India is on a high growth path and rapidly urbanising. If it mismanages the latter, it will have difficulty in ensuring the former. But there is currently little public awareness of the scale of the challenges ahead. Consequently grossly inadequate systems remain in place to handle the task.
In the 25-year period (2001-26) India will be adding 220 million to its urban population, taking it up by 77 per cent. Urban Indians earn much more than rural folks, the urban-rural income differential being around 2.5. The country's growth engine is clearly its urban areas.
To accommodate the additional millions, India will have to add around 14 Delhis or 18 Mumbais or 30 Bangalores!
How do we create this much of liveable urban space or locate the resources and people needed to deliver it? In many ways this will be the key challenge facing India for the next few decades.
The first need is give the tier of urban government an altogether different degree of importance than what it is getting now. Currently state governments are mostly paying lip service to the devolution envisaged in the 74th amendment to the Constitution, even though that itself is far from enough.
To make this happen, it is necessary for the country's top political aspirants -- like a young Deora or Pilot -- to come forward and take ownership of the large cities, transform them and build a national career on that foundation. In the pre-independence days, when higher levels of government were not open to Indians, the mayor of Calcutta or Bombay were the big pedestals to aspire to.
Hence people like Subhas Chandra Bose and Khursheed Nariman became mayors. Since the eighties New York city has been transformed by two powerful politicians -- Rudi Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. They both dream of becoming president of the United States one day by using their stewardship of the city as a springboard.
Ambitious politicians do not step into powerless low-profile posts but that is what the top job in the country's town halls often is. City administrations are run by municipal commissioners, who are answerable only to ministers sitting in the Mantralaya in Mumbai or Vidhana Soudha in Bangalore.
But it is the corporators through the various committees who control municipal spending. On top of this absurdity sits in most cases a toothless mayor who heads office for one or two years and whom hardly anyone knows.
This disconnect between political and executive authority and spending power is what is killing our cities.
The situation is a bit better in Chennai and Kolkata, where there is a mayor in council whose members are elected for five years and who, in the case of Kolkata, elect a mayor (the same way MLAs elect a chief minister).
Perhaps the best system of all, among the big cities, prevails in Chennai, where the mayor is also directly elected by the people for five years. Unsurprisingly Chennai has arguably the best civic administration in the country.
So the entire country has to shift to the mayor in council and directly elected mayor system. But this will not be enough.
A former municipal commissioner who will be a top-class administrator anywhere in the world says that currently there is no incentive for the bureaucracy to perform, without which you cannot have a professional administration.
Bureaucrats are currently accountable to politicians at the local as well as state level. His answer is a directly elected mayor who runs the town hall like a CEO with the help of a board of directors. The elected council continues to hold the purse strings but the mayor has enough powers to run the administration well and create visible cash flows which can be used to leverage additional finance.
Even this will not be enough. Vivek Kulkarni, who as IT secretary of Karnataka unsuccessfully tried to craft a crescent of development on Bangalore's periphery called the IT corridor, realised that 40 per cent of the area was already 'hard,' built-up via plans sanctioned with the rigour of a small town municipality.
His solution: the land use plan for a city must cover an additional 15-20 sq km of rural area beyond current city boundaries and this plan has to be clearly declared (put on a public website) so that people don't build wrongly and the city, in order to grow, does not have to confront structures already in place.
He has another idea. Instead of growing a city concentrically around its periphery, develop new towns in largely un-built-up areas with a fast rail or road link that can easily go up to 200 km.
Several such new towns can come up along a single link. Builders say such a town can be entirely self-financing in terms of its infrastructure so long as it has a critical mass, stretch over 5,000 acres or more in mixed development and accommodate half a million people upwards.
The best new developments in the country, Greater Noida and New Town near Kolkata, meet these criteria.
To have land use plans for areas where a city will grow in the future or to plan new cities (India needs 200 new one million population cities in 20 years) you need state government and politicians who are willing and able.
And once you have them you don't need a central urban renewal missions which can offer only piecemeal solutions.