Decongesting metros? Smaller towns should be promoted for equitable, balanced urbanisation

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By Darshini Mahadevia*

An intriguing article by Chetan Bhagat argued that to relieve the choked metros (it is where we opinion-makers live) fiscal instruments should be used so as to spread employment to urban centres other than the metros. In India, we forget the recent history in the quest for glorious past (and I am not saying Chetan Bhagat is inflicted with it), and fearing that we would be branded as being Nehruvian, we are not willing to say that this was exactly the urbanisation and economic growth policy in the early periods of independent India.

Now that our metros have become dysfunctional, roads choked – by traffic and by garbage – and we are forced to jostle with people on roads and public places (wherever they are), idea of decongesting them has arisen. The easy victims of the malaise that our cities have become – filthy, chok-a-bloc with people and vehicles, and unaffordable realty prices – idea is to spread economic growth to other urban settlements than metros has arisen.

The dynamics of urbanisation is such that people congregate to the metro cities in search of work, better education facilities for their children, access to better health care and to some extent access to recreation. The recreation through movies does not remain anymore a metro centric phenomenon as one can watch movies – of all types – on mobile phone if one has smart phone and a reasonable speed mobile network connection.

Cities happened because there was surplus wealth to sustain those who did not engage in agriculture. Cities became larger and larger because more and more wealth was created and more and more wealthier got concentrated in the larger and larger cities. For example, in India, if definitional complications are left aside, we had 33% of the urban population living in metropolitan cities (million plus cities) in 1991. But in 2001, 38% and in 2011 43% urban population lived in metropolitan cities. Number of metropolitan cities have increased while the very large metropolitan cities such as Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai (and not Delhi) have not attracted new migrants.

The idea that small and medium towns should be promoted to attract economic growth incentives to not just decongest metropolitan cities but also have equitable or what was then called balanced urbanisation and hence economic growth was first introduced in the Second Five Year Plan in India, through creation of New Towns in the backward regions of the country where heavy industries were located.

The Steel Plan city of Bokaro, Jamshedpur and many others were part of this idea. The first Master Plan of Delhi (1962) also talked about dispersal of population to satellite towns around such as Faridabad, Gaziabad, etc. which did not develop then but are now taking in Delhi’s population without decongesting Delhi.

The support to Small and Medium Towns (SMTs) came up in 1975 during the Fourth Five Year Plan. Plan pronouncements meant direct investments by the central government in the proposed activities. Subsequently, tax incentives were also given for industrialisation of backward regions since Fourth Five Year Plan onwards to attract private investments.

Direct investments, subsidies and tax incentives all were targeted towards promoting industrial development and economic growth in what was called ‘backward regions’, along with investments in infrastructure in the SMTs. Both came as a package. But, these ideas were reviled as ‘Socialist’ in post-1991 period of economic reforms. Now these would be branded as ‘Nehruvian’ and again blasted by the current political dispensation.

In between, our former and now deceased honourable President of India Abdul Kalam had proposed the idea of PURA, Providing Urban facilities in Rural Areas, with the same idea of supporting economic growth and improving living conditions in villages around cities.

The idea did not take-off. The current government has introduced the idea of ‘Rururban’ Mission for planned development (economic growth with infrastructure) through Rural Development Ministry, in line with what was called ‘Rururbanisation’ in China promoted through development of Town and Village Entreprises.

Whether the idea of pushing economic growth to small and medium towns is being argued as new idea by Chetan Bhagat or is considered a rhetoric, it is worth exploring and promoting. This is the only pathway to sustainable development and sustainable urbanisation.

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Prof Mahadevia

It is the only way India will be able to meet the Paris agreement commitment on Climate Change, as small and medium town will be able to manage their waste better, will require low energy as there can be high-density low rise development, and the mobility can be through non-motorised transport and walking rather than energy intensive metro systems.

These towns and cities have still to be built and provide us opportunities to in-build low-energy development. But, it will require very strong government intervention; markets alone will not deliver. If we do implement this reinvented wheel, would it be resurrection of Nehruvian idea or neo-socialism?

*Professor, Faculty of Planning, CEPT University, Director, Centre for Urban Equity, CEPT University, Ahmedabad. Blog: https://darshinim.blogspot.com/


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