Chronicles Failure of imagination

So great is the intellectual bankruptcy of city planners in India today, they cannot even envision meeting the deficits of our past; to fulfill the swelling demands of the future appears to lie entirely outside their sphere of competence. Indeed, some professional city planners in the country have now started rejecting the very idea of long term planning, insisting on a process of accretion in which projects are conceptualized annually - a process that has undermined Masterplans in the country's metropolii for decades, and already created untold chaos.

But as India's population grows, as urbanization expands dramatically, and as large cities become larger still, only an extraordinary feat of planning, implementation and management will contain the slide into chaos, insecurity and probable violence.

Look at the numbers and what they augur. By year 2021, India's population is expected to grow to 1.35 billion, against a present population of about 1.08 billion, bringing it to near parity with China. But India's total geographical area is one-third China's. Population pressures are expected to lead to widespread resource scarcities and increasingly acute - possibly violent - competition between various groups, which can be exacerbated by political mismanagement and administrative ineptitude. We are already experiencing tensions between Indian States and with our proximate neighbours in South Asia as a result of increasing water scarcities, and these have the capacity of escalating to what are envisaged as 'water wars'. The depletion or degradation of a wide range of natural resources; the progressive diminution of the per capita resource base through population growth, cropland fragmentation, erosion, deforestation and desertification; and the augmentation of structural scarcities, that is, the denial of equal access to particular resources to specific groups as a result of social and political inequalities, will all compound an already fragile situation.

As much as 63 per cent of India's population growth in the first quarter of the present century is expected to be in its most backward States - UP, Bihar, MP, Rajasthan, Orissa, Jharkhand, Chhatisgarh and Uttaranchal. This would take the share of these States in India's population up from 40 per cent to 50 per cent. These are, moreover, the areas which have demonstrated some of the most rapid rates of the growth of disorder and mis-governance in the recent past. Worse, the more progressive States of South India would have "completed the demographic transition" by this time with very low growth rates of population and an increasing age profile. This could provoke massive migration from the North to these States, and such migrants would take with them the culture of lawlessness and violence that afflicts so much of their States of origin.

Patterns of the urban-rural distribution of populations will also prove crucial for a variety of reasons. Much has been made of the growth of the urban population to 40 per cent by 2020, from 27.8 per cent in 2001, and the pressure this would exert on urban infrastructure, governance and security. This figure alone does not comprehend the enormity and complexity of the issues involved. First, the increase of 12.2 per cent actually represents a near doubling of the urban population, from about 285 million in 2001, to 540 million by 2020. With urban infrastructure teetering at the very edge of chaos even now, and with urban governance failing to come to terms with the magnitude of the present crisis, it is difficult to imagine how the future can be well ordered.

Crucially, however, the dramatic growth in the urban population would not provide any relief to the rural areas. India's rural population in 2020 would stand at 810 million, significantly above the 2001 figure of 742 million. Despite massive migration to urban areas, consequently, dependency on the agricultural and rural sector would not decline. Given the patterns of narrow and focused development in a handful of priority sectors in the hi-tech arena, rural-urban disparities can be expected to widen, aggravating social tensions in rural areas, and pressures of migration on urban areas.

The pattern of urbanization and development raises other security concerns. A bulk of the projected development will occur along a handful of "corridors of growth", which would make these particularly vulnerable to subversion and disruptive activities. Further, much of the urban growth would result from the densification of a relatively small number of expanding metropolii and megapolii, which would be subjected to a number of negative processes, including intensive 'ghettoisation'. This is the potential consequence of the fact that, in many cases, rural migrants bring their 'culture' of caste and exclusion with them, even as there is increasing evidence of 'ghettoisation' between rich and poor in India's cities. In addition, at least some of these megapolii may be created across State boundaries (as is already the case with the National Capital Region), with consequent problems of coordinated management of issues of security and governance. These various factors will exacerbate tensions. With increasing densification, the progressive pressure on, and occasional collapse of, the urban infrastructure and services, and poor governance, the scope for criminal and violent political mobilisation would be extraordinary, creating enormous challenges of policing and security.

India has, of course, put great faith in economic liberalization and globalization - and these processes have, over the past decade and a half, resulted in dramatic improvements in certain sectors of the economy. But this progress has a narrow base, and has gone side by side with the marginalization of large sections of the population, widening areas of poor governance, and escalating security challenges. It is crucial to understand, within this context, that scarcities and consequent social tensions can and do coexist with rapid rates of growth and with declines in the national poverty ratio. The late 1990s and early 2000s have witnessed the most dramatic declines in India's poverty ratio, but also some of the most unsettling signs of rural distress (malnutrition, starvation deaths and the spreading incidence of 'farmer suicides' in some of the most unexpected locations), demonstrating the fact that "scarcity and abundance may very well coexist". This period has also witnessed the most dramatic extension of the regions of disorder and violence, with insurgent and terrorist movements of various ideological persuasion variously affecting as many as 220 of the countries 602 districts.

Many, however, celebrate the growth of population, speaking of the 'youth bulge' that will help the Indian economy boom - and eventually equal and overtake China. Regrettably, however, the 'youth bulge' also has a downside, and has historically been associated with instability and internal conflict in many theatres in the world. The people of a nation are, no doubt, its greatest assets; but the failure to effectively and efficiently harness this great national resource can transform them into a liability and a source of instability, violence and security risk. India's internal difficulties will, moreover, continue to the exploited by traditionally hostile neighbours, whose own internal problems can only be expected to grow, given present demographic trends.

There is an astonishing feat of planning required if we are to cope with these mounting challenges. There are technical and technological solutions available to deal with many of the crises that the city is subject to, but these have to be systematically factored into the enterprise of urban management and governance if they are to succeed. Unfortunately, our capacities to imagine the future and to impose some order on it appear to be frighteningly limited; and unless we can overcome this intellectual deficit, the future can only promise greater disorders.

Ajai Sahni

Associate Director, Urban Futures Initiative; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management

Published in The Pioneer, August 11, 2005


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