Friday, 24 January 2020

Whither Urban India?

Updated: July 28, 2012 3:21 pm

As long overdue and eagerly awaited monsoon showers greeted Delhi on 7 July 2012, the newspapers next morning were replete with stories of water logging on main thoroughfares of Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR), which has Delhi’s sought after suburbs such as Noida and Ghaziabad (UP) and Gurgaon (Haryana). Delhi, the capital of the country, is a city with several layers of inhabitation and urbanisation. Beginning from the seventeenth century Shahjahanbad founded by Mughal Emperor Shahjahan in 1639 that is known as the seventh city of Delhi and is still a living and lively city, its name was prefixed with ‘old’ after the British shifted the capital of the Raj from Calcutta (now Kolkata) and built imperial New Delhi in 1911, Delhi has been getting layers upon layers of urban and suburban development since it regained capital status a century ago. Now with suburbanization, four governments are responsible for Delhi urban region Government of India, Delhi, UP and Haryana; not to speak of the local governments. Yet Delhi and the NCR sink or float, take your pick every year during the monsoon. Of course, Mumbai, the Marathized version of colonial Bombay that has emerged as the financial capital of the country and continues to be the largest Indian metropolis, has greater rainy woes.

A reflection on this seemingly simple instance, which year after year ends up with the media highlighting civic woes in Delhi and criticizing the remiss civic bodies, brings out a number of issues that could form points of departure for a discussion on urban India here. The limitations of civic bodies to manage our urban centres and spaces are obviously a critical issue needing consideration. Second, urban infrastructure drainage, sewer system, waste disposal, water supply, electricity, roads, public transport, public spaces (planning, creation and maintenance) integral to an urban system deserve evaluation. Third, do our urban centres and habitations have civic culture to make them flourish? Fourth, between tradition and perceived ‘modernity’ what urban design are we following? Fifth, are we blending ‘modernization’ with conservation? Sixth vital issue would be a series of interrelated concerns relating to urban environment, particularly related to potable water, disposal of waste, recycling and need for energy (conservation and renewable sources), particularly in the context of climate change. The above problems would bring out and draw attention to several such interrelated issues that make urban management in the twenty-first century an innovative and challenging task. Are we upto it?

What is Urban?

Whenever and in whatever manner habitations in human history got typified as villages and cities, as rural and urban, which marked differences not only in form, but also in the nature of occupations and life styles, the process as well its results a were a quantum, as well as qualitative, jump for the humankind. Urban historian Lewis Mumford has explained that this transformation came about when agricultural surplus sufficient to support the mankind to pursue professions other than cultivation emerged. In any case, leadership and consequently political power had already appeared that needed to base itself in habitations that performed multiple functions and supported its administrative paraphernalia. With the agricultural produce that was either voluntarily contributed, or levied as tax or tithe, even extracted forcibly, became part of surplus to support urban habitations engaged in non-agricultural profession. In due course, city building became part of grand efforts that supported town planning for organised living as well as architectural marvels that gave rise both to grand palaces and sky-scrapers.

Industrial revolution brought in the next stage of urbanisation. It was signified by population movement from villages to cities and in a notable way from agricultural to industrial production. A combination of push and pull factors emerged with the emergence of machines and technologies for mass production. The process brought in a significant number of people to manufacturing cities, creating new needs for management, infrastructure development and for meeting the requirements of a fast growing population. The entire modern outlook for urban development and governance emerges from the requirements then created and their multiplication over centuries. Indeed, globalization fashions the next stage of urban governance that twenty-first century would have to cope with; inclusive urbanisation and sustainable development have emerged as keywords.

The Indian case too would merit an analysis from this broad sweep of historical perspective.

The Quandary of ‘Urban’ in India

India has traditionally celebrated ‘urban’. A look at classical literature in any language and any part of the country across different periods of history would give us evidence to existence of magnificent cities. If prehistoric and religious classics have references to such cities as Ayodhya, Mathura and Hastinapur, they have also venerated building of cities such as Indraprastha by the Pandavas and Dwarka by Lord Krishna. Excavation of the Indus valley civilization at Mohenjodaro and Harappa has revealed planned and intricate patterns of urban planning and lifestyle. At different periods of India’s history cities such as Pataliputra, Ujjain, Kannauj, Sravasti, Kanchi, Vijayanagara, Golconda, Hyderabad, Lahore, Karachi were built and flourished across the length and breadth of India. Interestingly, history of most major cities in the country, except exclusive colonial ones, have a history rooted in mythology, one in ancient history, one in medieval times with Mughal contribution and a colonial past, indicating a process of layered development. In fact, citizenship in India was linked to urban living as its equivalent in Sanskrit ‘Nagarik’ is a derivative of the word Nagar, meaning city.

The Mughals, who ruled India from Babur’s conquest in 1526 to the symbolic fall of Bahadurshah Zafar in 1857, were great city builders. From Humayun’s Din Panah (1530) in Delhi to Akbar’s Agra (1558) and Fatehpur Sikri (1571) to Shahjahan’s Delhi Shahjahanabad (1639), four cities are credited to them. Pink city Jaipur was founded in 1727 by the King of Amber as a planned city. Political significance of cities too comes out from the fact that the British began consolidation of their empire from three Presidency cities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, till they decided to build a magnificent imperial city in Delhi, the city of capital cities. Of course, their contribution to Indian urban development should also be seen from the creation ‘civil lines’ in administrative cities, cantonment towns for stationing troops that developed a distinct culture and hill stations for escaping the oppressive heat of the plains and finding ‘home weather’, most of which continue to be significant parts of Indian urbanscape even today.

Significantly, urban politics was a noteworthy route to the development of the national movement in India. The Indian renaissance of the late nineteenth century, that presaged the Indian National Movement, was born cradled and nurtured in cities. The vitality and vibrancy of India’s urban culture made enormous contribution to the sprouting and nurturing of the Indian nationalism. The Indian political elites, who won freedom for the country and gave independent India political and administrative stability it needed after independence, had their grooming in public administration and politico-administrative system through urban governance. Sardar Patel (Ahmedabad), Jawaharlal Nehru (Allahabad), Chittaranjan Das and Subhash Chandra Bose (Calcutta) were prominent national leaders who contested elections and functioned in municipal institutions in their respective cities.

Yet urban development did not get a place of priority in Indian policy making after independence. One causative factor mentioned in urban studies for this lapse is the oft-stated slogan ‘India lives in villages’. Hence, rural development policies were framed from day one, whether or not they did any good to villages, but not for urban development. In fact, an urban development ministry was constituted in the Union Government only in 1984-85 under Rajiv Gandhi, when National Commission on Urbanization was also set up, which submitted its report in 1987. We do not have any Action Taken Report on the report.

Second important factor was situating the urban in India’s economic development. The colonial urban development in India was aimed at administrative convenience, facilities for the colonial masters and certain degree of industry, business and commerce. Development of existing urban centres and provision for facilities in them and creation of the new ones, all depended on the above considerations. We only need to read the autobiographies/biographies of leaders of the national movement (Nehru, Patel et al) to get a feel of this. Post-independence, despite development of some new industrial urban centres across the country, an urban development policy to guide the development of old cities and towns, symbiotically coordinate urban growth with economic development creating a rural urban continuum balancing push and pull factors did not emerge, creating a huge backlog that appears difficult to bridge with population growth and increasing chasm between the needs and capacity.

 21st Century Asian Cities


The sustained economic growth of Asian economies in recent decades has brought into focus the important role played by cities. The first-ever United Nations report on The State of Asian Cities 2010/111 shows that they have led a unique transformation that is characterized by explosive demographic expansion, economic dynamism, local and national development and reduction of overall poverty in the region. But unprecedented challenges remain, warns Bharat Dahiya, including growing urban poverty and inequality, environmental management, disaster risks and climate change, urban and regional planning and development, finance and governance.

Asian cities are home to over half of the world’s urban population, or 1.76 billion people (2010 figures).2 With such a large demographic base, Asia is urbanizing rapidly, and recorded the fastest urban growthacross all regions in the world, from 31.5 per cent of population living in cities to 42.2 per cent between 1990 and 2010. Estimates show that Asia will reach 50 per cent urbanization in 2026. Notwithstanding these striking statistics, Asia is still predominantly rural; 57.8 per cent of its population lived in the countryside in 2010 (compared to 60 per cent in Africa, the least urbanized region).

The Asian urbanization has some unique defining features, but two are worth noting here. First, Asian cities are in a constant state of flux, particularly given the scale of their demographic expansion. From 1990 to 2010, Asian urban population increased by over 754million people, equal to the combined population of the United States and the European Union. No other continent has experienced such population growth in such a short span of time.

The rapid demographic expansion of Asian cities that came with sustained economic growth made it a textbook example of the positive co-relation between urbanization and economic growth. Not that this equation was unknown before, but many national governments took a long time to realize it, and since the mid-20th century the policies and investments remained broadly focused on the development of rural areas than “rich” cities. The turning point came in the 1990s when national policies started to link urbanization and economic growth. In the increasingly integrated world economy, many Asian economies saw cities as the “spatio-economic links” between national and global economies, and supported them with infrastructure investments.

Second, Asian urbanization is broad-based rather than concentrated in just a few cities, and the challenge lies in finding and implementing suitable solutions for balanced sub-national development. A lion’s share—60 per cent—of the region’s urban population lives in small- and medium-sized cities (49 and 11 per cent, respectively), and will continue to do so for the next two decades. These cities will require improved urban planning and investments in the development of their basic infrastructure and services. Metropolitan cities (with populations between one and 10 million) are host to 29 per cent of Asia’s urban population and will continue to pose daunting challenges of efficient urban and regional planning and development, and environmental management. Along with small- and medium-sized cities, the metropolitan cities need evolving city development strategies that are based on their comparative advantage related to economic, socio-cultural and environmental resources.

The remaining 11 per cent of the region’s urban population resides in mega-cities with over 10 million inhabitants, the number of which has trebled from four to 12 in the past two decades.3 The concomitant emergence of mega-urban regions and urban corridors makes manifest the restructuring of the urban territorial space that comes with globalization. Mega-cities, mega-urban regions and urban corridors will have to improve multi-jurisdictional co-ordination along with regional spatial planning and development, and cope with horizontal fiscal disparities.4

The Economic Role of Asian Cities

Asian cities are highly productive. Just over 40 per cent of the region’s population living in cities contributes over 80 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP). In the period 1990 to 2010, the region’s GDP almost doubled from $8.7 trillion to $15.3 trillion, which made it a significant contributor to the world economy. Although the global economic crisis of 2008-2009 affected the region, growing domestic demand and fiscal stimulus packages have kept the national economies buoyant.

Given the crucial role they have played in the region’s economic transformation, Asian cities are recognized now as “engines of economic growth” at both local and national level. They have capitalized on the opportunities provided by their own demographic expansion as well as the forces behind globalization. Five related factors act as key drivers of the region’s urban economies: export-led growth, though domestic demand is growing; improved urban infrastructure and services; investment in and competition among cities; connectivity to domestic and international markets; and, good, and improving, business practices.

A defining feature of Asian urban economies is the synergies between formal and informal sectors. Asian cities host well-developed formal sectors in manufacturing and services—that resemble those in Western economies, simultaneously with large informal economies. In Singapore and India, for instance, the share of informal jobs in non-agricultural/urban employment in 2005 stood at 10 per cent and 85 per cent, respectively. The flexible inter-linkages between formal and informal sectors underpin the remarkable success of the Asian urban economy in the fast-changing circumstances of globalization. In fact, a significant informal sector has been a feature of the early phases of urbanization in almost all economies around the world, and therefore is seen as a prerequisite in the transition from developing to developed economies. Nevertheless, Asian countries will need to make concerted efforts to ensure that informal sector workers receive adequate wage, good/safe working conditions, and social protection.

Another characteristic of the Asian urban economy is its ongoing diversification from manufacturing to innovative services. Since the 1980s, Asia has enjoyed the unique status of being the “factory of the world,” as export-oriented manufacturing bases, particularly so-called special economic zones, were developed. Many Asian cities now function as “knowledge economies.” That Bengaluru (formally Bangalore) in India and Cyberjaya in Malaysia are examples of Silicon Valleys in the region is well known. Major Western companies have located their research and development (R&D) centers in Beijing, Shanghai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad, which is an effective recognition of Asian cities’ growing potential for innovation. Seoul and Singapore have made efforts to develop themselves as centers of digital and multimedia industries. Moreover, a few Asian cities, such as Shanghai and Mumbai, aspire to become international financial centers, emulating the success of Tokyo, Singapore and Hong Kong.

While Asian cities lead economic growth in the region, they are expected to develop and implement complementary strategies for three interrelated purposes: readjust their own economic specialization based on comparative advantage; improve vocational education and training for new entrants to labor market, especially those who are poor; and develop quality education systems that can promote critical-thinking and problem-solving abilities, in addition to information technology skills.

Poverty and Inequality in Asian Cities

Building on its sustained economic growth, Asia more than halved its poverty rate from 50.2 to 23.1 per cent from 1990 to 2008. Given the region’s demographic size, the number of poor stood at 945 million in 2008. But the picture is quite different with regard to urban poverty and inequality.

First, Asia is experiencing the urbanization of poverty. In South Asia, for instance, the number of urban poor increased from 107 to 125 million between 1993 and 2002. Moreover, urban poverty in Asia is declining more slowly compared to its rural counterpart. In East Asia-Pacific, for instance, rural poverty declined from 407 million to 223 million (or from 35 per cent to 20 per cent), while urban poverty declined only from 29 to 16 million (or from 6 per cent to 2 per cent).5 Why was this so? Three factors lie behind this phenomenon:

(1) Patterns of urban development. Local, national and, increasingly, foreign profit-seeking enterprises drive city-based economic growth in the region. But the redistributive channels through which urban poor could benefit from such wealth creation are simply lacking in Asian cities.

(2) Poverty measurement. Income required for essential goods for a family of four in urban areas is relatively higher than that for a similar rural household. The added deprivation in cities is owing to inadequate income (commodity prices are higher in urban than rural locations), inadequate—and hence more expensive—housing, and lack of access to basic services.

(3) Policies on poverty. Given the predominant rural population in many Asian countries, governments have often considered poverty as a rural, not an urban, problem and, therefore, poverty alleviation policies have focused more on rural than urban populations—as evidenced in the different outcomes. As the region continues to urbanize, national governments would do well to address the above factors.

Second, inequality is relatively high and on the rise in the Asian cities. In the region’s three largest countries—China, India and Indonesia—urban inequality increased from 1990 to 2005.6 Rising urban inequality in Asia again reflects a policy focus on economic growth, and efforts to reduce inequality at the city level have been lacking.

Third, Asian cities are host to 505 million slum-dwellers—more than half of the world’s slum population (2010). Slum-dwellers suffer from insecure land tenure, poor housing and overcrowding, and they lack adequate provision of basic services such as safe drinking water, sanitation, waste collection, energy, transportation and health. This is despite the fact that governments and other stakeholders improved the lives of an estimated 172 million slum dwellers, which, in turn, helped achieve the “slum target” under the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.7 Successful approaches used by public authorities include awareness and advocacy, long-term political commitment, policy reforms and institutional strengthening, proper implementation and monitoring, and scaling-up of successful local projects. Citywide pro-poor policies and strategies for settlement upgrading have aided this effort. Moreover, the “people’s process” of housing and slum improvement, spearheaded by dedicated civil society groups and supported by the UN and other international development agencies, has empowered urban poor communities to improve their settlements.

Urban Environment and Climate Change

Asian cities face a unique set of challenges related to environment and climate change. This is because the pace of economic development in Asian countries is much faster than that experienced by the industrialized world. Challenges related to poverty, environmental pollution and consumption—often related to different stages of development and that were faced by the industrialized countries over a longer period of time, are confronting Asian cities within a short time span.8 Moreover, the region’s unique geography and climate combined with high population densities and a lack of adequate planning make Asian cities highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. This phenomenon is unprecedented, and Asian cities find themselves in territory unknown in human history.

In the quest for economic growth, Asia has become the factory of the world with massive im-migration of labor-intensive and often environmentally hazardous industries from developed regions. Rapid industrialization and large-scale urbanization has led to the pollution of natural resources. Power plants, industries, transportation, and residential and commercial buildings are the main sources of air pollution, which causes as many as 519,000 premature deaths every year in the region. Unregulated and over-exploited water resources have rendered a number of Asian cities water-scarce (when total withdrawals are greater than 40 per cent of annual water resources). Industrial effluents and municipal wastewater continue to pollute both surface and groundwater in many Asian cities, as most lack the capacity or resources to deploy large-scale wastewater treatment facilities. Poor solid waste management is an oft-cited urban environmental problem, and is owed to technical and financial constraints. All countries in the region have environmental legislation and policies to control pollution and protect natural resources, but their enforcement is far from satisfactory.

Consumption of energy has grown along with, and fuelled, economic growth in Asia. Over 80 per cent of the region’s primary energy supply comes from fossil fuels. In recent decades, with improved incomes has come the increased use of private vehicles and changes in consumption patterns—often following Western standards. Although calculations are yet to be made, cities’ share of Asia’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions could be as low as 40 per cent or as high as 78 per cent—depending on how the estimates are made, corresponding to the share of urban areas worldwide to these emissions. Cities such as Delhi and Rizhao have made concerted efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and Asian cities will benefit greatly from such efforts.

Asian cities stand to be most affected by the increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters, as evident by the prolonged floods that affected Southeast Asia in 2011. Estimates show that in 2010, 304 million people lived in cities located in Asia’s Low Elevation Coastal Zone (i.e. less than 10 meters above sea level), which, as a result of climate change, is potentially exposed to rising sea levels and storm surges.9 Urban poor, who live in informal settlements located in fragile environmental areas on shorelines and major river basins, are disproportionately affected by and are the most vulnerable to disaster risks and climate change. On the one hand, there is a need for mainstream climate change adaptation for cities in national policies and programs, including resource allocation. On the other hand, climate-change adaptation issues need to be integrated into urban and regional plans, and followed up through proper implementation.

Asian cities stand to be most affected by the increased frequency and intensity of natural disasters, as evident by the prolonged floods that affected Southeast Asia in 2011. Estimates show that in 2010, 304 million people lived in cities located in Asia’s Low Elevation Coastal Zone (i.e. less than 10 meters above sea level), which, as a result of climate change, is potentially exposed to rising sea levels and storm surges.9 Urban poor, who live in informal settlements located in fragile environmental areas on shorelines and major river basins, are disproportionately affected by and are the most vulnerable to disaster risks and climate change. On the one hand, there is a need for mainstream climate change adaptation for cities in national policies and programs, including resource allocation. On the other hand, climate-change adaptation issues need to be integrated into urban and regional plans, and followed up through proper implementation.

Urban Governance, Management and Finance

In Asia, national or provincial governments, para-statal agencies and local governments have traditionally dominated urban governance. The modus operandi of urban governance has focused on administrative structures and processes, such as regulations and standards, provision of basic services, infrastructure, development programs (often aided by central governments), personnel management and internal audits. With regard to spatial planning, city and regional plans, zoning codes, building bylaws and planning schemes have governed urban development. The outcomes of such governance have often been inadequate basic urban services, unreliable energy systems, haphazard and often market-led urban expansion, traffic gridlocks, and environmental pollution—in sum, poor liveability in Asian cities.

Since the early 1990s, a number of Asian countries have implemented constitutional and statutory changes that have decentralized and devolved authority to local governments, and broadened the sphere of urban governance to recognize the vital role of civil society participation. In many Asian cities, local governments are putting to good use the following principles of urban governance: participation and representation (most Asian countries), participatory budgeting (India), mechanisms for accountability and transparency (China, Pakistan and Singapore), and new technologies and e-governance (Malaysia). This “learning by doing” is helpful for further improvements in urban governance.

In Asian cities, governance of metropolitan cities and mega-urban regions differs considerably from that of towns and smaller cities. Metropolitan cities and mega-urban regions are often governed by what could be called a mixed system of urban and regional governance, where authority is vested in multiple institutions, including sectoral departments of central government, metropolitan/regional authorities, special-purpose agencies and local governments. In towns and smaller cities, governance structures include a policymaking body (often an elected council) and an executive arm (mayor). Many towns and smaller cities find it difficult to achieve development goals due to poor political leadership and inadequate financial, technical and institutional capacities; this needs urgent attention because 60 per cent of Asia’s urban population will continue to live in medium to small cities and towns in the next two decades.

Asian cities would need to invest close to $10 trillion over 10 years in order to meet their requirements for physical and institutional infrastructure. It is often said that many Asian cities are “rich” but have economically poor city governments. If they are to meet such investment needs, Asian cities will have to explore all sources of finance, including local revenue sources (such as property-based taxes), domestic and foreign borrowings, land as a resource for development (especially in China and Vietnam), and public-private partnerships.

Last but not least, local government associations in Asia have become important stakeholders to lobby for devolution of powers to local authorities, and must step up their efforts—both at a regional and national level, in their quest for good urban governance. Moreover, local government associations need to continue promoting city-to-city (“C2C”) co-operation in order to support sharing and exchange of lessons learned and good practices in sustainable urban development.

Future Perspectives

Asia 2050: Realizing the Asian Century, a recent publication by the Asian Development Bank,10 notes on its opening page: “Asia is in the midst of a truly historic transformation … It holds the promise of making some 3 billion additional Asians, hitherto commonly associated with poverty and deprivation, affluent by today’s standards. By nearly doubling its share of global GDP (at market exchange rates) from 27 per cent in 2010 to 51 per cent by 2050, Asia would regain the dominant global economic position it held some 250 years ago, before the Industrial Revolution. Some have called this possibility the ‘Asian Century.’ ”

If the 21st century does turn out to be the “Asian Century,” the dynamic and vibrant Asian cities will have to shoulder the Himalayan task of leading the region’s economic growth. In this process, Asian cities will have to readjust and refocus their economic specialization, whether it is in low- or high-end manufacturing, knowledge economies, cultural and creative industries, or other innovative services. New urban economic niches will evolve through learning and experience, or will be invented as needs and opportunities arise.

Asian cities need to play a key role in providing better employment to the informal sector workers and lifting more people out of urban poverty. This has to go hand in hand with the endeavor of addressing urban inequality and improving the lives of over half a billion slum-dwellers.

Continued economic growth within and outside the region, and the attendant increase in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, will exacerbate the pace of climate change. Asian cities will have to explore all possible sources of ideas, including indigenous knowledge, to tackle the daunting challenges of worsening disaster risks and impacts of climate change.11

By 2050, Asian cities will accommodate an additional 1.6 billion people (about 41 million people every year) and its urban population will be 3.4 billion. To accommodate such phenomenal demographic expansion, Asian cities will need improved urban and regional planning and development, environmental management, urban governance and massive investments.

The first-ever State of Asian Cities 2010/11 report represents a benchmark against which we could all measure the progress Asian cities will make in rising up to these unprecedented challenges.


(Bharat Dahiya holds a PhD in Urban Planning, Governance and the Environment from the University of Cambridge and is a Human Settlements Officer at UN-HABITAT Bangkok Office. He has led and worked on sustainable urban development initiatives in Asia-Pacific and Middle East. At the World Bank previously, he co-authored with Anthony G. Bigio Urban Environment and Infrastructure: Toward Livable Cities (2004), This article first appeared in Global Asia)

By Bharat Dahiya

Independence and After

Till the middle of twentieth century, which witnessed transformation of India from the medieval age to modern age and to independence from two centuries old colonial rule and it embarked on its democratic and republican journey, the rate of India’s urbanisation gradually transformed from slow one per cent in the first three decades to 18.3 per cent. In 1901, only 25 million people (10.84 per cent of population) lived in urban areas in India. At the turn of the century (2001), the urban population had grown 12 times to 285 million (28 per cent of population). In the next decade (i.e. in 2011 census), India added 90 million to its urban population, which stands at 377 million. The total urban population of India, according to Census 2001, is more than 10 per cent of total urban population of the world. Decadal growth of urban population in India has been consistently high since 1931-41 at around 30 to 45 per cent. Census 2011 indicates a decadal growth of urban population at 31.8 per cent and 31.6 per cent of India is now urban, as compared to 27.8 per cent in 2001. India is currently among the rapidly urbanizing countries in the world.

Census 2011 lists 53 cities across the country as million-plus cities, a qualifier for being designated a metropolis. The first four metropolises Mumbai (Bombay), Calcutta (Kolkata), Chennai (Madras), Delhi and the Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and Bengaluru (Bangalore) that joined then between 1980s and 1990s, along with Pune, Surat and Jaipur have moved to the category of urban agglomeration. Delhi, which speeded ahead of Kolkata and Chennai in the later part of 1980s, is identified as a city, as a metropolis (Delhi Metropolitan Area) and as a megalopolis in the Urban Agglomeration (UA) National Capital Region that has suburbs stretching out in three other states. The five largest UAs Greater Mumbai (18.4 million), Delhi (16.3 million), Kolkata (14.1 million), Chennai (8.7 million), Bangalore (8.5 million) together inhabit over 55 million people.

These are brief figures indicative of the urban challenge India faces in sheer demographic terms. However, demography then translates into growth patterns, both in terms of volume (and per centage) and nature, i.e., natural and migratory. While on demography, we must also note that India’s urbanisation is measured predominantly from demographic parameters. Other parameters of an urban area in terms of facilities are seldom factored in. No wonder, even our megalopolises, at least part of them, lack facilities that make a habitation ‘urban’. Take for instance Delhi’s sought after suburb in Uttar Pradesh, Noida, which is a city founded in 1975. It still does not afford its inhabitants potable water, though raw piped water is supplied to them. Its garbage and sewage disposal leaves much to be desired. Till the arrival of metro, it had little in terms public transport, which is still deficient. Electric supply is deficient to say the least. Gurgaon in Haryana too faces acute shortage of water and has no public transport worth the name. We can juxtapose other UAs with these two and see whether beyond demography basic minimum facilities have been carefully planned, provided and are being upgraded continuously.

Deficient public transport system has had two impacts on our urban centres. First, private vehicles have multiplied. Second, there is a mixed means of transport on the road, creating various kinds of traffic hazard, mainly in terms of safety to passengers and those who ply these for livelihood. Private vehicles have been gobbling up public spaces, both on roads and for parking in public areas and in neighbourhoods. They also end up disturbing public peace in a variety of ways. However, the most notable negatives of multiplication of private automotive vehicles are in terms environment and sustainability, which are emerging as significant parameters of urban development worldwide.

Urban Holism: Seeking Inspiration

Cities have inspired social scientists to look at this form of human habitation from a variety of disciplinary glasses. Indeed, architects and urban planners always have their structural perspectives about cities and how they should be organised in utility, functional and aesthetic terms, which have led to different urban forms emerging across the world. However, as mentioned, cities are not contemporary form of habitation. They emerged with civilizations and in every age they have attained a new form in different cultures. For self-reflection, I would mention some instances from Europe, without insisting that we must copy everything, as we have our limitations, but to say that we cannot learn and replicate good practices would be unfair to Indian spirit.

First, since many of our cities, such as Delhi, Jaipur, Udaipur and many others in different parts of the country, have historical heritage, we need to look at the tradition of conservation in Europe. Not only Paris, which is a monumental example of conservation and restoration despite adopting modernity, smaller cities in a country such as Spain, which is not as prosperous as France, have not only conserved monuments, but also organised their modern lifestyles around the conserved spaces. All these cities have all the modern amenities and an efficient municipal system.

Second, despite a phenomenal growth of automobiles, which is reduced on roads with efficient and green public transport systems buses, electric buses, trams, metros, even waterways are operated efficiently and keeping in view public convenience. We have scrapped all the existing tram systems, except the one in Kolkata, whereas in Europe the old ones have been made efficient and new ones have been created. The only one in Kolkata has not been upgraded. Public Transport system depends on efficacious use of roads, our road culture is hazardous, uncivic and completely lacking in civility. While the society has a large share of the blame, the enforcement authorities hardly acquit themselves with any credit.

Public spaces are civic and cultural hearts of urban areas. Civic life in most European urban centres, howsoever small, is around the mayoral office, which is located in many cities and towns in historical buildings with a large plaza, where people gather periodically to sort out their problems, even to celebrate their weekend or festivals. No wonder, Paris is divided into twenty municipal arrondissements, each with a beautiful and spacious mayoral office. Barcelona’s La Rambla, a wide 1.2 km tree-lined pedestrian tract, is an example. Bilbao (Spain) has set an example by increasing public space by narrowing roads in central districts and only city in the world with a criss-cross along with traditional pedestrian crossing. We need to learn from across the world!

 By Ajay K. Mehra


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