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Failing to acknowledge urbanisation undermines quality of life

India is more urban than the official numbers suggest. If thresholds for the categorisation of cities are relaxed, India moves from about a quarter urban to about a half and even more

analysis Updated: Apr 16, 2019 23:39 IST
Kadambari Shah and Harshita Agrawal
Kadambari Shah and Harshita Agrawal
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
quality of life,India,Ghana
Rural Local Bodies (RLBs) and Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) were designed to cater to the varying governance needs of urban and rural areas. But urbanisation has pushed cities beyond boundaries, rapidly populating the peripheries(Sunil Ghosh/Hindustan Times)

As the general election is in full swing, political discourse is dominated by issues such as education, rural distress and jobs, leaving out, as usual, conversation about urban distress.

The World Economic Forum estimates that five to six million Indians move to cities every year. Our cities drive economic growth, contributing over 60% to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Yet, we fail to recognise and administer them. Such neglect has its implications, affecting the growth that the cities provide.

We fail to recognise urban growth because official estimates disguise the significance of cities. In India, the categorisation of urban and rural areas is based on population thresholds, population density and economic activity. An IDFC Institute study reveals that India is more urban than the numbers suggest. It analysed the effects of relaxing thresholds for the categorisation of cities and found that India moves from 26% urban to ~47% and ~65% urban, if the definitions employed in countries such as Ghana and Mexico were to be used — that is, population yardsticks of more than 5,000 and 2,500 persons, respectively. These thresholds present a more accurate picture of India’s urban growth because they forego traditional benchmarks that limit our understanding of urbanisation.

Rural Local Bodies (RLBs) and Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) were designed to cater to the varying governance needs of urban and rural areas. The 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution identify differences in the powers and functions of these bodies. For instance, urban areas require building codes and firefighting services to ensure safety and development in dense conditions, while rural areas are not mandated to create master plans or establish fire stations. But urbanisation has pushed cities beyond boundaries, rapidly populating the peripheries. This means that some areas that are rural on paper may have actually become urban based on widely employed alternate measures but still being governed by RLBs rather than ULBs. These dense urban peripheries demand a different set of public goods and services than dispersed rural areas, but their administrative categories don’t allow for these advantages. The resulting misclassification leads to disparate governance outcomes, particularly in public service delivery.

When we don’t recognise dense urban growth, public goods provision suffers. Another study supported by IDFC investigates whether governance mismatch (urban areas being governed by rural governance forms rather than urban ones) is associated with the development of settlements. It notes that an urban settlement governed by a ULB rather than an RLB is likely to benefit from a 147% increase in road length per square kilometre, a 128% increase in water storage capacity in kilolitres per capita, a 25% increase in the probability of establishing a higher education institution, and an 11% increase in hospital beds per capita. This means people in urban areas are more likely to have access to more infrastructure, education and healthcare. People living in wrongly classified areas not only lose out on these advantages, but a lack of these public amenities prompts dangerous productivity consequences.

Owing to congestion in core urban areas, most of the recent urban growth in India has been in peri-urban regions not equipped with adequate infrastructure. People living there face mobility and financial costs, which erodes their productivity over time. Based on Atlas of Urban Expansion data, we observe a reduction in average road widths from 1990 to 2014: the share of wider, 12-metre roads has remained constant while the share of narrower, under 4-metre roads has increased. Commuters living in peri-urban regions must first traverse the narrow roads to reach the wider ones connected to their workplaces in the urban core/central business district. This has an adverse impact on commute times. In his book, Order Without Design, Alain Bertaud also notes that worker productivity starts to wane beyond 20 minutes of travel time to workplaces and disappears beyond 60 minutes of it. Understandably, congestion costs have long-term impact on efficiency gains. Hence, the deteriorating urban fabric lowers productivity and weakens the capacity of our cities.

Adding more nuance and flexibility in recognising urban areas will improve service delivery and resources, and, in turn, quality of life. Political parties are beginning to acknowledge the reality. To alleviate urban challenges, the Bharatiya Janata Party government has initiated schemes such as the Smart Cities Mission, the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation. On the other side, the Indian National Congress’s 2019 election manifesto declares that the party will, “ensure that Mayors and Municipal Chairpersons have fully functional powers, so that they can operate as Chief Executives Officers of cities with executive powers and responsibilities and not just ceremonial positions”. To keep the momentum going, the new government must continue to align administration with aspirations.

Kadambari Shah is associate, and Harshita Agrawal is senior analyst at IDFC Institute, a Mumbai based think/do tank

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Apr 16, 2019 23:10 IST