The magic our cities need
Cities beckon dreamers of every generation—the fortune seeker, the job hunter, the village artisan or a young student wanting quality education to start a career. Cities in India, like everywhere else, anchored many dreams, some came good, some could not but once having arrived, not many went back to their village. The city has opportunities that villages do not offer. So people are moving into cities in unprecedented numbers, and there is no stopping this. It is happening in India, and also elsewhere in the developing world.
Sadly the cities are not coping well. Many of them, in our country, just did not prepare to handle the volumes and stayed in a denial mode, hoping that the migrations would reverse in time. We have come to the point where civic infrastructure is failing; the environment has degraded because of negligence and life in our cities is under multiple threats. City managements are stymied, either with a lack of resources, or lack of powers or plain lack of will to assert laws and regulations because the political leadership is short on vision. With little or scant investments in the civic infrastructure and poorly enforced development protocols, people met their shelter needs almost at will. The municipal bodies' functioning without financial and administrative support could only be willing spectators, as city after the city lost its ability to accommodate the constant influx.
A flagship research project of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate observes that, "Indian cities are expanding outward at a rate that outpaces their population, and they are doing so haphazardly, without heed to principles of urban planning, without adequate water, electrical, waste management or transportation infrastructure and services and without a regard for the environment". According to this working paper, "the country stands to pay for this pattern of urbanisation, if it continues, an enormous $330 Billion to $1.8 Trillion every year by 2050. For our GDP, this translates into a loss of 1.2 to 6.3 per cent shaved off annually".
The GDP dimension is for economists to worry about. Sure, it is a loss of possible prosperity. But what is of deeper concern is the number of lives that are not able to gain their full potential of joy and excellence of ideas, and of human endeavor because there was no shelter, no schools for their children and no chance to have a future because the decision makers planning and expanding urban spaces did not foresee human needs with a visionary perspective. The city planners made poor or no choices for the growth of our cities and that too in a skewed order of priorities. Inadequate and insufficient housing and likewise, inefficient and deficient support structure is a familiar story in all our cities, indeed in most of the cities in South Asia. The resultant inadequacies have affected generations of lives as they stay embedded in poverty, and their hopes of escaping from this vicious circle postponed indefinitely.
The consciousness for a healthy and productive living has universalised the quest for local governments to rise to better performance standards. They have to manage the whole range of city needs: basics like sanitation and hygiene to facilitate vibrancy of the culture of the resident people. Imagining the city of the future and adjusting the city protocols is now the foremost need of the hour for progressive city governments.
It would be good to get a fix on the emerging software enabling services and facilities which will alter the way we earn and learn, so dramatically, that cities will have to create a different ecosystem of transport, shopping and leisure, types of employment, healthcare, social networks, etc. In the space of five years or so, Uber has become the largest transportation company without owning a single car. Medicare will become a service at the doorstep for most diagnostics. Many of these developments are in currency right now and our cities have to start the adaptation and receptive strategies. Constant resistance to emerging innovations will only slow down progress just because vested methods and practices have a lot to lose. Increasingly we will see that ability to aggregate and converge ability to provide service will keep happening, possibly faster than ever before. The biggest emerging question is going to be about what should our children learn and how will the grown-ups earn their living from the opportunities that will arise from our urban spaces. The local governments have to arrange the environment to engage and prosper such enterprises rather than restrict or prohibit them. The electronic rickshaws saw the combined resistance of municipalities and the cycle rickshaws, as also Ola and Uber. Eventually, a convenience will find its reception.
It is very much a given that cities of the future will need enlightened city governments. Indeed, the local governments will do well to create a department to anticipate and prepare for a change future developments will engineer. Yes, robotics will run our production lines, regulate quality and repair the faultlines. The future of success will be redefined for sure, and we have to integrate the mechanised ability to monitor and obtain compliance with laws. We are prone to be partial or biased or plain callous in the context of urban protocols whereas our cities need planning and aesthetic navigation through a structured ecosystem of participative and consensual public interest. Hence, the need for an Urban Observatory like an agency to record and monitor all development.
True, that our city management bodies lack the capacity to do some basic functions, but the magnitude of the tasks compels much-needed reforms in substance and form to lead manage the pressures of urbanisation. These will continue to be relentless for reasons of human necessity. The primary source of this influx will be through migrations from rural areas as the existing city population is, in fact, decreasing by itself. The challenge, therefore, increases in complexity. We need a city every two months to really receive the population flowing into cities for search of livelihoods and a life. If all they get is a concentration camp akin to living by the drains and sewers, it is an unforgivable failure of state duty, besides increasing health and crime hazards. There are no magical wands or sticks to wave but only to follow the Vedic wisdom, "Let's do the right thing, and good results will follow". Let's do only politics and surely disaster awaits our cities.
(The writer is former Director, Indian Habitat Centre. Views expressed are strictly personal.)