Nobel Laureate Paul Romer describes technology as a different recipe rather than more cooks in the kitchen. Using his framing, cities are a technology for poverty reduction; New York City’s GDP equals that of Russia with 6 per cent of the people and 0.00005 per cent of the land. Covid has catalysed a naive or hypocritical romanticism of villages that believes cities are undesirable technology because of their hostility to migrants, infection hotspot tendency, and diminished centrality to the future of work due to digitisation. We disagree: Covid is an opportunity to catalyse good urbanisation by empowering our cities with more power and funds.
The post-Covid debate of cities as “desirable or undesirable” technology mirrors a 1960s debate about food chronicled in the wonderful book The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann. Norman Borlaug — the wizard — is a Nobel-winning scientist who believed science and technology will overcome challenges and he kickstarted the agricultural Green Revolution. William Vogt — the prophet — believed that prosperity would lead humans to ruin without cutting back and he kickstarted the environment movement. One says innovate; the other says retreat. But cutting back on urbanisation would hurt the three transitions — farm to non-farm, informal to formal, and school to work — that are raising per capita incomes. India’s problem is not land (if we had Singapore’s density all our people could fit into Kerala), labour or capital (we are the world’s largest receiver of diaspora remittances and FDI). Our challenge is the productivity upside of good urbanisation. And if 50 per cent of our population in rural areas generate only 18 per cent of the GDP, they are condemned to poverty.
Urbanisation gets a bad name in rich and poor countries because megacities — 10 million-plus populations — are unpleasant places to live for people who are not rich or powerful. Twenty-six of the world’s 33 megacities are in developing countries because their rural areas lack rule of law, infrastructure and productive commerce. Migrants that left our cities during the first lockdown last year are back because they were not running towards cities, but running away from sub-scale economic wastelands — estimates suggest that 2 lakh of our 6 lakh villages have less than 200 people. But there is no denying that even our non-megacities have inadequate planning, non-scalable infrastructure, unaffordable housing, and poor public transport.
Megacities are not cursed. Tokyo has a third of Japan’s population but planning and investments have ensured that essential workers like teachers, nurses, and policemen don’t commute two hours. The most insightful metric for city quality came from Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti who suggests that 30 minutes has been the most acceptable — or shall we say civilised — commute through history (even as the method changed from walking to horses to bicycles to trains to cars). The Marchetti constant is almost impossible in Bengaluru where taxi and auto speeds average 8 km/hour.
The golden rule in government is those with the gold rule; the annual spend of our central government is about Rs 34 lakh crore and of 28 state governments is about Rs 40 lakh crore. But the 15th Finance Commission estimates our 2.5 lakh plus local government bodies only spend Rs 3.7 lakh crore annually. This apartheid has many reasons. First is power; local government is curtailed by state government departments in water, power, schools, healthcare, etc (property tax collection would be 100 per cent if municipal bodies supplied water). The second is independence — only 13 per cent and 44 per cent of the budget of rural and urban bodies was raised themselves. The third is structure — a Union ministry controlling finance and governance of the states would be unacceptable at the Centre but the Department of Local Self Government in the states has almost unlimited powers (suspension/removal of mayors and other elected representatives or supercession of elected local bodies is almost routine in most states). Fourth, having separate central rural and urban ministries distorts policy. Finally, the lack of power and resources sets off a vicious cycle of decline because ambitious and talented individuals aren’t attracted to city leadership. But most Chinese premiers since 1978 apprenticed as mayors just like Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Rajendra Prasad and Chittaranjan Das did in 1924.
India’s local government challenge reflects what historians call path dependence; unlike others, our democracy didn’t evolve bottom-up with local government rolling up into state governments that came together as a nation. India inherited a nationally centralised structure (a must for a colonial power) and princely states (with legitimacy, structures and resources) got strong powers in the constitution. Consequently, empowering local governments has been seen as a “favour” that involves “sacrifice”, and city leadership is either unelected with power (bureaucrats) or elected with limited power and unreasonable conditions (candidates are only eligible for one term in 30 years because of the six-category reservation-by-rotation policy for SC man, SC woman, ST man, ST woman, General man, General woman).
Good urbanisation is also crucial to delivering economic justice for women, children and Dalits. Poor quality urbanisation has meant men-only migration, leaving the women with all the hard labour of farm work, raising the children, and looking after in-laws, while having virtually no recourse to health services, or to even emotional support of the spouse. Village children going to abysmal-quality government schools without bilingual possibilities places them at a disadvantage in English-dominated entrance tests for professional courses and civil services. Though not great by any standards, the quality of both healthcare and education in cities remains better than villages by miles. Most painfully, Dalits in villages are often denied the dignity that urban anonymity provides.
Good urbanisation — getting power and funds to cities — needs chief ministers to sacrifice self-interest. Their reward will be undying duas of millions waiting for high-quality jobs and opportunities. India is lucky that Norman Borlaug prevailed over William Vogt in the food technology debate. As the post-Covid urbanisation debate gains momentum, we hope the wizards will again prevail over the prophets.
This column first appeared in the print edition on September 20, 2021 under the title ‘City to recover’. Sabharwal is vice-chairman, Teamlease Services; and Mehrishi is a former civil servant