The famous line by John Lennon from a song in his last album, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” is an apt metaphor for urbanisation in India.
In September, a UN report, ‘State of the World’s Cities’, noted that Delhi had joined an exclusive league of ‘meta-cities’ — massive conurbations of more than 20 million people. It now outstrips even Shanghai and similar behemoths to rank as the world’s second largest urban agglomeration behind Tokyo, a position it is likely to retain till 2025. In 1990, it was not even in the top 10 urban sprawls! A similar fate has befallen every other major Indian city, barring perhaps Kolkata.
Not a single document, plan or policy pronouncement could have anticipated this explosive growth. Thus, while the notion of ‘building cities’ — meta, mega or otherwise — is tempting, facts speak otherwise.
As with much of policy-making in the country, the pattern is one of being reactive not proactive, of forever playing catch-up, in this case trying to provide housing, water, transport and other services to a burgeoning urban population. To attribute purposiveness behind India’s urbanisation is to give our planners and policymakers credit (or blame) where it is not due!
Whether it is absent-minded and creeping urbanisation as effected by our inefficient babus, or a purposive and meaningful city-building, the question remains — what should be the size of these cities?
Obviously a mega city has pros and cons — economies of scale that make possible good museums, hospitals and universities (agglomeration economies) have to be balanced against congestion, crime, pollution and administrative challenges (agglomeration diseconomies). In the ultimate analysis, one-size-does-not-fit-all and there is space under the sun for cities of all sizes.
That said, three features of India’s urbanisation portend the future. First, till recently and contrary to popular belief, India on the whole urbanised slowly. In 1950, India was more urban than China but the latter overtook (45% urban compared to our 31%). In fact, over the last two decades of the 20th century, our rate of urbanisation actually slowed down though the 2011
census shows it is picking up again, perhaps due to faster economic growth.
Second, in contrast to Europe and Africa (but more in line with North and South America and rest of Asia), urban Indians tend to live in bigger cities — about 50% of them lived in cities of 5 lakh or more and 42% lived in cities of over a million.
The number of million-plus cities in India grew tenfold from 5 in 1951 to 53 in 2011. And these are the ones that are growing fast. So, it is not just the headline grabbing growth of the metros such as Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore but also of not-so-small towns such as Kannur, Rajkot, Aurangabad and Ludhiana that is shaping India’s urban future.
Finally, and most worryingly, urban sprawl is increasing in India — we are urbanising wastefully in terms of land with all its attendant consequences for service delivery. Built-up area is growing at a rate faster than population in nearly all of the largest 100 cities, especially between 2000-2011.
In other words, lower-density sprawl is accelerating. Most cities now spill beyond the boundaries of their urban local bodies, the municipal councils or corporations. No wonder then that the population density of Indian cities is going down!
The average density of our fifty-three million plus cities declined by 25% from the 1990s to the 2010s (from 40,000/sq km to 30,000/sq km). This flies in the face of a sensible urban form that would argue for a compact and livable city such as Singapore with high density, high rise-housing and concomitant efficient delivery of public services such as transport and plenty of space left over for common green areas.
As Indian cities nibble away at their rural fringe (gobble-up would be a more appropriate description) they also corrode the nation’s moral fibre — the worst instances of corruption and scams are to be found in land deals and rural-urban conversion.
Land transactions fuel the black economy and windfall gains from such deals breed a class of nouveau riche with scant regard for values.
The question then is not one of size since it alone does not make a Delhi or a Mumbai into Shanghai which are indeed bigger or of the same size. It is sensible (compact and dense) urban form, efficient service delivery and accountable and responsive city governments (the unfulfilled promise of the 74th amendment) that would make our mega-dysfunctional-cities into Shanghai.
Shreekant Gupta is former Director, National Institute of Urban Affairs, New Delhi. Write to us at