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Why do Indian cities need a complete redesign

October 31, 2013 15:56 IST

Despite our good intentions, both our cities and villages remain in a state of permanent decay, notes Barun Roy

India GateWhen it comes to patch-up jobs, nobody can beat Indians.

This is the only thing we excel in, having perfected it into an art, from repairing rain-damaged roads after every monsoon to pursuing economic policies that are always aimed at meeting temporary needs and dousing immediate fires, instead of taking a long view of where we want to go and how we intend to get there.

And one of the areas where our patch-up frame of mind is best reflected is in our entire approach towards the issues of urbanisation and rural development that are closely interlinked and crucial to capturing economic value and, thus, achieving economic growth.

At a time when the world is waking up to the need for urbanisation by design, we’re still happily resigned to a future of urbanisation by chance and rural development by accident.

To us, urban renewal still means touching up run-down sewage and sanitary systems, improving slums, housing the urban poor, building flyovers, and putting more buses on already crowded roads, while our rural development plans still revolve around subsidising jobs and food supplies.

It doesn’t work because new migrants keep coming to the same old cities and there’s no real wealth creation in the countryside.

As a result, despite our good intentions, both our cities and villages remain in a state of permanent decay.

Unless we change our attitude and face the challenge of urbanisation squarely in the face, we’ll be eternally patching up our cities and they’ll keep eternally breaking down.

What we need is a comprehensive redevelopment plan that goes much beyond tinkering with our existing, overgrown cities and seeks to totally redesign them in terms of connectivity, mobility and liveability while promoting new cities across the country, both to create new growth values and to redistribute the flow of urban migration. We don’t have any.

The fact that 70 per cent of Indians still live in rural areas shouldn’t lull us into believing that we’re safe.

We’re not. Rather, it’s clinching statistical proof that, by leaving things to chance, we’re only failing to tap the big untapped potential that the vast Indian hinterland offers and could save us from a future of deepening urban mess.

If becoming a global economic superpower is our goal, we shouldn’t be languishing in this state at all, condemning the majority of our people to a permanent fate of survival on the margin when their hopes and aspirations are rising all the time.

Urbanisation by design, based on the three key principles of connectivity, mobility, and liveability, is changing the economic landscape dramatically in much of growth-rim Asia and has been directly responsible for their economic dynamism that we so admire.

Seoul is no longer the same old crowded city it used to be, and has emerged as a vibrant new metropolis -- greener, cleaner, healthier, and more spacious -- having gone through years of meticulous planning.

China, determined to wear a fresh, modern urban look in keeping with its economic ambition, is laying out new cities and towns with as much vigour as it puts into developing run-down urban areas to create a healthier living experience.

Yet, back in the 1950s, India was more urban than China, when 17 per cent of its population lived in cities against 13 per cent of China’s.

Since then, the picture has totally changed, with China seizing planned urbanisation as a key instrument of economic growth and India being stuck in its thinking that cities are a social burden and not an economic opportunity.

By 2025, when 70 per cent of China’s population will be living in cities, only 38 per cent of Indians will be urban dwellers, most of them escaping from rural penury only to inflate the number of urban poor.

According to a McKinsey study, by the same time, China would have 280 million middle-class urban households, or more than three-quarters of all its urban households, with true discretionary spending power, while India could have some 89 million.

The contrast between the two realities couldn’t be starker.

It doesn’t enhance our pride as a nation to learn that more than half the population of Mumbai, our financial capital, still lives in slums, that India’s slum population, 41 million in 2001, is likely to rise to 69 million by 2017, or that, as a World Bank study points out, 25 per cent of all our urban housing are slums.

Unless we have a bold new vision that looks decades ahead and integrates urban and rural development into a common development package, that contrast isn’t going to disappear.

Merely allocating funds for infrastructure development, however huge, without a clear idea of where we want to go and what we want to achieve will neither benefit our cities nor save our villages.

Those funds will simply disappear in a futile attempt to patch things up every time they begin to crumble.

Barun Roy
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