions in economic activities due to the pandemic.

The ‘reluctant urbanizer’

India has been described as the ‘reluctant urbanizer’ until ten years ago when the 2011 census burst this bubble and showed that around 2774 total towns had come up in the ten years from 2001 to 2011. It is projected that in 2031, the numbers will rise exponentially, as shown in the graphs. Therefore, it is crucial that the central government realise the conditions of urbanisation across the countries and acknowledge the problems that it may pose.

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Source: Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Urban India 2011: Evidence

One of the most influential reports in recent history published by McKinsey Global Institute in 2010, entitled India’s ‘Urban Awakening’ created the mythology of urbanisation in India as it described it as being a genie which could be released from the bottle and would thereby bring jobs in urban India. However, some of the fundamental building blocks of sustainable urban living, such as planning, affordable housing, empowering city administration and urban investment were still lacking.

Urbanization in India: peculiarities and problems

The Economic Survey 2016-2017 created by IDFC Institute blows up one of the biggest myths that our particular way of measuring demography of urbanisation was a distortion of reality. The nature of the built-up space shows a ‘messy’ and ‘hidden’ urbanization, in a report by the World Bank, citing the country’s inability to deal with pressures on infrastructure, basic civic services, land and housing, due to increase in urban population. This shows how we don’t have a good measure of how urban is India and begs the question are we essentially looking at large speculative urbanization that is going to be a challenge if we are going to make it sustainable?

Transforming India’s cities: policies and reforms

There has been a shift in our understanding of cities from Jane Jacobs description of cities in the 1960s as “wellsprings of innovation”, thinking of cities as essentially service economies and knowledge economies, where the flow of ideas, people and goods, talent, skills is going to produce economic outcomes. However, this idea has been disrupted by the pandemic.

From the policy perspective, the recognition of Digital India as being the backbone and transformative modes of management and planning of cities and other human settlements came up. This was followed by the opportunity of integration overall national infrastructure through the various air links and sea links that could have a multiplier effect. A World Bank report highlighted the economic growth created due to the Golden Quadrilateral and furthered the idea that infrastructure can produce economic outcomes.

Strengthening the municipality

The municipality in India still remains a constitutional travesty in some sense as it is not fully implemented and half-born. The 18 functions described under the 12th schedule of the Constitution still remain major challenges and have surfaced again in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of these functions are directly related to public health, access to communities to social protection and disaster management.

However, we do not have adequate financial resources to build the infrastructure that could convert urbanization to an asset. Despite being the third tier of governance, municipalities aren’t empowered enough and do not have funds, functions and functionaries. A federal geographical understanding is needed to acknowledge these challenges in addition to a national plan and mission.

Transforming (Urban) India— bit by bit
Transforming (Urban) India— bit by bit

Eating the fruits of development: Why we try and reform our cities

India is performing poorly in most of the SDGs as compared to many other countries. The problem remains that urbanisation has to be linked to outcomes but the challenges posed by other sectors are all linked to this and pose major roadblocks.

What is also important that this urbanisation needs to be sustainable, which was highlighted in the discussion of New Climate Economy internationally in 2014. A new narrative has to be built with sustainability as being the key goal and the necessary conditions to achieve it has to be discussed.

Smart Cities Mission

The Smart Cities Mission shifted the focus away from only the Urban Ministry to the need for connectivity and communications into the urban narrative. Digital India was about reforming the nature of governance to using of technologies. It broke out from the JNNURM and gave cities the freedom to envision its own problems and needs. It changed the behaviour of municipalities and shifted the narrative to the understanding that a city is more than just its flyovers and pipelines but also about the quality of life and safety and security of its citizens and other aspects.

An important focus of the plan was to get neighborhoods and local areas to be the focus of the interpretation of what is smart. We are yet to witness a replication of successes from one area to another which is a part of the evolutionary movement and produce mixed results.

Why transformation is so tough

Urbanization is not an easy road. The questions we need to ask is can we produce more than one enclave of sustainable city or township? Can we actually deliver sustainable urbanisation to all its citizens? Unless we are able to leverage some transformative or disruptive methodologies for achieving this, we are not going to be able to achieve these goals.

Some other questions that need to be asked are are we choosing the right models as we do not actually know what a ‘right’ model is. What is it that drives urbanisation? Is it about social mobility or economic mobility? It is more defined by the shift from a hut to a concrete flat than the shift from a concrete flat to a skyscraper.

An important practical problem is that we cannot have sustainable cities if they are divided cities in terms of balkanisation based on social and economic divisions. This is simply because of the fragmented civic and political interests, and the resulting disagreement or the absence of consensus on the big moves that need to be made. We need to tap into the potentials of cooperation in town planning schemes to build common infrastructure. 

The potential of the market also has to be leveraged and has to be opened to global players, which can contribute to the overall market development. Additionally, scientific operations need to be scaled up, along with increased accountability and efficiency. Finally, cities have the potential to be leveraged as ecosystems but informed policymaking needs to be taken place by consolidating existing resources and orchestrating innovation.

The above are the event excerpts of a webinar organized by Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi on Transforming (Urban) India—bit by bit.

Acknowledgements: Manoswini Sarkar is research intern at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI) and Masters Candidate of Development Studies at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, Switzerland.

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