In search of a better life

Like the US, urban India is also witnessing a mass movement to the suburbs. Brotin Banerjee writes.

india Updated: Jul 11, 2012 23:09 IST
Brotin Banerjee
Brotin Banerjee
Hindustan Times
Brotin Banerjee,suburbs,Dombivli

What's common between Thane and Tennessee or between Dombivli and Delaware? Apparently, there's a lot. Proud suburbanites across Goregaon and Gurgaon may not be aware of this but many of them are living the quintessential American suburban dream. The 'suburbanisation' of America, of course, started way back in the mid-1940s and continues unabated till date. For the uninitiated, American suburbanisation — triggered by the end of World War 2, and coupled with lifting of spending curbs in the US and a host of financial sops by the US federal government — saw millions of Americans setting up homes in the suburbs — away from the hustle and bustle of the city centres or from distant rural areas — for want of a better quality of life.

Kenneth T Jackson, the famous American social historian, wrote that 18 of America's top 25 cities suffered a net loss of population between 1950 and 1970 with US suburban population doubling from 37 to 74 million people during the same time period.

India, too, is witnessing a mass movement to the suburbs. In Mumbai, for example, the share of population between island and suburbs has completely reversed with time. In the early 1960s (Source: Urban Environmental Evolution: The Case of Mumbai by Dr Sudhakar Yedla), Mumbai (then Bombay) used to house 68% of the population, while the remaining 32% lived in the suburbs. The 1990s and 2000s saw suburban population overtaking their city counterparts. Currently, it's estimated that more than 80% of Mumbai's population lives in the suburbs. The numbers include Mumbaikars, who have moved from Girgaon to Goregaon (central districts to the suburbs), and migrant households from other parts of Maharashtra and/or from other states. There is a clear trend where the existing population of central Mumbai is spreading out to satellite towns such as Kharghar, Sanpada, Vasai, Mira Road, Thane, Kalyan-Dombivli, and all the way to Vasind and Boisar, which offer a better quality of life than the congested by-lanes of central Mumbai.

More and more people in Delhi's Chandni Chowk-Connaught Place or from Kolkata's Burrabazar area are feeling claustrophobic in the ever-growing commercial humdrum in the neighbourhood and the absence of open spaces. The two-bedroom residential premises — which were once perfect for the Indian urban nuclear 'hum do, hamare do' family — have now turned inadequate to house the second and the third generations. With six-eight family members constantly jostling for space and privacy or for that vantage position in front of the living room television, moving into a more spacious home in the suburbs has emerged as a solution for many erstwhile city-dwellers.

City properties across India have become frightfully expensive and are now virtually out of bounds for the middle class, while suburban residential complexes continue to be available at comparatively reasonable rates. The twin attractions of comfortable living and affordable rates are hard to ignore.

If the US government — between 1944 and 1956 — constructed 41,000 miles of interstate highways to facilitate suburbanisation, the Indian government is also doing its bit by constructing modern railway networks across metros and surrounding suburbs. The Delhi and Kolkata metro networks are already a huge success, while work for the Mumbai and Bengaluru railway networks is underway. Mumbai civic authorities, meanwhile, have finalised a blueprint to connect Nariman Point (south Mumbai) to Borivali in the western suburbs. Reclaiming the sea seems to be high on the agenda.

What's really important is that a majority of the new Indian suburbanites belong to the affluent and, therefore, dominant section of Indian economics. Affluents — traditional and professional — are defined as a distinct group of households with an annual income of approx R9.25 lakh and above.

If the US, between 1946 and 1964, witnessed the 'baby boom', Indian suburbia is not to be left behind. A casual stroll in the play-areas of the suburban residential complexes will reveal enough perambulators, while the swings and the see-saws will be invariably full of screaming children. Welcome to modern Indian suburbia, American-style.

Brotin Banerjee is managing director and CEO, Tata Housing Development Company. The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Jul 11, 2012 23:00 IST