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A Bleak Urban Future

Pratap Bhanu Mehta
March 28, 2007

India’s lack of capacity to handle rapid urbanization is, arguably, one of its single biggest challenges. Despite much debate over the Delhi Master Plan 2021, there is still relatively little understanding of the dynamics of urbanization. The experience of our mega cities and medium size towns alike suggests that Indian cities are likely to remain besotted by serious problems. Indeed, if anything, the proposed solutions are likely to make our cities worse rather than better. This is because the preconditions for creating vibrant and dynamic cities simply do not exist. What are those preconditions?

It is impossible to imagine clear-headed planning for our cities without clarity over a prior question: who governs Indian cities? Across the range of Indian cities, the confusion of jurisdictions between municipal and state governments, and in the case of newly emerging cities, between panchayats (rural local bodies) and state governments, has long bedeviled decision making. The 74th Amendment to the Indian Constitution on urban local bodies has received far less attention than the 73rd Amendment on rural panchayats. The central element of town planning- the ability of the state to enforce its own decisions- still remains very weak. Delhi’s new master plan may be a tactic for defusing conflict, but it is also an admission that the state cannot make its writ run in cities. In short, without a clear governance framework, most of our cities are unlikely to flourish.

Faced with the prospect of broken governance systems, India is now going to rely on private capital. As is evident from our policies for creating Special Economic Zones, we are going to rely increasingly on private capital to create Greenfield townships. But this strategy has three shortcomings. First, it only exacerbates the conundrum of jurisdictions that bedevils Indian cities. Second, these townships will require subsidies to create the surrounding infrastructure to sustain them. This is inevitable. But there is a real fear that these subsidies will be diverted from existing cities to create infrastructure for private developers. In any case, there is again no clear decision-making framework for how these subsidies should be allocated. Third, there is very little evidence that private capital can create workable towns. To be sure, it can produce a lot of investment in housing and infrastructure. But private capital has very little incentive to provide the public goods that sustain cities. The example of Gurgaon, where huge tracts of land were given to private developers is instructive. These developers, over time, appropriated most designated green spaces and public spaces, extracting as much revenue as they could out of the land. So a city was created, but the opportunity of setting new benchmarks in civic life was lost.

Besides government and the private sector, a shared civic culture could, in principle, enable a decent civic life. But the blunt truth is that Indian cities have never had a shared civic culture. The lack of structured participation in urban governance disempowers citizens considerably. More importantly, the inheritance of deep social inequality militates against seeing the city as a shared space; it is rather more a contest over grabbing space and keeping others out. Paradoxically, the effects of social inequality on our cities are only going to increase. One of the unintended byproducts of our chaotic city planning was that the poor and the privileged, while segregated in terms of housing, were relatively more geographically intermingled than cities in many countries. This had two consequences. First, even for relatively poor residents, the average time of travel to place of work was lower than global averages. Second, despite obstacles from local administration, the cities had something of a street life, made possible by the presence of numerous small hawkers and businesses. Together these facts contributed to relatively lower crime rates, by global standards. The poor never had a genuine place in rational city planning. Unfortunately, the trends are towards making them even more marginal. The drive to eliminate dispersed small businesses and hawkers and the even greater difficulty of finding habitation near places of work is going to take away even the advantages that our cities currently have. In the film Guru, Gurukant Desai rails against the existing license raj for preventing him from doing business in Mumbai. But increasingly, it is the small trader and hawker - people living on their wits - that are finding it difficult to get permission to do things in Indian cities. This widening social gulf will make for more precarious cities in the future. Indeed, there is reason to think that Indian cities, rather than improving, will imitate the more undesirable features of Latin American cities.

Nothing exemplifies this social gulf more than a small revealing characteristic of all new infrastructure construction in Indian cities. This construction is by and large hostile to pedestrians. One of the striking things about a city like Beijing, compared to Delhi, is the degree to which it provides space and easy crossing points for pedestrians. This may seem like a small point, but in miniature it exemplifies the weakness of Indian cities. It exemplifies the fact that our city planning does not balance the needs of the rich and the poor. It exemplifies the fact that our town planning is self-defeating. We invest billions of rupees in overpasses, but very little in pedestrian crossings. This reduces the efficiency of overpasses, since pedestrians are forced to cross at all sorts of places at great risk to their lives. Again, Gurgaon is a telling example. The 5.5 billion rupee (nearly 125 million US dollars) NH-8 divides the city, with posh residential colonies on one side, and the industrial area, old Gurgaon, and civil lines on the other. But there is no way for pedestrians to cross from one side of the city to the other without sprinting across a four lane highway. Yet thousands of people have to do this everyday.

The fact that city planning is impervious to the actual flows of people that compose it brings out other lacunae. We simply do not have the full information base to assess the formal and informal economies that make up our cities. Very few cities in India have cadastral level surveys, most have no technical town planning capacity, and we don't even have full data on land use conversion. How can we invest in cities intelligently if we simply have no data on all the factors that actually make these cities function?

Despite initiatives like the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission, urbanization is still not an object of serious public debate. A debate over investing in particular infrastructure projects is not the same thing as a debate over what makes for good cities. And most of the discussion is confined to big cities like Delhi, Mumbai, or Bangalore. But the truth is that grade-two towns are going to experience as rapid an expansion in coming decades. These towns represent an immense opportunity for creative experiments with urban planning. However, the lack of a clear governance structure, the over reliance on private investment, the lack of technical capacity, and above all the near absence of reciprocity amongst citizens is likely to ensure that India's urban future remains bleak, despite all new investments.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta is the president and chief executive of the Center for Policy Research, New Delhi, and was formerly associate professor of government and social studies at Harvard.


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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