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For equitable growth, India must unthink the urban

ByPartha Mukhopadhyay and Mukta Naik
Dec 17, 2018 07:48 AM IST

Smaller, growing cities such as Kishangarh can be feasible sites to apply coordinated planning for better urban life.

The allure of agglomeration comes from the belief that metropolises are engines of growth, supposedly due to an increase in productivity from clustering of firms and labour, and tacit information spillovers between them, which fosters innovation.

But, India’s urban transition is as much about the morphing of places as about migration, as people in diverse locations move in-situ from agriculture to a mix of non-farm activities. Smaller cities are growing faster than metropolises. Can the metropolis of the assembly line and mass manufacturing, survive 3-D printing, mass customisation and Industry 4.0? How big should a city be for innovation to bloom from serendipitous interaction or even to foster growth through improved efficiency?

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Kishangarh, a Rajasthani city of 150,000 people, was originally a market for marble quarries, like the historic Makrana. Today, infrastructure investments include a planned airport and a private logistics park, driven by the nearby dedicated freight corridor and supported by marble trading. Local entrepreneurship is transforming Kishangarh into a globalised centre for domestic and imported marble and granite, generating work for both migrants and locals. Small town growth helps villagers more than big city booms.

This isn’t an isolated instance. Half of India’s rural-urban migration is to smaller cities, and half its manufacturing located in areas classified as rural, which also produce over a third of non-farm output. One in seven urban residents live in census towns, economically urban but still administratively rural settlements, a quirk of our governance frameworks.

Metropolises are not irrelevant — innovation and high quality service sector still congregates there. But metropolitan agglomeration benefits confront congestion costs — air pollution, exorbitant land prices, traffic, overflowing landfills, and rivers of sewage. David Yencken, who conceptualised the creative city, saw it as being “concerned with the material wellbeing of all its citizens, especially the poor… an emotionally satisfying city …that stimulates creativity”. Is that unattainable? Can better planning not help?

Many see planning as the panacea for our cities. But the rigid land use master plans of our cities have little relation to urban life, let alone mastery over investments in infrastructure and economic activity. For city plans to work, they need strategic coordination with service provision and market forces, globally the task of elected city governments, which in India are institutions of negligible power. States neither devolve authority to cities, nor do they bring together the electricity distribution company, the PWD, the water supply and sewerage agency, the transport department, et. al. Land sales, by state-owned development authorities, are used as fiscal crutches. Soon, de facto land use diverges from the master plan as unplanned growth follows infrastructure and planned areas await services. RIP urban governance.

Our metropolises are too far gone and politically fraught to plan. They need a sui generis approach. But smaller, growing cities, such as Kishangarh, may be feasible sites to apply coordinated planning for better urban life — a far cry from today, when it is hard to reconcile its master plan (at least, it has one, many cities that size don’t) with its infrastructure boom and market demands. With more attention to, and capacity in, myriad such smaller cities, we can learn whether planning has failed our cities or whether our cities failed to plan.

But, the real failure of our cities has been their inability to assuage the agony of BR Ambedkar, to be places of emancipation from the “localism… ignorance, narrow mindedness and communalism” he saw in the village. Seventy-one years after independence, caste inequities, while lesser in cities, are visibly present. The morphing of places and the rural-urban straddling by migrants mean that rural social ills persist in urban India. This is true for gender inequity as well. Such social distance is not just morally wrong, it also hampers the serendipitous interaction needed for knowledge spillovers, which drives the engine of growth.

Navigating India’s urban transition needs us to look beyond overwhelming metros to vibrant smaller towns, beyond land use planning to better coordination of services and markets, to recognise that stubborn social mores need more attention. It needs us to unthink the urban.

Partha Mukhopadhyay is Senior Fellow and Mukta Naik is Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. This is the fourth in a series of articles for the CPR Dialogues starting today in New Delhi. Hindustan Times is the print partner for the event. For more: www.cprdialogues.org. The views expressed are personal

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