Delhi is now a much better place to live in. With migration being contained at the ring of industrial townships around the capital, a halving of the city’s population growth rate will show up starkly in development indices like poverty, literacy and health. As it is, Delhi has a per capita income twice the national average. This gap will open up if its population is stabilising. These gains, however, will not be in perpetuity as living standards improve in the peripheral towns like Gurgaon and Noida where economic activity is migrating. Delhi’s core is cooling after decades of efforts to keep government as the biggest business in town. No other Indian city possesses this luxury and it remains to be seen whether Delhi can afford to remain a town of petty traders in 2021, by when three in four rupees in India will be generated in India’s cities, up from two in three today.
It could, if the periphery were to grow fast enough. There is evidence to back this up. The national capital region (NCR) has overtaken Maharashtra in the number of registered companies. Read that alongside another statistic that the Delhi airport is handling more passengers than Mumbai and a trend is discernible. Although Mumbai’s financial heft is unchallenged still, the economic centre of gravity is shifting. Companies based in Delhi, Gurgaon and Noida brought in one in four rupees earned by the country’s 500 biggest firms. And they made every third rupee of profits. Four of the five biggest private companies in the NCR did not exist before 1980. Delhi’s economy is in large measure a fallout of economic reforms while much of Indian industry belongs to an earlier generation when brick-and-mortar companies commanded the landscape. When start-ups in the NCR outnumber those in Maharashtra four to one, the story is about the spread of entrepreneurship. Delhi offers a healthy climate for new investment in the services sector, and to an extent, in manufacturing. And government largesse ensures its physical and social infrastructure outclasses any other Indian city.
The rate at which infrastructure fans out through the NCR is vital to keep this enterprise going. A shared airport and Metro Rail network gloss over the abysmally poor state of municipal and government services in some of Delhi’s satellite towns. Jurisdictional issues come in the way of the NCR’s seamless growth. Just as the surrounding states gain from their proximity to the capital, Delhi must realise it is becoming a middle class haven at the cost of chaos in its neighbourhood.