Recent studies have projected that India will face an unprecedented scale of urbanisation 350 million Indians will move to Cities by 2030; a number likely to double to 700 million by 2050. This is 2.5 times the size of the US’s present population and will be the largest urban movement in the world. This implies that every minute during the next 20 years, 30 Indians will leave rural India for urban areas. The late management guru C.K. Prahalad had emphasised the imperative need for India to create 500 new cities to accommodate and provide a better quality life to its migrating people. Otherwise, every existing city would become a slum.
In the modern-day world, it is cities and not countries that compete for resources and investment; they are the centres of growth, innovation and creativity. The GDP of New York and Tokyo are at par with India’s GDP. Not a single Indian city figures in the top 100 cities of the world. The future of India’s growth lies in the dynamism and vibrancy of its cities. In India, farming accounts for more than 58 per cent of the workforce but is only 14.2 per cent of GDP. Agriculture can sustain a growth rate of 3 per cent while the Indian economy must grow at 8-9 per cent for the next three decades to lift vast segments of its population above the poverty line. No country has grown on a sustained basis for long periods on the back of agriculture. It is, therefore, inevitable that people will migrate from rural to urban centres.
Illustration by Tanmoy Chakraborty
India has been a reluctant urbaniser. Its freedom movement and the Gandhian worldview were rural development-oriented, with the village being seen as a self-sustained economic unit. It was the same with China’s peasantry-led revolution. In the early 1970s, China realised it could not achieve economic growth and employment creation through agriculture. It recognised that urbanisation was an essential feature of economic development and a major component of industrialisation and modernisation.
For China, economic development was, in essence, about shifting people from sustenance farming to manufacturing, and urbanisation its spatial manifestation. As a policy, it adopted rapid, planned urbanisation, with manufacturing as the key locomotive. The development of new cities and expansion of existing ones have been a dominant feature of China’s growth in the past 30 years. Starting with the development of a planned city in Suzhou in partnership with Singapore, China developed a large number of new cities through a successful business model of monetisation of land values. Mayors competed with each other to create new cities, and successful mayors rose rapidly in the Communist Party hierarchy.
In sharp contrast, the only cities created in post-Independence India are the capital cities of Chandigarh and Gandhinagar and the only major urban scheme launched in our entire planning process has been the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission. Only recently have we focused on Smart Cities and the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transportation (AMRUT). By 2020, India will face a housing shortage of 30 million units, require 200 million water connections, need to provide 350 million people access to sewage and add 160 GW of power-generating capacity. The number of vehicles on roads will increase fivefold. There is, thus, an overriding need to rejuvenate and revitalise India’s existing towns and cities and create new greenfield cities. The cost of not doing anything or moving slowly will be enormous and seriously retard India’s growth.
While India is a late starter, it has the significant advantage of being able to use technology to leapfrog stages of development and learn from good practices in other parts of the world. When cities were made in America, gas and water were cheaply available. Cities were made for cars, not people. Today, digital technology enables us to create intelligent and smart cities with a central command room horizontally managing power, water, transportation and public safety. We need to develop cities that are compact, dense and vertical, evolve along efficient mass transit systems and encourage cycling and walking.
The Smart Cities Mission has been launched in 100 cities with components like retrofitting, redevelopment and greenfield development and increased use of AI and digital technology to make the cities efficient. The mission contributes Rs 2,05,018 crore worth of infrastructure in 5,151 projects identified for satisfying the need of $4.5 trillion worth of infrastructure investment by 2040. This will improve the quality of life and infrastructure in the selected area of the city and act as a beacon for the rest of the city and other cities. Cities need to put in place a digital transformation roadmap across both hard infrastructure and software applications for full integration of collected data to support informed planning and decision-making. Projects in the scheme also need to be speeded up while other cities need to leverage from model documents, new initiatives, technologies as well as overseas examples.
The transport demand in India has grown by almost eight times since 1980, with several positive outcomes, including a thriving auto industry and allied economic growth though with the unintended challenge of pollution and traffic congestion. The number of registered motor vehicles has gone up from 5.4 million in 1981 to 230 million in 2016. To tackle the problem of overcrowding of roads, increased travel time, the propensity to use private vehicles, it is necessary to substantially enhance urban mobility solutions such as MRTS, supported with last-mile connectivity. The Metro Rail policy has resulted in 666 km of operational metros and another 852 km under construction. With more efficient vehicle technologies and E-vehicles, we can save about 1.5 gigatonne of CO2 emissions by 2035. The growing shared mobility ecosystem has the potential to create new jobs as it shifts towards a shared, connected and zero-emission world. Non-motorised transport and pedestrian movement also needs to be encouraged to reduce pollution. Transit-oriented development, therefore, is the need of the hour.
Scientific management of 148,000 metric tonnes of municipal solid waste generated per day is a major challenge. Segregation at source and segregated collection and transportation to the material recycling facilities or waste to energy plants and other new technologies for onward use contributing to the circular economy need to be prioritised. Waste processing offers vast opportunities for private sector participation. Remediation of existing landfill sites to reclaim valuable land should be a prime focus. Private sector capital and efficiencies in the entire value chain of solid waste management and creating necessary infrastructure besides enabling ease of doing business in the sector is critical.
With about 820 million people living in a high water stress situation, water resources management has only now come into focus. Water conservation, waste water recycling and reuse require a robust PPP mechanism in urban areas to encourage the private sector to set up waste water treatment plants. Use of treated water needs to be promoted along with appropriate pricing of fresh water to discourage wastage of water by urban local bodies.
As India urbanises, it will face severe challenges. But there are also huge opportunities for sustainable growth that can have a dramatic impact on the quality of life of the expected 700 million urban citizens. How India manages its urbanisation in the coming decades will determine its future. This will require political leadership, vision, capacity-building and institutional reforms.
AMITABH KANT is CEO, NITI Aayog. Views expressed are personal.