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INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.
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INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.
     CURRENT ISSUE DECEMBER 18, 2006
 
   SPECIAL ANNIVERSARY ISSUE: 30 YEARS AHEAD
 

Q: WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF INDIA'S TEEMING CITIES?


A: The government will make them better, even if the pace of development is slow

 
Even though India's urbanisation rate has been lower than the average urbanisation rate of newly industrialising nations, there have been alarmist predictions about the imminent collapse of some of India's large cities, dating as far back as the early 1960s when Dr B. C. Roy, the then chief minister of West Bengal, sought Ford Foundation's assistance. Such alarmist predictions are usually based on predictions of the steadily increasing need for housing, infrastructure and employment, and the sluggish response by both the market and the Government to meet such needs. In the past, such alarmist predictions used to conclude with a call for external assistance. Recent studies do not emphasise the need for external assistance, but the tone of alarm still pervades most analysis, including reports commissioned by the Planning Commission, which demonstrate empirically the huge gap between the supply and demand for housing, employment and infrastructure in both large and medium sized cities.

True, there is a new perception that the nation can mobilise its own resources to fill the gap between supply and demand; and that a new set of public policies can also encourage market forces to respond better to growing needs. But such cautious optimism is quickly lost as the vulnerabilities of Indian cities are exposed by a sudden flood, or an earthquake, or some other "natural calamity". Such moments usually evoke strong criticism of both government negligence and market greed.

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"BOMBAY IS A PROSTITUTE PEOPLE LEAVE BEHIND AFTER SATISFYING THEIR NEEDS, WITHOUT EVEN SAYING 'THANK YOU'."
Bal Thackeray, Shiv Sena founder, in 1979

Mumbai's population is 12-18 million. The city pays 50 per cent of the country's direct and indirect taxes.

Another related criticism-one that has gained momentum since the liberalisation of the Indian economy in the early 1990s-is that old regulations, like rent control and land ceiling, have had a perverse effect on cities, stifling entrepreneurial initiatives of the kind that helped modernise cities in the West. This sort of criticism usually concludes by recommending deregulation of land, labour and capital markets, with an implicit warning that continuing old regulations would only widen the gap between supply and demand for jobs and housing, leading to the collapse of the large Indian cities.

There is much to be learnt from the criticisms of both the government and market agents. But harsh criticism of past approaches is not conducive to confidence-building, which is necessary for creatively addressing the problems Indian cities are likely to face as the population increases, the economy grows, and the demand for consumption of goods and services increases by leaps and bounds. Such confidence-building requires that we acknowledge that contrary to alarmist predictions, Indian cities have survived the challenges posed by a large and a relatively poor nation. Despite the common criticisms, Indian cities are functional: investments are made, goods and services are produced and sold, and shelter is built and upgraded. The pace of improvement might be slow, but most Indian cities continue to function surprisingly well even as they struggle, daily, with numerous problems.

This is true even for Kolkata-a city which used to be called, not so long ago, "the black hole of humanity". It is astounding how a city with such high levels of unemployment and housing shortages has managed to function and steadily improve the quality of life of its residents. Not that Kolkata still doesn't have a long way to go; it does. But it has proven to be much more resilient and resourceful than anyone predicted.

Who deserves credit for the resilience and vibrancy of Indian cities? Is it only due to the liberalisation of the economy and the growth of information technology? We need to acknowledge that the government deserves some credit, after all, for the functioning of Indian cities. I realise that this is not a particularly popular proposition, not in a country where criticism of government policies is a favourite pastime. But it becomes important as the cities strive to strengthen institutional capacities to respond to growing urban needs. Let me rephrase the question: How does one explain why Kolkata did not collapse? And why does Mumbai continue to be the hub of many economic activities?

One answer to such questions is that the government, at all levels, has performed much better than what it is given credit for. And, one reason for this is what many in India as well as abroad questioned until very recently-namely, India's political system and its viability. I remember how only a few years ago, questions used to be raised persistently whether Indian democracy was at a crossroads. The undertone of anxiety that characterised such questions disregarded the amazing pace of India's political maturity. Thanks to the last few elections, this condescending tone regarding India's political and economic maturity has subsided somewhat. It is time the discussion about India's cities changes, because cities continue to provide the spatial setting for intense political deliberation.

Political deliberations alone do not make good cities, but without them cities would lose a key element of their vitality. More importantly, without democracy, governments would not be held accountable; and in the end that may be the answer to why Indian cities managed to survive despite numerous problems. It is my prediction that the much criticised Indian government will continue to express the wishes of its citizens, as it has for the last 60 years, perhaps not as efficiently as we would like, but slowly, consistently and most importantly, humanely.

(The writer is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.)

 

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