In my previous blog, I had written about starting the smart cities journey with few small steps. The enormity of smart city challenges in India drives me to write this blog. Around 68% of India’s population lives in rural India but the contribution from agriculture sector to India’s GDP is a dismal 15%. This large and ubiquitously spread 68% have their aspirations for a better life. The cities fulfill these aspirations by providing multiple employment opportunities and a better quality of life.
A farmer who gets his son educated from the village school and then sends him to a city college for his degree, is unlikely to expect his son to come back to the village and help him grow crops. So the son settles in a city, gets married, starts a family and adds to the growing 32% urban population of India. This 32% is growing at a rapid pace. It’s adding pressure to the infrastructure of the already overcrowded cities.
Whilst the recently launched list of 98 smart cities by the government of India is aimed to ease some pressure from the existing mega cities, I believe it is still not enough to accommodate and provide quality life to the burgeoning 32%. The idea is to create infrastructure and employment opportunities in these 98 cities and make them attractive. Still, the biggest challenge facing India today is its unchecked population. The proposed 98 smart cities will go through some infrastructure up gradation in power grids, urban transportation, highways, industrial parks, schools, hospitals, etc. This will certainly improve the quality of life in those cities, and make them more attractive. So instead of just migrating to Mumbai, Delhi-NCR, Chennai, Bangalore, Pune or Hyderabad, the government is planning to create more cities which will/should provide similar opportunities.
Despite all the above noble measures, the existing mega cities will still continue to choke and there are various reasons for that. One, the bureaucracy and local politics will hamper the pace of implementation of these projects. Two, many of these 98 cities (1/3rd), are already having a population of more than 1 million people. So a lot of funds would be needed to improve the infrastructure of these cities for not just the existing population but also for the expected population which it is supposed to attract. Three, any large project in India if left to the government, takes a lot of time for completion. Look at the implementation timelines of DMIC, India’s most celebrated industrial corridor. The concept note of DMIC was written in 2007 and even after 8 years, we are not sure whether any excavation work even for the trunk infrastructure has started for Dholera or Shendra. So it’s going to take time and our population growth is not showing any signs of deceleration.
Rural Indians want desperately to move to the cities, as they must. Rural life is not terribly romantic. It is marked by excruciating hard work, shocking deprivation, deep ignorance and crushing indignity. If 68% of Indians still live in rural areas, it is because they have little choice. They need a choice now!
I think what India needs today is not a gradual move towards smart cities but some bold steps which can allow this country to leap frog from an emerging economy to an “emerged” economy so to say on the global stage. For that to happen, this “beautification” of existing cities can only be of so much help. We should now be aggressively looking at building new cities today if we want to improve our status as a global power in the coming decades.
So how do we build new cities? From where do we get the land required? The land acquisition bill has arguably gone for a toss and in its current form, acquiring rural land is a very cumbersome process. We must make it easier for the farmers to sell their land and be partners to their future city. At least the Chief Minister of one state (Andhra Pradesh) is thinking out of the box in this regard. It’s a superb example of inclusiveness. To make more land readily available for the new cities, we need better economists, lawyers, bureaucrats, panchayats and also some activists. We need simpler processes, simple laws and effective systems to monitor and manage these transactions. This is not a peroration but a fervent pitch for few radical changes that India needs now.
We keep hearing that 70% of the buildings in India which will be there by the year 2030 are yet to be built. I am sure none of us would even like to imagine that all those new buildings are built in our existing cities. Given the time it takes to build a green field city, we should sow the seeds today with simple laws, good governance and see these cities start taking shape in the next 5 years. That would be an orbit shift for the country and change India’s position in the global economy.