Coping with our cities

Published : Dec 31, 2004 00:00 IST

A mall on the Mehrauli-Gurgaon road. Shops, malls, hotels, office buildings and houses have sprung up where there was nothing but quiet agricultural land. - RAJEEV BHATT

A mall on the Mehrauli-Gurgaon road. Shops, malls, hotels, office buildings and houses have sprung up where there was nothing but quiet agricultural land. - RAJEEV BHATT

The path to urbanisation is strewn with problems such as inadequate infrastructure, compounded by the government's lack of foresight.

RECENTLY I had to do what I try to avoid: drive down from Delhi into the urban sprawl that has come up around and beyond the city of Gurgaon, in Haryana. It has been years since I went down that road, the national highway to Jaipur. The last time I had driven down it, I remember seeing the odd building or resort, nothing more. What I saw this time was truly frightening. On either side was a never-ending urban desert, building upon building, and every second one, it seemed, was a gigantic shopping mall, ablaze with lights, and hundreds of cars parked in front of them. Like background music, I could hear the deep hum of giant generators. The lights obviously came from them.

The change in just a few years has been astonishing, and it is almost the same in the other region adjoining Delhi, Noida. That is not quite as immense but it is impressively big too. Shops, malls, hotels, office buildings and houses have sprung up where there was nothing but quiet agricultural land; and in Haryana, around Gurgaon, the urbanisation is so staggering in size that there simply is no agricultural land for miles in any direction.

In one sense, this is the inevitable outcome of the enormous growth of Delhi's population, and developers have rapidly acquired land and either built or made it possible for others to build all these malls, flats, office buildings, hotels and resorts. But the sound of the generators behind all these very futuristic glass and steel structures is a kind of symbol of the actual state of affairs on the ground. There simply is not enough power for all these huge buildings, their air-conditioned interiors, lights, piped music, escalators and everything else that needs electricity to work.

And that is not all. There is not enough water either. Not from the available urban water system and not from tube wells, which have to be sunk deeper and deeper as the water table keeps falling before the insatiable need of the millions who are now either staying in or using these buildings. Nor is there an effective system of waste disposal. And, most importantly, the roads are hopelessly inadequate. True, some flyovers are being built on the national highway, but the roads to all the `colonies' as they are called, which constitute this gigantic urban sprawl, are still narrow and fragile, unable to take the load of traffic.

One reads that the situation is about as bad in Bangalore and that in parts of Pune traffic jams are perpetual. In other words, the urban areas of the country are growing much faster than the infrastructure. This is the fallout of a high rate of growth, of the inflow of funds, of new industries and organisations - all very welcome, and part of the resurgence of the economy, but also creating urban chaos.

It has been usual to see India as predominantly rural. It is so; in 2001, 72 per cent of the country was rural and only 28 per cent was urban, according to the Census figures. But that picture is going to change; it has been estimated that by 2026, 36 per cent of the country will be urban and the urban population will increase by another 500 million people. Demographers Tim Dyson and Robert Cassen who worked this out have also estimated that the number of `million plus' cities in India will grow from the present 35 to 70, that is, the number will double.

Clearly, the Central government will have to look at this burgeoning problem with the concern it deserves, and act before it goes out of control. In Delhi itself, where funds are provided more generously than to many States, the authorities are not able to cope. They have barely got some improvements in the road system going; the effect of the Delhi Metro will still take some years to become evident. And there is, all over the capital, a terrible shortage of water and power. Power cuts are a regular feature, particularly in summer. In fact, they occur at all times even in winter. (The reasons given are interesting: in summer it is because of the widespread use of air-conditioners, which is understandable; in winter it is apparently owing to the fog in the mornings; and during the monsoon it is because of the rain, naturally.) The Delhi government is planning to build some power stations. But by the time they come up, the demand will have gone up even higher. One fears for what will happen when the much-talked-of Sonia Vihar water supply scheme becomes operational.

IF this, then, is what the state of affairs is in the capital, one can imagine what it will be in the States, whose finances are virtually non-existent. In fact, it is for this reason that the Central government needs to look at this problem urgently. Urbanisation cannot be put on the backburner any more. If action to expand, strengthen and improve the urban infrastructure is not taken in hand now, it will cost the country far more later on and will never ever be as effective.

When we talk of the increased growth rate of the economy and introduce measures to speed it up, we are actually increasing the spread of urbanisation and it is not just a problem of the million-plus cities and mega-metropolitan cities such as Mumbai and Delhi. What in general is the future of the smaller cities and towns. Power, water, roads, hospitals, sewage disposal systems - these and all the other aspects of urban settlements have to be put in place and the funds for doing so found.

It must be remembered that without this, economic growth will slow down, as investors come up against a lack of power, transportation, water and everything else. And if they are not available, they will invest in countries where they are. For India to try then to provide hastily some infrastructure will be, to use a cliche, too little, too late. We need to remember that we are already well behind China and several Asian countries in terms of our rate of growth, and as the Prime Minister pointed out recently, if the economy has to grow at around six or seven per cent, then industrial growth must be over 10 to 12 per cent. Industrial growth takes place in areas that may start off being rural - as the cities of Durgapur, Rourkela and Bhilai were once set in areas far removed from existing urban areas - but within a few years they will transform those areas into urban settlements, and the only one that has managed to cope with that transformation has been Jamshedpur, with no help from the state.

It means, inevitably, preparing for an India that is more urban than rural, which is the direction in which the country is headed, and which will happen sooner than we think. Preparing for this will take time and money - above all, time. It cannot, consequently, be put aside any more. If we are indeed preparing for a high rate of growth, it is up to us to provide the means by which it can actually take place - on the ground. Of course we need to alter and liberalise procedures, lower taxes and duties and all the rest - but the physical facilities are what will count, in the end.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment