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When forecasts get serious, try humour

india Updated: Jun 28, 2007 20:54 IST
Narayanan Madhavan
Narayanan Madhavan
Hindustan Times
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The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has said this week that India’s urbanization is growing at an alarming pace and that two out of every five Indians (40 per cent) will be living in cities by 2030. Currently, about 29 per cent do so.

Actually, we don’t quite need the UN to tell us that. A visit to any major town or city these days – Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore and probably the smaller boom towns such as Ludhiana -- will give you an impression that slums and sedans are what Indian urban life is now all about.

India Whining and India Shining apart, there are genuine concerns about everything that accompanies this phenomenon: traffic jams, congestion, road rage, hygiene problems, crime…you name it.

We could definitely argue that rural areas need higher support and all that, but my focus today is more on the business of statistics that come our way. The UN agency has used a lot of current and past trends to base its data, but the world is a funny place in which unknown factors can change the course of history.

My favourite example comes from my late friend Dewang Mehta, who was president of the National Association of Software and Service Companies (Nasscom). Dewang used the example of British fears about the urban boom in London that followed the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century. It seems experts predicted that the growth of horse-drawn carriages would lead to the City being piled up with thousands of tonnes of dung which would make London choke for breath.

But all that turns out to be only a load of horse dung, as predictions go. You see, Daimler ended up inventing the motor car and Henry Ford made a mass product out of it and we all rode cars after that. Car fumes caused problems, but the smell of dung was less of an issue for London.

Twenty years ago, we did not know about the coming of the Internet or even the mobile phone but mobile phone growth in India is today one of the hottest things for the global economy. And I am not even talking here of software development and what it did for India.

I remember Vayalar Ravi, the current Union minister for overseas Indian affairs, telling us in the corridors of Parliament House about 15 years ago – soon after the government freed up currency markets -- that he thought the US dollar would within a year or two touch Rs. 50 rupees per dollar, with all sorts of difficult consequences for India. This was when the dollar was available at around Rs. 30 or so.

The dollar did come close to Rs. 50 after nuclear tests in 1998, years later, but it now trades at close to Rs. 41 -- a good 15 years after the current minister lording over non-resident Indians made that worrying prediction. Mr. Ravi had obviously not foreseen India as a major exporter and the US dollars that would come into the local market.

Both technology and migration can cause profound changes in the world economy. I think the rise of wireless broadband services could lead to offices shifting to remote locations where costs are lower and the atmosphere more green. Nariman Point could lose its charm to Navi Mumbai. Even rural areas could house high-technology offices like in some Western countries, and white collar workers moving to rural areas could make an impact on other people who serve them. A reversal of urbanisation could create its own patterns of living.

Earlier this week, the Organisation of Economic Coorperation and Development (OECD) said the developed countries that make up the group received 4 million new immigrants in 2005 alone. If you extrapolate that for five years, you could say OECD would add an Australia to its headcount in that short a time.

Migration could grow in the coming days, and India’s own population growth is expected to level off in the not-so-distant future, according some forecasts. Not all forecasts come true. Some humour can help us tone down the alarm that sounds with many predictions.