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We need more cities

A city is economy of agglomeration,providing various advantages and opportunities.

Written by Agencies | New Delhi |
June 2, 2012 10:59:04 am

Every city has its own history,culture and identity. There is no doubt that we need to nurture,preserve and renew the urban fabric with changing times. However,there is also a need to build new cities. A city is an economy of agglomeration; it provides various advantages and opportunities. That is why we all flock to the cities in search of a better future. However,there would be limits beyond which things would become very difficult to sustain. What was once a village grows into a town,a city,a metropolis,a megapolis and then slowly begins to decay into a ‘necropolis’.

The New Town Concept

The ‘new town’ concept,which came up a long time ago took cognisance of the inherent nature of things and tried to overcome urban decay by creating new planned settlements far away from the big metropolitan cities so that population aggregation at one place could be arrested and a more balanced distribution could be achieved. It was believed that this would over time help in building new communities and help the parent metropolis to remain healthy and survive longer. Regional development became a new area of interest and practice. At times,new towns have also come to be called ‘satellite towns’ as they are attached and function along with a parent metropolis.

Modern day new towns came about as a post-war requirement and there are hundreds of them the world over. The UK occupies a prominent place in the new towns of the world. The thinking of Ebenezer Howard,Patrick Geddes and Raymond Unwin shaped a large number of new towns. In fact,the UK had a New Towns Act of 1946 to enable the setting up of new towns designed and developed on modern lines,after the destruction in the war. In addition to the UK,Germany,Japan,Hong Kong,Australia and Africa also had their share of new towns.

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New settlement building,if not new town building,happened in India too,at different points of time,in different ways. When the British colonised India,many villages became better planned ‘hill stations’. Military requirements led to ‘cantonment’ development and administrative requirements led to ‘civil lines’. The European settlements were distinct from the ‘native’ settlement. Much later,the need to build new capitals led to the development of New Delhi,Chandigarh,Bubaneshwar,Gandhinagar and now Naya Raipur.

Existing cities have had huge extensions which are almost like new towns. Some examples are Rohini,Dwarka and Narela as extensions to Delhi,Navi Mumbai to Mumbai,Salt Lake City to Kolkata and Yelhanka and Kengeri to Bangalore.

Many industrial townships as part of steel plants or large public sector undertakings have also been developed on modern lines from scratch. Bokaro,Bhilai,Rourkela and Vizag are such examples. In the private sector,Tata Steel’s town at Jamshedpur were the pioneers and other large business houses such as the Birlas,Modis,etc have also contributed to town building,basically to house their employees close to their factories.

Noida,Greater Noida,Manesar,Pimpri-Chinchwad,Rajarhat,Dankuni,etc are other examples of such new towns.

Where even new settlements have been developed,they have come up with a completely new infrastructure and are well planned. Over a period,they have been able to acquire their own identity and have successfully provided a reasonably good quality of life to the residents.

What needs to be noted here is the active and prime moving role of the government here. Unless and until the government takes a keen interest in this,the procurement of large tracts of land and the development of a town,bearing in mind all the social requirements and making it inclusive will not just happen.

Most states in India today have township policies. State governments,instead of themselves developing land,have now started encouraging the private real estate sector to come in and develop towns. More often than not,areas of conflict of interest would come about. The basic motive of profit makes the realisation of the social objective secondary. Unfortunately,most of these private sector real estate initiatives have ended up in developments,which are too small,fragmented,in odd shapes and sizes and mostly catering to the very high income population and far from inclusive.

Key Questions

The first question is whether new towns are needed in the first place in the Indian context. The answer is a clear yes,provided they are developed speedily,taking into account key requirements such as water,power,transportation and schooling facilities. All the other requirements would automatically fall in place.

The second question is who assembles land: government or the private sector. The basic pre-requisite for new town development is that large chunks of land are available to the developer. It would be much easier for governments to gain access to assemble land at such a large scale,rather than the private sector,which may have to buy at the market rate.

The third question is whether new towns are financially viable. The answer is that if they are properly structured,land itself is a key resource for development and all one needs is the initial capital to mobilise land and the rest will follow since the purchasers would start making payments in advance to the development and the whole project would become viable.

Spread over several years,any new town would experience increment in land value and land parcels sold progressively over a period of time would yield good returns to fund the project. What is needed is a proper business plan.

The fourth question is who should take the lead role. The answer is that if the government does it,there would not be enough creativity and if only the private sector is allowed to do it,the project may not incorporate social inclusivity and environmental sensitivity. The recent Lavasa project being mired in various issues is a good lesson for us. What is therefore needed is a balanced partnership between the government land development agencies and the private sector.

Failed Government Response

There are macro level issues which need strong government intervention — such as land acquisition,compensation,water,power,public transportation connectivity and so on which only the government can address adequately. On the other hand,the marketing and construction of housing,commercial and other buildings could be given to the private sector,with conditions incorporated. Such a partnership would bring together efficiency as well as equity considerations in a just manner.

When the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) policy was announced,it was initially perceived that this would lead to significant new developments. Unfortunately,as the policy unfolded,it turned out to be more of a ‘land grab’ than anything else. The policy guidelines issued by the government had many holes and did not examine several issues. As a result,it was a wonderful opportunity lost. Similarly,the policy of 100 per cent Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) permitted in the development of integrated townships met with the same fate. Both the policies had good intent,poor coverage and complete lack of preparation to address inherent issues. There were too many areas where the government could not provide answers or a way forward. Obviously,both failed.

Call for New Urbanism

Looking at the state of our cities,the demand for urban space,housing and associated facilities,there is a huge opportunity for new towns to come up. What we need now is a comprehensive framework and preparation for the same. In addition to the policy being exhaustive and all inclusive,we need to completely think through the entire process and methodology involved and make appropriate options and provisions.

The development of a large number of new towns would be a win-win for all; it would provide the much needed employment impetus,particularly for the unskilled and semi-skilled,rural workers and even women. It would boost the flagging economy in a big way,there are as many as 264 industries dependent on construction,as backward and forward linkages. The housing finance sector will also get a big boost. Finally,it would also help millions of families to fulfil their dream of owning a house. There is thus an urgent need to call for a new paradigm of urbanism.

— The author is a Professor at SPA,New Delhi

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