Navigating the rapid pace of urbanisation in India

Published on Aug 21, 2022 08:49 PM IST

While some pioneering and far-sighted programmes have been launched to improve urban areas, the pace of urbanisation is so rapid that merely fixing existing towns may not work.

From 2001 to 2011, the number of cities with a population of over one million went up from 35 to 53, and the share of the urban population in them from 37% to 42.6%. (HT Archives/Representative Image) PREMIUM
From 2001 to 2011, the number of cities with a population of over one million went up from 35 to 53, and the share of the urban population in them from 37% to 42.6%. (HT Archives/Representative Image)

One of the most complex challenges India faces today is the pace and pattern of urbanisation. For the first time since 1947, we added more people to our cities than to rural areas in the decade ending 2011. More than nine million were added to urban India every year, between 2001 and 2011. This pace of urbanisation is likely to continue, and it is estimated that 590 million people will start living in our cities by 2030, going up to 820 million by 2050. What is, however, mind boggling is that while it took about 100 years for the country’s urban population to increase from 10% to 28%, the move to 50% will take less than 40 years.

From 2001 to 2011, the number of cities with a population of over one million went up from 35 to 53, and the share of the urban population in them from 37% to 42.6%. This city-centric urbanisation has led to high density, posing serious problems of overstressed infrastructure. How should we deal with this rapid pace of urbanisation? Can we afford further densification of our cities, or should we invest in new greenfield cities? How to direct the emerging urban transformation is a conundrum faced by planners, policymakers, and administrators today.

Is it possible to retrofit and upgrade the decrepit condition of our cities? While some pioneering and far-sighted programmes have been launched to improve urban areas, the pace of urbanisation is so rapid that merely fixing existing towns may not work. It is techno-economically unviable to provide services such as water and power supply, sewage and drainage systems in a sprawling city.

It is also important to recognise that cities are the centres of economic growth, contributing as much as 60% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This is likely to go up to 70% by 2030. Hence, cities will be fundamental in realising India’s ambitions of becoming a $10-trillion economy by 2030.

Since the 1990s, India’s economic growth has been led by a large and diversified service sector. In the current scenario, a strong manufacturing sector will be important for India’s future growth. However, manufacturing needs cheap land and good infrastructure. Existing cities are hard-pressed to offer cheap land as the low floor area ratio norms make land expensive.

The current pattern of urbanisation that has focused on existing cities is problematic. The Chinese model of building cities in anticipation of an urban boom has socio-economic pitfalls. It may not be feasible, or even desirable, to prescribe any straight jacket strategy due to the enormity of the demand, the decades of accrued deficit, and the projected pace of urbanisation.

Three emerging opportunities could be merged: (i) Setting up smart new cities; (ii) Leveraging the development of transport corridors for locating new cities, and (iii) Revitalising the manufacturing sector by incentivising the locations of manufacturing units in new cities as providers of a lifeline to its residents.

For effective and efficient convergence of these three, a proper policy framework should be prepared. It should cover the identification of suitable locations for these cities; planning and development of smart cities, preferably in a Public Private Partnership model in which basic infrastructure is provided by government agencies and development work undertaken by private players; corridor development agencies to be mandated for a tie-up with city planning and development agencies, and, incentivisation of manufacturing activity, not by fiscal incentives but by specially empowered governance structures, which could give sovereign clearances for undertaking the work of city planning and development at the local level.

Transport corridors could provide a sound nucleus for new manufacturing hubs and tie-ups with urban planning agencies or the establishment of specially empowered development agencies for the new cities will ensure that the spate of unplanned development seen in the past is avoided. Unplanned development, once made, is difficult to correct. It must be accompanied by a thrust on improving municipal governance and finances and promoting dynamic planning based on ground realities and growth potentials.

Incubating new cities will also spur the real estate and construction sector, which is estimated to contribute close to 15% of India’s GDP and provide employment to over 66 million people by 2022.

Anil Baijal is the former lieutenant-governor of Delhi. OP Agarwal is CEO, WRI India

The views expressed are personal

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Wednesday, September 28, 2022
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