N.S. Vijetha, a human resources professional, was armed with an MBA when she left her home town of Shimoga and moved to Bangalore, 275 kilometres away, to take up work in the city’s globally renowned software industry.
But after two years Ms. Vijetha, 26, found herself worn down by India’s third-largest metropolitan area. Traffic was horrendous – her 6.5-kilometre commute from her apartment to her office could take up to an hour each way. Relative to her salary, living costs were high.
“We spend so much time in traffic,” she recalls. “And whatever I used to earn Monday to Friday, I used to spend in two days on the weekend.”
Today, she is back in Shimoga, working for a small back-office processing company that has set up shop there. Yet many of her friends still put up with the daily hassles – and occasional pleasures – of living in Bangalore.
Their struggles with high rents, choking traffic and weak infrastructure highlight the challenges now facing India as the country tries to transform its increasingly congested cities into attractive places to live and work.
“India is urbanizing at a rapid pace,” Isher Judge Ahluwalia, an economist and chairwoman of the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, told the 21st Century Indian City conference, held recently in New Delhi.
“If you accept the proposition that India’s economy is going to grow even at 7.5 per cent, and population growth is 1.5 per cent, it implies a huge structural transformation,” she said. “Are the towns and cities of India ready to host this growth?”
To many harried city dwellers – as well as policy makers – the answer is a resounding no. Every summer, the country’s cities reel under shortages of water and power. Public transportation is underdeveloped and streets are gridlocked from a growing number of private vehicles.
Urban development is haphazard, with little long-term vision directing how cities should work. High prices put decent housing out of reach for many working-class residents, forcing about 25 per cent to live in slums.
Meanwhile, rural communities on the peripheries of big cities are being rapidly absorbed into urban agglomerations. “Urban infrastructure is visibly ill-equipped to cope,” says Pranab Bardhan, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley.
Pressure on cities will only grow. India is one of Asia’s least urbanized countries, with about 70 per cent of its population still living in rural areas, compared with 55 per cent in China. But with its farm sector unable to support the burgeoning rural population, and most job opportunities created in urban areas, the country’s pace of urbanization will accelerate in the coming years.
Data from the recently completed national census are yet to be fully collated, but Prof. Bardhan predicts the urban population will rise from its current 350- to 650 million within 20 years. The country has 50 cities with a population of more than 1 million people each, up from 35 cities 10 years ago. By 2031, that figure will rise to 87.
After decades of what some policy makers call “benign neglect”, India’s urban infrastructure – and the institutions responsible for developing it – will need a substantial overhaul to cope with the population onslaught ahead.
A government-appointed expert panel on urban infrastructure requirements recently estimated that the country would have to spend $871-billion over the next 20 years to meet demand for basic services such as power, water, sewage systems, roads and sanitation in cities. That will require an increase of spending on urban infrastructure from the current level of 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product to 1.1 per cent.
The challenge is not merely financial. India’s municipal administrations are politically weak, while the real power to manage cities lies with state governments, which are preoccupied with rural projects and national political manoeuvring.
That, experts say, is something that also needs to change urgently. “India’s municipal corporations ... need to be strengthened as local self-government, with clear functions, independent financial resources and autonomy to take decisions on investment and service delivery,” the expert panel said.
Besides creating just physical assets such as roads and sewage systems, cities need to implement plans for service delivery, including routine maintenance to prevent the gradual degradation of assets.
In a first halting step to address some of these profound challenges, in 2005 India’s government, led by the Congress party, launched the Jawharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, which envisions spending $20-billion over seven years on urban infrastructure projects.
To receive the funds – which are offered either as grants or soft loans – cities must prepare urban development strategies and show how the investments fit within the development framework. They must also undertake reforms such as adopting modern accounting systems, improving property tax collection and improving cost recovery by public utilities.
But progress under the program has been slow, highlighting the urban bureaucracies’ lack of capacity for such ambitious undertakings. The process of making India’s cities more habitable for current and future residents is likely to be a long and bumpy road.
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