The National Urban Policy Is a Great Opportunity for Course-Correction

By Tathagata Chatterji and Souvanic Roy

The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs has recently formed a committee to draft India’s National Urban Policy. The move is in accordance with the requirements of the New Urban Agenda of UN Habitat, signed by 193 countries in Quito in October 2016.

This policy initiative is coming up a quarter of a century after two landmark events: the economic liberalisation of 1991; and political decentralisation of 1992, defining new institutional arrangements of urban governance through the 74th Constitution Amendment Act. Framing of the National Urban Policy thus offers a unique opportunity to reflect on how urbanisation had been unfolding in the post-liberalisation era, recalibrate the bearings and steer our urban transformation in a more efficient direction.

Time is running out.

Over the next 12 years, 18 Bangalores or 180 Bhubaneswars need to be built, to accommodate 145 million additional city dwellers between 2018 and 2030. And by 2050, the urban population would increase by 416 million – 50 million more than the population of the US and Canada combined.

With 14 Indian cities being ranked amongst the world’s 20 most polluted by a WHO report, ‘a business as usual approach’ towards urban management could be catastrophic.

That need not be. Urbanisation could potentially generate millions of jobs for the growing youth population. There are strong correlations between urbanisation and economic growth. Productivity increases when rural farmers become urban factory workers, as has happened most spectacularly in China.

Between 1978 and 2018, China’s urbanisation rate jumped up from 18% to 58%. In the process, over 500 million people were lifted out of poverty and the country attained middle-income status. India’s present level of urbanisation (34%) is far lower than China (58%) or even Indonesia (55%). Naturally, there is huge scope for growth.

But the chaotic and haphazard way India is moving raises several questions about our ability to manage the complexities involved in urban transformation.

Shadow urbanisation

In public perception, rapid urbanisation is associated with large-scale migration of the rural masses to the cities. But the Indian reality is rather different, and migration accounted for just about 20% of urban growth over the past two census decades. Much growth is happening in the shadows, through in situ processes, and without any significant movement of people.

Between 2001 and 2011, the number of ‘census towns’, had jumped from 1,362 to 3,894 and account for 32% decadal urbanisation rate. These are essentially big villages, which had crossed the Census criteria to define what is ‘urban’ in terms of population size, density and occupational structure of the people – but are yet to be reclassified by the state governments.

The denial of ‘urban’ status deprives a large segment of our population of basic civic services, and absence of civic regulations encourages chaotic construction. Burdwan (Bengal), Krishna (Andhra Pradesh) and Ludhiana (Punjab) – districts famous for their high crop yields – have been urbanising faster than the national average since 2001, through haphazard conversion of agricultural land.

Rural-urban disconnect

Connections between agriculture, livelihood and urbanisation are seldom discussed in the policy circles, and our developmental policies are neatly pigeonholed into rural-urban binaries.

It is important to recognise spatial structures and settlement hierarchies, which link rural and urban areas through flows of people, products, money and knowledge.

Mandi towns, such as Sri Ganganagar (flour and mustard oil mills) or Machlipatnam (fishing), are the nodal points of the rural economy. These are the places which provide market access to the farmers for their agricultural produce, where tractors are sold and serviced, where cooperative banks, credit societies, colleges and clinics are located.

Strengthening supply-chain linkages between these mandi towns, their rural hinterlands and bigger market towns can stimulate growth at the grassroots and ought to be part of any local economic strategy Integrated Development of Small and Medium Towns (IDSMT) – India’s first major urban initiative launched during the socialist seventies attempted just that – albeit with a minuscule budget.

The 74th amendment envisaged establishment of District Planning Committees, to coordinate urban and rural plans. Many states had constituted such committees, but barring Kerala, integrated planning had remained a non-starter.

Urbanisation beyond urban boundaries

Outer peripheries of big cities are growing faster than inner cities. Areas once considered distant suburbs, such as Whitefields and Electronic City of Bangalore, and Gurgaon and Noida in the NCR, have now become hotspots of the globalised economy.

A fragmented landscape is emerging at the outer edge of the cities – where the lives of the globally mobile software elites, locally rooted farmers and the uprooted construction labourers daily intersect. Intelligent business parks, smart residential condominiums and luxury hotels are sprouting up on fields which produced crops till just the other day. Speculative real estate investment is rapidly expanding its concrete footprint, engulfing peri-urban lands and lakes.

Bangalore’s municipal limits had expanded ten-fold: from 69 square km in 1949 to 716 square km in 2007. Jurisdiction of the Bangalore Metropolitan Region Development Authority now covers 8,000 square km – more than five times the size of the Delhi state and twice that of Goa.

Delhi NCR – already amongst the largest urban agglomerations of the world – is still expanding along two axes: one towards Jaipur and the other towards Chandigarh. The growth pole around the megacity of Mumbai is also expanding, the southeastern spine towards Pune, and a northern spine towards Surat. Down south, growth spillovers of Bangalore and Chennai are expected to be connected in a decade’s time – to form a continuous urban corridor.

A view of Udaipur. Credit: Pixabay

A view of Udaipur. Credit: Pixabay

A quarter-century of market-led economic growth had profoundly changed the economic geography of India. Growth is being concentrated around certain urban clusters and corridors, stretching not just municipal limits, but state boundaries as well. A McKinsey study had projected that by 49 urban clusters, with metro-cities at their core, would account for 77% of India’s incremental GDP between 2012 and 2025.

Balanced regional development cannot happen without strong state-led planning. Meanwhile, the competitive advantages of the mega-urban regions are hard to ignore in the global age. For firms and businesses, mega-urban regions offer agglomeration advantages in terms of economies of scale, supply-chain logistics, market access, skilled labour supply and knowledge transfer.

The Pearl River Delta Metropolitan Region, spread over 39,000 square km and comprising Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Macau and Guangzhou urban systems, had been pivotal to China’s growth story. Similarly, the Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto conurbation was central to the post-war rise of Japan.

But to leverage the competitive advantages of such hyper cities, the issues of seamless mobility, forward planning and coordinated decision making are crucial at a regional scale.

Need for Centre-state coordination

Two takeaways emerge from the issues discussed above in the context of the National Urban Policy.

First, planning should be done at a regional scale and not constrained by administrative boundaries to effectively address bigger issues, such as rural-urban linkages or mobility in mega agglomerations. Apart from strengthening existing institutional mechanisms for regional planning such as District Planning Committee and Metropolitan Planning Committees, we also need to have state and national level spatial planning framework.

Second, state governments need to be taken on board. Urban development is a state subject under the constitution. The role of the Central government is primarily direction-setting. Therefore, for effective implementation of the urbanisation roadmap, the Centre should take the lead to sensitise states and encourage them to frame their own urban policies. The state policies – informed by their specific demographic and economic contexts – could then be plugged into the overarching national framework.

Sadly, however, at the present juncture, there is not much evidence of Centre-state collaboration on taking forward the development agenda.

So, the question remains, are we going to seize the opportunity or let our urban future drift?

Tathagata Chatterji is professor of urban management and governance at Xavier University Bhubaneswar. Souvanic Roy is professor of urban planning at IIEST Shibpur. Views expressed are personal.