Only one in 10 Indians lived in cities at the start of the 20th century. By 2030, the United Nations estimates that over 40 per cent of India’s population will be found in its big cities. Further, a 2018 UN report says that by 2050, India, China and Nigeria will account for 35 per cent of the projected growth in the global urban population. India will be home to 416 million urban dwellers, way over the current population of the United States (332 million).
Seventeen of the 20 fastest-growing cities globally between 2019 and 2035 will be from India, according to the Oxford Economics Global Cities Report. Other studies suggest our cities will generate 70 per cent of new jobs, contribute to 70 per cent of the GDP and drive a near four-fold increase in per capita income by 2030. Such rapid urbanization brings with it the challenges of ensuring quality of life and inclusive growth. As Union Minister for Housing and Urban Affairs Hardeep Singh Puri noted, 70 per cent of India’s future is yet to be built to cater to its ever-growing urban population.
Poorly planned urbanization has led to mushrooming of slums, lack of basic amenities such as power, water and sanitation, unemployment, and rising crime. Pollution and congestion have made cities all the more unlivable. A study by AirVisual, which monitors global air pollution, said 21 of the most polluted cities in 2019 were in India, with New Delhi topping the list. The same year, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Index for 140 cities ranked Delhi and Mumbai at 118 and 119, respectively.
Graphic by Tanmoy Chakraborty; Illustration by Sidhant Jumde
India’s expanding urban spaces have become synonymous with socioeconomic disparity, such as income, access and opportunities. An Oxfam report says the gap between the top and bottom 10 per cent of urban population in India is 50,000 times; in the rural areas, it is 500 times.
The ministry of housing and urban affairs (MoHUA) has launched several urban renewal initiatives. Among these are the Smart Cities Mission, Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, HRIDAY (for heritage cities), PM Awas Yojana-Housing for All and AMRUT (Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation). In 2016, India participated in the UN ‘New Urban Agenda’ that aims to make cities more networked and sustainable.
MoHUA’s draft national urban policy framework is yet to get legislative sanction. A visionary urban policy is the need of the hour as obsolete laws impede critical development in the cities. For instance, urban local bodies (ULBs) -the drivers of city growth-lack the requisite autonomy and financial means to execute projects. Land laws need reform to control the astronomically high land prices which which puts decent housing beyond the poor’s reach and and unplanned / illegal expansion of cities.
Urban infrastructure faces crippling fund shortages. A 2010 report by the McKinsey Global Institute says India spent about $ 17 (Rs 1,240) per capita annually on urban infrastructure against China’s $ 116 and the global benchmark of 100. The High Powered Expert Committee report on Indian Urban Infrastructure and Services, in 2011, put the country’s urban infrastructure expenditure need at Rs 39.2 lakh crore. Puri claims Rs 10.57 lakh crore was spent on urban infrastructure in the past six years as against Rs 1.57 lakh crore between 2004 and 2014. But this may not be enough. Former Shimla deputy mayor Tikender Singh Panwar says various central schemes launched since 2014 are dependent on external funding and do not address the critical issue of helping municipalities generate higher revenues. All municipalities together generated about Rs 1.2 lakh crore in revenue in 2015-16 when Rs 40 lakh crore was needed. ULBs are now adopting newer ways of raising funds. Puri says nine cities have so far raised Rs 3,690 crore through municipal bonds.
The Covid pandemic further exposed the deficiencies in our urban planning and underscored the need to legally and financially empower ULBs. The mass exodus of migrants during the lockdown showed how disconnected governments were with this invisible workforce that forms a vital part of the urban economy but remains relegated to the lowest strata of city populations. The new urban policy framework rightly seeks to rebuild Indian cities around clusters of human capital instead of merely considering them as an agglomeration of land. Much will depend on how quickly and effectively it’s implemented.