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India in Transition

India’s Urban Future: It’s Time to Pay Attention

Sanjoy Chakravorty
June 21, 2009

A slow but unstoppable change is taking place in India. It will affect everything people do, the very way they live and work. Yet, there does not seem to be much awareness of it, much less any visible action. No, I’m not talking about climate change, but the ongoing urban expansion. The problems are staggering and it is imperative that we pay attention immediately to the possibilities and consequences.

Consider what we know for certain from the experience of other countries. First, urbanization is inevitable. Two hundred years ago, about three in every hundred people lived in urban settings. Today, half the world is urban. Worldwide, one out of every two people lives in a city or town. In the more developed countries this proportion is even higher, with eight out of ten in the United States and about nine out of ten in Western Europe. Second, urbanization leads to higher incomes for individuals. Urban work is more productive than rural work, and as a result, urban wages are higher. Whether one has a college degree or a primary school education, an equally skilled individual will almost certainly earn more in urban settings by working in a factory, office, shop – or even the informal or shadow economy – than in a village. Third, urbanization is associated with economic growth for nations.

Consider the Indian conditions. In 2001, when the last census was taken, only 28 percent of the Indian population – about 285 million people – lived in urban settings. Of these, about sixty-eight million lived in the eight metropolitan cities (Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Pune) and another forty million lived in the remaining twenty-seven cities that had at least a million people. It is well-known that India’s urban population is growing faster than its rural population. Has this current period of rapid economic growth increased the pace of urban growth? We do not know, but under the conservative assumption that India’s historically slow rate of urban increase will not change dramatically, the widely accepted projection is an urbanization level of around 40 percent in 2030. By that time, India’s total population will be around 1.5 billion – the largest in the world – with an urban population around six hundred million, more than twice as much as in 2001.

Where will these additional three hundred million people live? There are two ways of looking at this issue: First is the regional question. Where will urban growth likely take place? North or south? Inland or on the coast? Which states? Generally, people move for work and/or for higher income, therefore urban growth will happen where there is employment growth and/or wage growth. Over the last two decades, a fairly clear pattern has emerged in which employment growth is concentrating in a few regions stretching along and around and between metropolitan centers. For instance, the western corridor, stretching from Ahmedabad, through Vadodra, Bharuch, Surat, Valsad, Nashik, and Mumbai into Pune, is the country’s major industrial region today. Similarly, the Bangalore-Chennai corridor, while much smaller, is a significant region of employment and population growth. On the other hand, there are vast stretches of the country – the eastern states, much of the Gangetic plain, and the central and interior parts of the country – where there is little employment or urban growth, other than through natural increase.

The second question refers to settlement type. What type of settlement is likely to absorb such a large population growth? There are only two possibilities: new settlements and existing ones. India’s experiment with creating new settlements – brand new cities that were not outgrowths of existing cities – reached a peak in the 1950s and 60s. The state-led industrialization process created places like Durgapur, Raurkella, Bhilai, Ranchi, all of which have grown into sedate cities – not inconsequential, but not substantial either. Few new “cities in the fields” are being created, and none by the state. The handfuls that are being born are private sector “company towns,” small and unlikely to be of much consequence.

When it comes to the existing settlements, their current footprints are very densely packed, and are being made even denser as a result of the demand for urban land. Old two-story houses are being converted to four-stories or higher. Old factory lands are being converted to multi-story office/commercial and residential space. Developers are making bold – and potentially outrageous – proposals for converting slum land. And, most visibly, the existing settlements are spreading outward into massive developments like Gurgaon and Dwarka near Delhi.

The implications of the coming changes are far reaching. Let us consider just a few of them: First, how large can a metropolis become? Mumbai has gone from a population of eight million in 1981, to twelve million in 1991, to eighteen million in 2001 – a 50 percent growth rate per decade. How much bigger can it become? Twenty-five million? Fifty million? Even the latter – which would be far larger than anything that’s ever been seen anywhere – would absorb just 10 percent of the projected urban growth by 2030. Imagine the possibility: ten Mumbais, each with fifty million people, or twenty Mumbais, each with twenty-five million people. The arithmetic is jaw-dropping.

Second, how will people get into and around a city that has grown to a population of, let’s say, thirty million by 2030? How many airports and miles of highway will it need, and is there a train system that can handle this amount of people? If a subway system is not feasible, should elevated rail systems be used? What are the local environmental and energy implications of moving so many people around on a regular basis? It is not clear that there has been much thinking on transportation alternatives for this impending city.

Third, where will the poor live in this city? Whatever else one may say about Gurgaon or Navi Mumbai or Rajarhat, these places are not designed for the poor. If anything, they are designed to keep the poor out. If current trends continue, it’s quite possible that Indian cities will become symbols of a new apartheid, with vast slums surrounding enclaves of middle class comfort. Therefore, it is necessary to design policies that cross-subsidize housing from the middle class to the poor. This could be done by adequately taxing the sale of land and buildings, charging the real cost of utilities such as water and electricity, and enforcing low income housing quotas on private sector real estate firms. All of these options will face serious political opposition, as the policy-makers and implementers come from the very class that will have to lose its subsidies and pay for this. This is a serious dilemma. While it is absolutely necessary to institute policies that can provide housing with dignity in the inevitable Indian city, it is not clear that there is political will to achieve this.

There are many more questions. How will land for urban expansion be acquired? How will the owners of agricultural land be compensated? Is it better to concentrate resources to get the benefits of clustering? If yes, does it make any sense to have six hundred special economic zones (SEZ) when China had only five? How will the southern and western cities handle the increased influx of fellow citizens from north and east India? How can the cities of north and east India become more attractive to migrants, attract investment, and create jobs? How much regional inequality can India handle? Who will pay for the mammoth new requirements of infrastructure, housing, utilities, and clean up?

Each of these questions, as well as many others, is complicated. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that there does not exist an institutional framework to approach the questions comprehensively. One institutional barrier is India’s constitution; urban development is a state subject, and therefore the solutions, such as they are, remain piecemeal. The second major problem is the dearth of institutional capacity. India does not have trained urban professionals, the data that do exist are fragmented, rules are made on the fly, land transactions are opaque, and there is no strategy or vision, nor a way to get to one. If India is going to have any hope of handling an urban growth of at least 250 million people in the next two decades, it has to begin by creating institutional capacity. It is time to get serious about the coming urban age.

Sanjoy Chakravorty is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University.He can be reached at


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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