Can a cluster of efficient and connected cities drive India’s high-growth ambition?


India’s urban population is projected to grow from about 377 million in 2011 to about 850 million by 2050 – that is, more than double within the span of just 40 years. The UN urban population projections indicate that India will have some of the most populous cities in the world by 2030. Delhi’s population is expected to reach close to 40 million, overtaking Tokyo’s (current) 37 million. Many others India cities are expected follow suit, each on its way to becoming home to over 25 million residents within a decade.

In the course of such enormous population boom, India is today at a crossroads, where it must stop and consider how to channel its growth so as to ensure economic gains as well as a better quality of life to its people. Should people continue to shift to large cities on their own accord, thereby giving rise to fewer mammoth economic centres? Or would it be prudent for the nation to oversee this migration, supporting the distribution of people systematically in smaller cities based on their personal comforts, interests, professional proficiencies, skills, and so on, hence spurring the growth of a widely distributed network of economic centres?


Our haphazard growth story


Allowing organic growth of cities, as it has happened so far, could lead to haphazard and sub-optimal urbanization. India has not been able to fully, and systematically, provide basic services to its urban citizens, even at the current size. Today, cities are congested, a quarter of our urban population lives in slums with dismal access to basic amenities like water and sanitation, and decades of inefficient waste disposal methods have given rise to mountains of landfills, being a sore sight.

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Recently, a high powered expert committee, set up by the Government of India in May 2008, estimated that INR 34 lakh crore would be needed over the next 20 years, to meet the urban infrastructure needs for India. The McKinsey Global Institute has pitched this number at nearly twice this amount. Considering the colossal funds required to give cities their much-needed infrastructural boost, depending on public budgets alone may not suffice. Alternative sources like the private capital market and land monetization will be required.


Exploring strategies


Meanwhile, what the projections of our growth makes clear is that, immediate unlocking of well-thought-out urbanization strategies is the need of the hour. As we evaluate such strategies, three questions must be asked:

1.The government has articulated its ambition to make India a USD 10 trillion economy by 2030. As most of this growth will occur in cities, can they be equipped to not just accommodate growth, but also drive and enable it?

2.Covid-19 and the ensuing national lockdown, demonstrated the challenges of high density in large urban centres. The worst impact of the pandemic was felt in cities with high population densities. Concentrating growth in a few cities also means compelling people to migrate thousands of miles in search of jobs and livelihoods, disrupting their families and upsetting their social wellbeing. Is it possible then, to think of distributing livelihood opportunities across several smaller, semi-urban regions so as to spread out their population densities while ensuring quality jobs and social security to the people?

3.To date, the planning for urban and rural areas have been separate. A fragmented planning process ignores the strong interdependency between rural and urban economies and their symbiotic relationship. Can a interconnected planning system be more efficient in driving growth?


Finding the balance


Typically, while bigger cities offer agglomeration benefits, smaller ones offer easier manageability. India’s way ahead is to find the balance between these option. The nation must explore if urbanization can occur collectively in city clusters, rather than individually in cities. Such clusters could comprise a minimum of 30-40 and a maximum of 80-100 cities, within a radius of about 100 kms. These could be a mix of big and small cities, closely connected to each other by rapid transit. Each cluster could have a common economic vision, and the master plans for the cities within these clusters could be interlinked to fulfil that vision. Such an arrangement could offer both economies of scale and better manageability to the said urban cluster. Services that secure economies of scale at higher volumes can be offered at the cluster level and those requiring lower volumes can be offered at city level. Such a cluster approach has another advantage – it can factor in the interdependencies between urban-rural areas and plan for them in an integrated manner.

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France’s Paris region, having about six million population, offers an example of such a cluster approach. This agglomeration of over 1200 cities, is connected by a high-quality public transport network, managed regionally but with other basic services provided by the individual local bodies. China too has recently adopted this approach, and is planning to develop 19 super-regions, three of which are the Pearl River Delta, Yangtze River Delta and Beijing- Tianjin-Hebei.


Problems and solutions


A major problem with this approach would relate to the governance of the cluster, especially if it cuts across multiple states. The National Capital Region (NCR) is one such example that is spread across three states (Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan) and a Union Territory (Delhi). A cluster falling within a state would be easier to manage, as the state can set up regional authorities (for example, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority).

The only option with clusters cutting across state boundaries will be to set up agencies like the National Capital Region Planning Board (NCRPB) for the NCR region. However, getting all the states involved to come on board with a common economic vision is still an effort. Allocation of significant national funds to such regional bodies could go a long way in making a common economic vision possible.

The NCRPB has been successful in conceptualizing and getting a regional rapid rail transit system off the ground. For multi-states clusters, such boards could be a model to follow.

For India to realize its USD 10 trillion economy dream and provide a decent living to its urban residents, cluster cities could be the answer. But like all new concepts, setting up such cities would not be easy. We must find ways around barriers. Today the government is well-positioned to invest its time, efforts and funds in devising this vision for the next two decades.


The writer is CEO, World Resources Institute India.



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