Despite the invocations in the election campaign, the political story of urban India is yet to be told.
“Why can’t we build 100 specialised cities, smart cities like health cities, sports city and twin cities?” was the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s question. The arrival of the urban in the national imagination is not new and certainly not confined to Modi’s vision. Developmental planning in India, especially in the post-liberalisation phase, often celebrated the images of a globally competitive, modern and seemingly “neutral” city space as constituting the core of the new nation. Both Pune and Bangalore thus aspired to become Singapore, while Mumbai dreamt of being India’s Shanghai. These imageries, however, generally remained divorced from the complex social realities of Indian cities and from the peculiarities of the processes of urbanisation in India.
The 2011 Census for the first time noted that urban population growth was higher than absolute rural growth. However, the patterns of urbanisation remain skewed. First, the extent of urbanisation in India is low, with just above 30 per cent of the population residing in urban areas. Second, urban India is distributed across diverse large and small cities unevenly clustered in a few economically advanced states. Thus, if Maharashtra, Gujarat, Kerala and Tamil Nadu have more than 40 per cent people living in cities, the percentage is less than 20 in Bihar, Assam and Orissa. The million-plus cities account for 42 per cent of urban population, whereas the average size of an Indian city is still around 60,000.
Third, as a result of top-heavy urbanisation, most of India’s cities have a weak economic base of their own and large populations are perhaps their only asset. The National Institute of Urban Affairs reports how the interlinkage effects between per capita income and urbanisation levels across Indian states, although slowly strengthening, are low by international standards and have only a weak impact on economic growth. Haphazard expansion of cities has led to large urban fringes that often oscillate between rural and urban economies and sensibilities. With lack of resources and planning, land has become one of the most lucrative resources in fringe areas and construction is the main service sector industry, without much contribution to the urban economic base.
The stunted growth of cities leads to what scholars like Amitabh Kundu refer to as “exclusionary urbanisation” on one hand, while culminating in the proliferation of several second-grade cities that offer only limited scope for economic and social mobility to their residents on the other. The result is a complex structuring of the social universe in Indian cities that not only contributes to the lopsided nature of urban transformation, but also makes the city space a contentious political space.
Our studies of Pune at the turn of the continued…