Chronicles Beyond Megacities

Today, a new mantra has been seized as the panacea to every urban ill: the 'development of small towns'. Suddenly we find this new idea being touted by planners and bureaucrats as the great hope for urban India. The thinking appears to be that, if some of the small towns of India were to be developed and provided adequate infrastructure, they would soon become the desired destinations of the many migrants who currently flock to the severely stretched 'mega-cities'

As 'evidence', recent reports have pointed triumphantly to a 'new' phenomenon unfolding across parts of the country, as reputed Information Technology (IT) and software companies slowly but surely move out of, or expand beyond the mega-cities, to set up operations in smaller towns which, so far, have had no presence on the business map.

Unfortunately, the conclusions that being drawn from these incipient developments are far from the realities of the ground, and, indeed, demonstrate the rather clueless nature of urban planning in India. First, the sudden attractiveness of small towns results from an almost complete collapse of infrastructure in the so called 'megacities', and reflects a failure of planning rather than a planned improvement. Second, the rates of migration into, and expansion of, the megacities, are not significantly diminished by the development of the smaller city centres. Third, many of the 'megacities' of today were themselves sleepy townships - their idyllic surroundings being one of the spurs to the 'gold rush' of business enterprises that moved in - just a couple of decades ago.

For a reputed company like Infosys to move to Mohali from Bangalore is, of course, an interesting pointer in the dynamics of city development. It is presumed that the presence of such giant companies will transform the local economy and business culture, and raise the city from small-town anonymity to 'Class One City' status. Yet, as was seen in Bangalore, the world that emerges from these super-corporations is encapsulated in a bubble, within which only they and their employees enjoy a pleasant, if artificially sustained, existence, that remains untouched by, and does not touch, the city. That, precisely, is why Bangalore faces a severe crisis today, despite the enriching presence of many IT and hi-tech industries. When businesses flocked into the 'garden city' two decades ago, leaving the congested environs of mega-cities like Mumbai, city managers sat smug and did little to develop the infrastructure of a modern urban centre. Within 20 years, Bangalore is coming to a creaking halt, even as it has already lost all that made it a dream destination - clean environment, good roads, quality institutions, housing, linkages - in other words, infrastructure. In December 2004, the Karnataka Chief Minister, Dharam Singh, confessed, "Azim Premji (of Wipro, among the wealthiest men in India) came to me and said that he was leaving because his cars could not move, but I convinced him to stay back." But clearly, such 'convincing' will not keep corporations permanently in Bangalore, in the absence of dramatic infrastructural improvements.

Similarly, as Gurgaon boomed, many multinationals set up camp, seeking to escape the congestion and cost of a Delhi that was already showing signs of disintegration under strain. Today, barely ten years into the 'boom', Gurgaon is already headed to an infrastructure crisis, and many of the esteemed companies that moved in are considering moving, or have already moved, elsewhere.

It is within this context that the plaintive appeals of 'super cities' such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore need to be assessed. Recently, the Urban Development Secretary, in a submission to the Supreme Court, stated that Delhi's rapid urbanization had "completely outpaced the augmentation of civic infrastructure", and sounded a warning that it 'might not be feasible' to prevent the inflow of migrants.

But who is to blame for this? The corporations who moved into these cities - and who attract tens of thousands of migrants - create enormous wealth. Why then, does the city's infrastructure collapse? With all the resources between them, the politician and the bureaucrat have still brought thriving cities to a grinding standstill.

To return, however, to the 'small town panacea': there are only a handful of small-towns in India which have reasonable infrastructure and existing linkages to lend themselves to easy 'colonization' by the giant corporations, and even these will require enormous doses of investment before they kick in as efficient working cities. But with established mega-cities clamouring for funds and in a state of near-collapse, how precisely are these smaller towns expected to absorb the pressures of urbanization without quickly lapsing into chaos?

Apart from the failure of rational management that has prevented the adequate "augmentation of civic infrastructure" the problem also lies in the model of urban development currently being followed, which places undue emphasis on the development of a handful of towns and cities, diverting increasing resources and public institutional efforts to these, at the expense of a more balanced and efficient pattern. This is not a lament about 'equity' and 'justice' against the imperatives of cold economic logic. It is, rather, a demand for greater efficiency in utilization of available resources and a wider integrated network of productive centres.

Rural India has, for instance, traditionally, been dismissed as an area of poverty. However, a recent study by the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER) indicates that this is a myth, as is the belief that the country's wealth resides exclusively in its cities. While the mega-cities account for a majority of the country's crorepatis, in many States, rural crorepatis outnumber the urban. Haryana, for instance, with 482 rural crorepatis, even beats Bangalore city's 137 crorepatis. 350 of every million households in small towns have more than Rs. One crore as annual income, a higher proportion than metros like Kolkata, Bangalore and Hyderabad!

But India's urban and economic boom is not efficiently tapping these resources to develop large numbers of wealth generating centres - concentrating, instead, on a small number of inter-linked 'corridors' of growth. This is reflected in the slow growth in the number of towns in the country - between 1901 and 1991, while urban populations increased eightfold, the number of urban centres barely doubled. This results from the failure to tap the resources of large-sized villages and to engineer their graduation into towns through the growth of the industrial and service sectors.

Perhaps the problem can once again be traced back to that 'plaintive cry': infrastructure development has not kept pace with urbanisation. This is the crisis of both small or emerging towns and large cities. While planners are now excited over the fact that a handful of smaller cities are going to become the next big thing for urban India, they are yet to integrate this enthusiasm into a coherent plan that could prevent these new centres going the way of the old, or to ensure that the 'supply' of emerging urban centres with an adequate infrastructure, keeps pace with the demand for economic expansion.

India's urban population has barely worked its way up to 30 per cent of the total - and we already have a state of urban collapse. The advanced countries of the world have urban populations in excess of 75 per cent - and it is only after such proportions are attained that some demographic stability will emerge in India. It is these numbers that we need to prepare for - and a handful of new cities along a few narrow 'corridors of development' are not going to suffice to meet the challenge.

Chitvan Gill

Published in The Pioneer, September 22, 2005



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