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In new india, all roads lead to the city

India is headed towards a collision of madness and beauty. Provisional 2011 census figures show that more people, especially in southern states, are moving to towns and cities.

delhi Updated: Jul 31, 2011 02:29 IST

“All cities are mad: but the madness is gallant. All cities are beautiful: but the beauty is grim.” — Author Christopher Morley in Where the Blue Begins is headed towards a collision of madness and beauty. Provisional 2011 census figures show that more people, especially in southern states, are moving to towns and cities. Almost 1 in every 3 Indians now lives in an urban centre. As more cities arise, however, the situation could become grim.

The increase in the share of people living in urban areas is the fastest since the decade of 1971-81, when it rose 3.43 %. In the decade ended 1991, the rise in the share of urban population decelerated to 2.37% and to 2.10% in the following decade. It picked up sharply to 3.35% in the last decade.

The Isher Ahluwalia Report on urban infrastructure identified eight areas where India has to focus to urbanise: water supply, sewerage, waste management, storm water drains, urban roads, urban transport, street lighting and traffic support infrastructure. This means that by 2030, according to the McKinsey Global Institute report 2010, 2.5 billion sq metre of roads will have to be paved and 7,400 km of metros and subways built, 20 times the capacity added in the last decade.

Are we really urbanising?

The verdict is divided on this. While certain experts say there is a fresh impetus to urbanisation, others believe that the spike in census numbers has been derived from the administrative reclassification of rural areas as urban.

Former Commissioner of Planning, Delhi Development Authority, AK Jain, says, “Factually, urbanisation is slow and it is not putting any pressure on urban centres. For example, the population of Delhi is 167 lakh, while, in the 2001 Census, we had expected it to grow to 180 lakh."

The Planning Commission agrees that a significant expansion of urban centres has not happened. However, there is a proliferation of new towns. The number of census towns has gone up from 1,362 to 3,894. This has boosted numbers in states such as Sikkim (see box, top right). However, many of these towns have almost no urban facilities. They simply satisfy the census definition of a town — a minimum of 5,000 people, at least 75% of the male working population engaged in non-agricultural jobs, and a population density of 400 persons per square kilometre.

These census towns, where at least 30 million people have been added over the last decade under the urban category, should be the new focus of urbanisation efforts, says Abhijit Sen of the Planning Commission.

Effects of urbanisation

Dunu Roy, director of the Delhi-based Hazards Centre, says the migration, a deliberate effect of state policy governed by market forces, might widen social schisms. He said, “The Planning Commission is bound to welcome this shift to urban areas because it will provide the cheap labour needed for higher GDP growth.”

Vipul Mudgal, who heads the Publics and Policies Programme at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, says our preparedness is lacking: "In the next 10 years 50% of India’s population will be in cities. Are we prepared for it? I doubt it."

However, Sudhir Vohra, an architect and urban matters expert, believes the census town classification is flawed and will lead to imbalanced development.

The brunt of urbanisation is felt the most by infrastructure. According to Sen, the provisional census numbers will scare the entrenched urban population and they will demand more. If this happens, he said, “The demand for setting up urban facilities in new towns will get ignored.”

Looking ahead

The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission estimated last year that over the next seven years, the government needs to invest R1,20,536 crore in municipal bodies. Not surprising, since the McKinsey 2010 report also estimated that there will be 590 million city-dwellers in India in the next 20 years.

Solutions, say urban experts, include increasing the authority of municipal bodies, developing infrastructure, transportation and employment as well as grassroots improvement of smaller towns.

With the emergence of new towns, the expanding urban economy needs to be built from the bottom of the pyramid, says Vohra. “The process must begin from small towns and from providing basics in rural areas.”

Echoing the JNNURM’s recommendations (see box, right), Jain says that local authorities have to be empowered. However, a common view is that India lacks a comprehensive policy of sustainable urban development. Roy says, "The state has to invest in affordable housing and services, create jobs and provide minimum wages."

The McKinsey report says India will need to build 700-900 million sq metre of commercial and residential space by 2030. Overuse of finite land resources is the biggest challenge before us, says Sanjay Upadhyay, managing partner, Enviro Legal Defence Firm. According to him, cities need a clear understanding of land and water allocation, and forest cover in order to urbanise. “We are so obsessed with creating big structures that we are not looking at the basics.”

First Published: Jul 31, 2011 00:51 IST