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Thursday, July 29, 2021

The future is in cities

Greater urbanisation should be a specific objective of public policy. While more than half of India continues to live in the villages,there is nothing worth even romanticising about rural India any more.

Written by Mahesh Vyas |
June 1, 2010 10:05:04 pm

Greater urbanisation should be a specific objective of public policy. While more than half of India continues to live in the villages,there is nothing worth even romanticising about rural India any more. The establishment of the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) will improve governance at the village level,although it is taking much longer than is desirable. It will bring in greater empowerment,accountability and deliverance of social services. But it cannot improve the economic conditions in the villages. It cannot,for example,raise employment opportunities. The PRIs and the Right to Information are the best pieces of legislation enacted in recent times. They will ensure better governance at all levels,but they are not sufficient interventions for growth.

The median urban income is two-thirds higher than the median rural income,according to CMIE’s Consumer Pyramids,a survey of 1,40,000 households. The difference is high given that the estimates include remittances and imputed incomes,which accrue mostly to rural regions. Thus,it includes the monies that,say,a household in Kerala receives from Malayalis working in the Middle East or households in Bihar receive from migrants working in Punjab or Mumbai.

It is difficult to bridge this gap between rural and urban incomes in any reasonable time frame by investing greater amounts in rural India. Infrastructure development in rural India is a lot more difficult and a lot more costly than it is in the cities and towns. As a result,the rural folks will continue to inundate the cities. Strategically,therefore,it makes greater sense to accept urbanisation as inevitable and work on a development plan around such a reality.

What is important is to minimise the distance that labour needs to migrate to find fruitful employment. A Malayali need not go all the way to the Gulf and a Bihari need not go to Punjab or Mumbai to find employment. It should be possible for them to find employment within a few hundred kilometres.

Currently,an educated Bihari,an Oriya or even an educated Bengali has to travel nearly 2,000 kilometres to Mumbai or Delhi to find employment. This is extremely inefficient and it cannot be the solution for all the peoples of such lands. In fact,all Biharis need not travel to Patna either—like all Maharashtrians need not migrate to Mumbai. The development of a Thane or a Pune reduces the pressure on Mumbai. In Bihar,it would be much better to concentrate on the development of Dinapur Nizamat,Arrah and Jehanabad that are close to Patna than to thinly spread the effort of development across far flung cities such as Buxar,Sasaram or Aurangabad. And,make one more similar effort across the Ganga around Muzaffarpur.

There were over 5,000 towns in India in 2001. The number must have grown since then. It is not necessary (or even prudent) to develop all towns equally. Two factors need to be taken into account when picking cities for development.

First,we must appreciate that big towns often naturally create satellite towns,which in turn integrate well with neighbouring semi-urban areas. Prosperity in the large towns creates spillover effects. And this can lead to spots of isolation. It is best to ride this natural phenomenon and manage it rather than impede this concentration of development or try to even out the development process or try to enhance inclusiveness here. It is better to develop a Vashi in the shadow of Mumbai than to develop a Latur in isolation.

Second,in a large and generally densely populated country like India,it would not be possible to create just a few areas of concentration (such as in Brazil). We need to have many urban conglomerations,not just a handful. Each state capital could be one level at which conglomerates could be made. However,in many states this is seen to be quite insufficient. A Mumbai cannot make a difference that can go far beyond a radius of about 200 kilometres. Such a radius includes Thane and Pune. Bangalore and Hyderabad make a lesser difference in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Therefore,we do need to develop more large cities than just the state capital.

The next administrative level is that of the district,of which we have nearly 600. Instead of so many,it is much better to consider the development of about 100 cities in the 100 homogeneous regions in India. Homogeneous regions (a concept developed by CMIE) are neighbouring districts that have similar agro-climatic conditions,urbanisation levels and female literacy. (See FE,May 7,2010 for the use of homogeneous regions in marketing strategies.) These 100 cities will effectively provide one large urban agglomeration per 1.2 million people.

The inevitability of urbanisation and a growth plan around such a premise implies that development will not be even across rural and urban areas. This reality is not too difficult to accept. However,it is sometimes difficult,but nonetheless important,to accept that development will necessarily be uneven across regions. The political acceptance of this and a developmental plan that keeps this in mind is the challenge.

We must appreciate that Bihar cannot be developed uniformly from Champaran to Bhagalpur,like Maharashtra cannot be developed uniformly from Mumbai to Chandrapur. But,if we can make a better Chandrapur and make it the focal point for development in its region,we would be much better off.

—The author heads Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy

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