Road to Urbanisation: Upcoming Metros

Improving infrastructure in smaller towns is the only way ahead to decongest metros which are bursting at the seams.

The inevitable march of rural population into towns and cities in India has become a very definite trend in the last two decades, resulting in a high degree of urbanisation. This has ushered in its own set of challenges and opportunities for the political system, administration and planners.

There is no running away from the fact that cities and towns are going to get more crowded putting further strain on the existing resources and infrastructure. If pro-active and coherent steps are not taken at the earliest, the country could be staring at a messy urban future.

Urbanisation in the south has been more pronounced compared to the other regions owing to multiple factors. Statistics show that Tamil Nadu occupies the number one position as the most urbanised state in the country.

According to the 2001 census (the 2011 census is yet to come out with data on the pattern of urbanisation), Tamil Nadu is the most urbanised state with 44% of its population residing in urban areas, followed by Karnataka at 34%, Andhra Pradesh 27% and Kerala 26%.

Industrialisation and expansion of trade and commerce have been the key factors for rapid urbanisation in south India. The 2001 census reveals that urbanisation speeded up during the 1991-2001 period. This led to a high degree of migration with people scouting for better jobs and opportunities in cities and towns. Unfortunately, this urbanisation is more or less concentrated in Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore presenting a very lopsided picture. There have been cases of other cities also expanding but not at the same pace as the capitals, though it could be said Tamil Nadu has been a slight exception. A report by the Karnataka government rightly points out disproportionate urban growth. “During the last two decades, Bangalore’s size and economic role have become disproportionately high. This has created a cycle by which further investments and migrants are attracted to the Bangalore Metropolitan Region. Even the second largest urban conglomeration of Hubli-Dharwad is much smaller its population being only 1/6th of Bangalore”.

However, one odd state as far as urbanisation is concerned is Kerala. According to a report by Corporation of Cochin, “…unlike the other parts of the country, urbanisation in Kerala is not limited to designated cities and towns. Barring a few panchayats in the hilly tracts and a few isolated areas here and there, the entire state depicts a picture of an urban-rural continuum. The state, by and large, can be termed as urbanised”.

This trend in urbanisation has presented a very common set of challenges for all cities and towns ranging from garnering financial resources for development activities, water and solid waste management, infrastructure and transportation issues. Despite these common challenges, most cities in south India are unique in their own way – given their historical background and the politico-administrative set up. The moot point is whether urbanisation has taken centre stage in the political and administrative setup of south India. It is not uncommon to see politicians constantly talking about the welfare of the rural class and paying mere lip service to urban issues. Dr A Ravindra, special advisor to the chief minister of Karnataka says: “We need political commitment saying we’ll develop cities in a planned manner. Urbanisation is happening in a chaotic and partly planned manner”.

Since Independence, all state governments in India have traditionally based their policies focusing on the rural segment, on the premise that more than 70% of the population lives in these areas. There has not been much change except that governments have realised the growing importance of urban centres. A case in point is the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), which has been providing funding assistance to many of the projects in cities and towns.

Here, the role of the political setup comes into question regarding their keenness in developing and promoting their cities. The existing governance structure veers heavily towards a much centralised role bringing its own set of challenges. V Ravichandar, chairman, Feedback Consulting, says the concept of working under the capital and district model disables the larger picture. He feels that a better model would be to think of creating mega urban hubs which would actually bring four to five districts under one umbrella.Such kind of centralised governance structure has created a lacunae in terms of speedier implementation of developmental activity. Moreover, there’s a lack of understanding of the ground realities while dealing with urban issues. For example, the concept of mayor which is very popular in developed nations has been sorely absent in south India. Even if it is present in some form, its actual role is very weak.

In Chennai, the mayor is a directly elected representative but much depends to which party the individual belongs. If there are two opposing political parties in different sets of administration i.e., the state government and Chennai corporation, it could mean a lot more trouble than any progress. In Bangalore, the mayor has just a one-year term, making this post almost meaningless. There is a need to bring in substantial governance reforms which will enable a decentralised role for the urban local bodies to carry out real developmental activities.

The challenges facing urban areas in south India are similar in terms of water, sanitation, housing, roads, infrastructure and more recently, environment. A deficiency in these services may vary from state to state but the difference is just of a few degrees than a wide chasm.

According to the World Bank, some of the key urbanisation challenges revolve around planning, housing, service delivery, infrastructure and environment.

None of the governments in south India actually chalks out a clear-cut plan on how it is going to develop cities. Even if there are reports, they are more on paper than implemented. Many observers believe that developing a large city like Bangalore or Hyderabad is an uphill task and think it’s better to be engaged with developing smaller cities because there would be lesser challenges. There’s also an inclination among politicians to glorify only the capital cities.

In the past, there have been examples of mindless comparisons between Hyderabad and Bangalore driven by very media savvy chief ministers. This has actually backfired in terms of complete negligence of other cities and towns in the state. Tamil Nadu in this case has been a marvelous exception – the state has managed to develop cities besides its capital.

Dr Ravindra says that the growth of secondary cities is more of a recent phenomenon. State governments of south India can actually plan their development by linking them to the capital cities with super-fast expressways.

However, the big bugbear of urbanisation has been funds. With most governments focused totally on the rural segment, there is a scramble for resources when it comes to financing urban projects. For any city municipal corporation, the biggest source of revenue is property tax, but it is also the most abused and pilfered system of all. For most municipalities or local urban bodies, resources generated through taxation are extremely meagre and most of the local taxes are levied by the states. Though an institution like the JNNURM has given an impetus towards urban development, it is generally oriented towards specific projects. There are cases of specialised agencies like water and sewerage boards which can undertake projects based on their fiscal position.

The JNNURM has estimated that over a seven-year period, urban local bodies would require total investments of Rs 1,20,536 crore. The local municipal bond market is not well developed in India, making it even more difficult for these urban local bodies to raise resources. The Bangalore City Corporation was one of the first to raise around Rs 100 crore through the municipal corporation bond issue in 1997 while the Tamil Nadu Urban Development Fund (TNUDF) pioneered a pooled finance structure encouraged by USAID as part of its Financial Institutions Reform and Expansion (FIRE-D) and World Bank. There has been a talk of involving the private sector in developing urban infrastructure but till now there has not been any viable structure which could bring about any significant change.

Today, the biggest challenge all urban planners face is the issue of migration. Urban planners believe in having a more meaningful planning: industrialisation and urbanisation should go hand-in-hand.

New industries and the resultant job opportunities have created new urban areas. The need of the hour is to spread these into newer geographies. More often than not, both these segments totally work independent of each structure leading to dysfunctional growth.

A hub and spoke model would be ideal to create greater impact of urbanisation – one could talk about having a principal city with many towns attached to it. The pace of urbanisation in south India is certainly much higher than the national average putting further pressure on the existing urban areas. The flow of further investments into the southern states will require these governments to talk about a more meaningful distribution of resources so that there could be more equitable growth.

Economic Times P P Thimmaya | July 28, 2011

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