Chronicles Sham Renewal

The nagging question, today, is how will we do it? India's future urban scenario speaks of the most extraordinary growth of populations: on conservative estimates based on past growth, India will add at least 255 million people to its 2001 urban population of 285 million by year 2020, and there are now wide apprehensions that this will prove to be a gross underestimate.

Married to these demographic trends and projections is a growing crescendo of voices speaking of 'urban renewal', voices that reflect an unnerving optimism in the wake of such daunting statistics and the national track record of urban management. Indeed, it is very hard to see any ordered development in the country, as we fail to cover the cumulative gap of a widening infrastructure deficit even in our 'best' cities. It is useful to note that the urban population increased by 68 million between 1991 and 2001, and the consequences are visible in enveloping urban chaos and a near collapse of infrastructure across the country.

Today, owing to a coincidence of various circumstances, India and China are being spoken of in the same breath, and rapid urbanization and its impact are thought of as one of the 'shared' factors in their development. Unfortunately, the experience of urbanization - and, crucially, of urban management - in the two countries is anything but shared, and is, indeed, a study in contrasts. India lags far, far behind China in terms, not just of vision, but in simple clarity of thought, planning, funding and execution. There are segments within the political leadership in India that still speak of development in derogatory terms as 'a middle class concept', while some planners describe urban development as 'anti- rural', and still others reject the very possibility of planned urban development. Even as millions pour into the cities, looking for a better life, an utter confusion of perspectives prevails.

There is no such confusion for China. Its leadership is entirely clear on the way forward. Seventy-five million farmers will move from rural China to its cities over just the next five years, and this is being described as the biggest migration ever witnessed on the planet. But there is no sense of disorder, no loss of control.

So how will China do it? More than 15 million people move into cities in China every year, and by 2010, the combined urban population will cross 600 million - about 45 per cent of the total population. By 2050, according to UN estimates, seven out of ten Chinese will be living in cities.

Accommodating all this growth is a difficult task that will test the creativity and capacity of China's leaders and urban administrators. For every per cent increase in urbanization, according to one estimate, China must add some 300 to 400 square kilometers of housing, consume 1,800 kilometres of land, pump 140 million cubic metres of potable water, generate 640 kilowats of energy, dispose of 1.14 billion cubic metres of waste water each year, and expend some 270 billion Yuan (US $ 35 billion) - and these are just the bare essentials.

But there are no signs of panic, disorder or confusion. Over the next five years, China is planning to build 300 new cities and this is to be done from scratch, in sharp contrast to the haphazard emergence of urban conglomerations from the disorders of burgeoning villages and mofussil towns in India. By 2010, China will have nearly 200 cities with a population of over a million residents, and more than a thousand cities with over 200,000 residents. By comparison, the number of metropolitan (million plus) cities in India is expected to grow to just 51 by 2011, and to 75 by 2021.

This year alone, China has created a world record of 4.7 billion square feet of construction, and is setting the fastest pace of development at a scale that has never been witnessed in history. Entire ghost towns are being constructed, not to meet a backlog, but to fulfill projected needs. And the rampage doesn't stop with a housing and construction boom financed by huge Foreign Direct Investments (FDI). Backing this up is investment in infrastructure, provisions for power and transportation, to match the scale of urbanization. According to one estimate, China is expected to spend as much as 3.5 per cent of its GDP on the development and expansion of the national transportation system over the coming five to ten years. The railways alone are to increase from the current 73,000 kilometres to 100,000 kilometres by 2020. Recent growth has, however, left China currently gasping for power, and acute shortages are experienced in both rural and urban areas. But the Government has plans for 30 nuclear reactors for power generation by 2020, and as many as 200 by 2050. China has already created the 'world class' infrastructure of cities, roads, ports and airports that is still just a slogan in India, and this is certainly one of the reasons why China attracted US $ 61 billion FDI in 2004, as against India's meager US $ 5 billion.

Gigantic targets and projects do not, however, exhaust the Chinese vision, and plans are also afoot to build 'eco cities' - "self-sustaining urban centres the size of a large western capital" - which would create prototypes for urban living to counter the effects of the over-populated and polluted environment, and that would act as magnets for investment funds into the rapidly growing economy.

And these are not pipe dreams; these plans are fully provided for financially and are ongoing. A steely determination helps make this possible. Today, the Chinese Government places enormous emphasis on urban planning and development, and China stands alone as the only country in the world to have placed its urban planning regulations, promulgated in 1989, as national law. These regulations enjoy a legal status second only to the Chinese Constitution. In India, every municipality invents, abrogates and violates its own by-laws on a routine basis, and every effort to introduce some measure of uniformity in legislation or practice, or even to impose a modicum of accountability, has been drowned out in a cacophony of protests.

It would be easy to simply ascribe all this to the difference between an authoritarian and a democratic form of governance, and to attribute India's failures to the greater freedoms and guarantees provided to each citizen, as well as to the natural infirmities of democratic institutions. Certainly, the sweeping powers that local officials enjoy in China would directly impact on the capacities for successful implementation. But the plans, the visions, the capacity to assess emerging trends and future demands, and to think strategically, are not the product of an authoritarian politics - and are not unique to China or characteristic of authoritarian systems. They are products of a systematic and scientific approach to urbanization and urban management. It is not democracy, but extraordinarily incompetent leadership, chronic administrative myopia, indiscipline, the tolerance and 'regularisation' of large-scale violations of regulations and laws, and lack of professionalism, that have triggered and sustain India's urban crisis. Our urban laws and administration are so lax that even where our intent and desire are admirable, the execution will remain impossible unless we build certain simple key words, such as competence and accountability, into our vocabulary - the buck must stop somewhere.


Chitvan Gill

Published in The Pioneer, December 01, 2005



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