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Urban nightmare

Print edition : Nov 19, 2010 T+T-
ONE OF THE alarming features of governance today is the absence of intense focus on the needs of urban areas. A 2009 photograph showing children bathing at a water pipeline surrounded by sewage in Mumbai.-RAFIQ MAGBOOL/AP

ONE OF THE alarming features of governance today is the absence of intense focus on the needs of urban areas. A 2009 photograph showing children bathing at a water pipeline surrounded by sewage in Mumbai.-RAFIQ MAGBOOL/AP

If the present indifference to development continues, the country risks entering a dark age where chaos reigns.

WE have assumed, as has the rest of the world, that India is essentially a rural country, and therefore, the focus has been on rural India providing country roads, primary health centres, rural employment schemes, and so on, to improve conditions in rural India. This is only right although what is being done now should have been done some 30 years ago. This is not a criticism of what was done 30 years ago; there simply was not enough money then to make the significant changes that the conditions warranted. Perhaps more could have been provided for education because that by itself would have resulted in India having an educated society today and would have transformed the country as nothing else would have been able to do. But that is now history.

Today, an enormous amount is being spent on rural development projects. The cynics may argue that a good deal of that will be siphoned off. However, those who believe that everyone is corrupt, that all money is wasted or secreted into Swiss bank accounts, that the poor get nothing at all, and that all systems are inefficient anyway are either being foolish or making a political speech. Present-day systems and developmental efforts are by no means perfect, but they do work in some cases and in the process make a difference.

The point of this article, though, is about what is going on, or not going on, in the urban areas. Both Central and State governments are doing very little in urban areas there is the odd new hospital or an extension to an existing one, some roads are widened, a couple of flyovers are built (except in Delhi where flyovers abound), a few new schools are opened, and so on. But there is nothing on the scale of the rural employment guarantee scheme or any of the other schemes in rural areas.

One of the most alarming features of governance today is the absence of intense focus on the needs of the urban areas. And that is the time bomb that will explode in our faces or, more correctly, in the faces of our children 40 years from now. Cities in India are growing at an exponential rate, but that growth is entirely of private enterprise, be it in terms of commercial outlets or the plethora of residential buildings and complexes mushrooming all over every city and its suburbs. Public services still keep the leisurely pace of two decades ago. The McKinsey Global Institute's (MGI) recent study called India's Urban Awakening: Building Inclusive Cities, Sustaining Economic Growth says: Surging growth and employment in cities will prove a powerful magnet. India's urban population grew from the 290 million reported in the 2001 Census to an estimated 340 million in 2008. MGI projects that the population of Indian cities will increase to 590 million by 2030. [U]rban expansion will happen at a speed quite unlike anything the country has seen before.

Is the Ministry of Urban Development or the Planning Commission or the Prime Minister's Office giving this frightening fact the kind of attention that is being given to unearthing the misdeeds in which the Commonwealth Games are now mired? Is any group of policymakers, planners and administrators looking urgently into this problem, which, if neglected, can bring chaos to the country in a few decades, chaos that can take decades to handle?

The MGI says in its study: The cost of not paying attention to India's cities is enormous. Today's policy vacuum risks worsening urban decay and gridlock, a declining quality of life for its citizens, and reluctance among investors to commit resources to India's urban centres. We believe that the lack of serious policies to manage urbanisation could jeopardise even the 7.4 per cent growth rate we assume in our base case, risking high unemployment.

An eloquent example of the horror that could engulf all of urban India is the city of Gurgaon, on the outskirts of Delhi. It is a city that is literally growing before one's eyes: every day, virtually, there are new high-rise buildings coming up, each sleeker than the earlier one. Hotels, malls, state-of-the art commercial centres, luxurious apartment complexes that boast amenities available in the finest residential complexes in the world all these are springing up at a frightening pace, but the corresponding drainage and sewerage systems and the extra power, roads and streetlights needed and, above all, amenities for the poor who constitute 75 per cent of the urban population are not to be seen. What is being provided is so woefully inadequate it would be comic if the consequences of this were anything but dreadful.

As one has pointed out, nearly half of India's population will be living in urban areas by 2050; 75 per cent of the urban population today lives on about Rs.80 a day, again, going by the MGI figures. What is being done for them? Night shelters? Distribution of clothes and blankets in winter? Just how will these pitifully negligible palliative measures help? Surely, it is time to see this as a looming crisis of major proportions and prepare for it from now by providing enough funds to ensure that basic growth drivers are in place schools in adequate numbers, properly equipped, with adequate number of buildings and playgrounds, with trained, competent teachers; hospitals where there are enough numbers of beds, trained specialists and nurses and where the outpatient departments can cope with a throng of patients every day; reasonably priced housing, effective drainage systems and adequate water and power supply.

The MGI estimates that 85 per cent of the total tax revenue of the country will come from urban areas and this will fund development nationwide and that as many as 200 million people in rural areas proximate to cities will benefit directly. However, if these areas are not able to provide or realise such revenues as the MGI points out, 70 per cent of all the jobs created in the next 20 years will be in urban areas and they will be twice as productive as jobs in rural areas and if the indifference to urban development continues, the country will enter a dark age where it will choke on its nascent growth and sink into a welter of developmental chaos.

One is not talking here of the metropolitan areas Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata and Hyderabad. One is talking of cities that have a chance to become growth centres Indore, Coimbatore, Kochi, Rajkot, Visakhapatnam and several others if they can provide the services that are essential for the great leap forward.

Not having followed China's rather short-sighted policy of one-child a family, India will have, in two decades, a young and large workforce capable of taking the development of the country forward.

In China, the elderly will form a larger percentage of the population. But India needs to plan ahead for this workforce to get work, and that will only come if its urban areas have the infrastructure they need to be the engines of growth.

It is not too late to start the process; all that is needed is political will across the political spectrum.