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Rapid urbanisation

Urban legend: Sucks in the city


CHIDANAND RAJGHATTA Musings on life, politics and economics from TOI's Washington correspondent

India lives in her villages, Mahatma Gandhi famously said in a quote that has been flogged endlessly to justify a rural orientation for our economy and policy planning. It's not a state secret that the situation is changing. The whole world is urbanising rapidly. India is no different. The United States set the pace. It was only 4 per cent urbanised in 1800;in 2011, it was 80 per cent urbanised. India held steady and rural for a long time. But its urban population bumped up to 28 per cent in the last census;it could cross 50 per cent by the end of the decade.

Our villages may remain in the same physical space, but our cities are swallowing them up in vast urban agglomerations. Gurgaon, literally village of learned elders (now teeming with yahoos going by the events there) is part of the Delhi megalopolis. Former President Jimmy Carter once surprised me by telling me that his mother, Lillian, worked in a village called Vikhroli outside (then) Bombay. It's in central Mumbai now. More recently, an American sociologist told me of her doctoral field work in a village called Hebbal, outside Bangalore. Hebbal is now well within greater Bangalore.

The idea that we can return to our rural, agrarian roots and spend idyllic days growing organic food is so much rubbish. More and more, even villages want to be urbanised, which includes seeking amenities like regular electricity, water supply, sanitation, healthcare, schools etc which are slow to get to the hinterland. It is an irreversible process. For what it is worth, the world is getting urbanised at the rate of one million people every week. Planners agree cities will be the magnets in the 21st century as they attract ideas, innovation, capital, enterprise etc. Villages, when not absorbed by cities, will be left in the dust, except for an occasional island of sustenance or a relic of a bygone age.

Meanwhile, Indian cities, especially compared to cities in the West and many of our developing world peers, are going to seed, unable to cope with rapid expansion. In fact, except for New York City in 19th place, there are no Western or developed world cities in the list of 20 most populous cities now. The list of the top 10 most populated cities is dominated by Asia with four in China, two in India (Delhi and Mumbai), and one each in Pakistan (Karachi is the second most populous metropolitan area in the world), Russia (Moscow), Brazil (Sao Paolo) and South Korea (Seoul).

India now has nearly 50 cities with a population of one million or more, compared to just nine in the United States (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego and Dallas). They include such unlikely "cities" as Dhanbad, Meerut, Aurangabad, Ranchi, Varanasi, Ludhiana, and Visakhapatnam. Each of these overgrown towns has a bigger population than US cities like Denver, Seattle, Boston, Detroit, San Francisco and Washington DC, which are all below the million mark.

That's where the comparison, if any, ends. Indian cities are, in one word, hideous, and in one phrase, a blot on the landscape. Despite the presumed collapse of the West, cities in the developed world climb up the livable index each year. The improvements are visible, even in the US, which does not have a single city in The Economist's list of the world's 10 most livable cities. The list has three from Canada (Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary), four from Australia (Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Adelaide) with Vienna (Austria), Helsinki (Finland) and Auckland (New Zealand) rounding it up.

But why just the West, even our developing world peers have made enormous strides. From Seoul to Sao Paolo, from Kuala Lumpur to Bogota, cities are getting smarter and spiffier, while ours get more squalid. There are many reasons for this, but one thing stood out after a recent chance encounter with Eduardo Paes, mayor of Rio de Janeiro: our cities lack leadership. Paes could run the city online even as he raced across the world drumming up ideas and support for the 2016 Olympics.

Short of power, creativity and money, our civic leadership is an embarrassment. While our politicians duke it out for ministerial berths and posts at the state and Centre, not one is willing to take up leadership of a city, like Rahm Emanuel, Obama's aide, did when he quit as White House chief of staff to become Mayor of Chicago. In fact, it is not just our villages which are neglected, but our cities are crying for attention too. A starting point to fix it: free each of our million-plus cities from the current system and state.

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