Thursday, September 09, 2010

Developing New 'Cities'

Indian cities today represent different layers of Indian history: Cities like Varanasi our distant Hindu past, Delhi and Ahmedabad our Muslim heritage, Surat, Mumbai and Calcutta sport the symbols of British times and the new ones, Chandigarh, Bhubaneswar and New Delhi, reflect the ambitions of Independent India.

I shall argue that time has come to build a new layer altogether. That of small city talent clusters.

Many large Indian cities are at a breaking point. Their population is too large, the public services inadequate, the local governance too remote and ineffective, and their development in reverse gear. For all the mystic of Mumbai, anywhere to anywhere takes more than an hour to travel. All the joys of Calcutta gets undone by the remoteness, insensitivity and corruption of its city fathers. The story is same for all the large cities, not to mention the pollution and the social disconnect it invariably creates.

We seem to be following the Industrial Revolution model, that of England in the Eighteenth century, presuming that it is the only path to growth. The conventional economic, especially all those treatise written on development economics in the sixties and the seventies, treat this as gospel truth, notwithstanding the fact that the world has changed since then.

We are talking about a model of development that got formalized before mobile phones, data communication, teleworking, dating sites, HTML and incredibly, even Fax machines. However, most policy makers went to school before most of these things happened. We are lagging behind a generation in terms of our development thinking.

Which is most apparent the way we think about our cities. The places of opportunity, we want them to become. We want the village youth to leave their family and friends and travel to the city to pursue their big dream: That, to us, is a impermutable recipe of modernity. To argue a contrarian view is arguing against mobility, ambition and human spirit.

But, here is a counterpoint: Modernity did not wait. The Internet/ eMail carried the world to the villages and cities. In fact, our city dependence, if anything, has worked against development and modernity, not in favour of it. The rags to riches story exist in the realm of the cinema; in reality, the people end up in slums and are condemned to meaningless lives.

Looking at this reality, one can figure why we don't want to change the model of development even if we know that's outdated. We, the urban middle class, those who write in the newspapers and decide the government policy, appear to profit from this inverted model of development. How else would we get our cheap domestic labour, our drivers, the cheap restaurant meals, the rickshaws and all the pleasures of middle class life? We keep India underdeveloped and poor and follow an outdated model to suit our private agenda of affluence.

But here are some more things to consider. The crumbling public services, the crime and corruption, the clogged roads and sewage, the rising heat in the summer, the power cuts, the floods during monsoon, the disappearance of winter, the extended travel time - we are trying to solve all the problems privately, not realizing that it only gets worse. We have given up on public transport and bought cars, but did not realize this means traffic jams and poisoned air, which, in the end, makes the whole solution meaningless.

So, finally, my proposed solution: leave the large cities and create, through incentives and government participation, small talent clusters outside the current population centres, connected by good roads but also high speed Internet. Build Cyber cities, Academic Cities, Health Cities - small replicas of Jamshedpur, if I may say, for service sector. Employ and empower local people to build and work, build connected, small town governments and give them real decision making power. India needs 500 more cities, let these grow independent of the pressures of our crumbling metros.

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