Halfway through its 40-page manifesto, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - the likely anchor of a new coalition government - identifies "urban areas" as "high growth centres" for India's development and promises to build "100 new cities". The identification of good urban policies as prerequisites for rapid economic and social development is sound: two-thirds of national gross domestic product (GDP) comes from urban India. The apparent focus on new cities is not. What India needs is not a whole lot of very costly, brand new cities but a revamping of urban institutional structures and policies to improve the obvious squalor and inefficiencies of the country's existing 8,000 cities and towns. The BJP's brain trust on economic and social policies would do well to read three good new books on Indian urbanisation that have been published over the last two months: Transforming Our Cities, by Isher Judge Ahluwalia (Harper Collins); Urbanisation in India, edited by Isher Judge Ahluwalia, Ravi Kanbur and P K Mohanty (Sage); and Cities and Public Policy, by P K Mohanty (Sage). They could start with Dr Ahluwalia's highly readable and engaging introductory chapter to her book. In this brief column, I rely heavily on these recent books to give some flavour of the major issues and challenges that India faces as her urbanisation proceeds. And proceed it will, since the shift from rural to urban habitation is an intrinsic dimension of the larger process of economic development and structural change experienced by all major nations. As incomes rise, the relative role of agriculture shrinks, while those of industry and services rise. And, the world over, these non-agricultural activities of industry and services prosper best in urban areas, which nurture the economies and efficiencies of scale, scope and connectedness (the so-called benefits of agglomeration). The choice before India is not whether to urbanise or not, but rather between reasonably planned, efficient, growth- and employment-enhancing urbanisation, and the higgledy-piggledy expansion of congested, polluted, under-serviced and unhealthy urban sprawl that is so typical of today's Indian urban landscape, and so damaging to India's long-term development prospects. Some dimensions of the challenge Actually, the pace of India's urbanisation has been slow by international standards. According to census and United Nations data, India's share of urban population in 2011 was 31 per cent, compared to around 50 per cent in China, Indonesia and Nigeria, 61 per cent in South Africa, 78 per cent in Mexico, and 87 per cent in Brazil. In the 60 years from 1950 to 2011, India's urban population share rose from 17 per cent to 31 per cent, while China's quadrupled from 12 per cent to 49 per cent. Nevertheless, the number of people involved is large: in the 20 years from 1991 to 2011, India's urban population rose to 377 million - 160 million more than in 1991 and 90 million more than in 2001. By 2031 the urban population is projected to increase by more than 200 million to 600 million, or 40 per cent of the national population. Despite India's relatively low level and pace of urbanisation (by international standards), the condition of urban communities and their services in India is woefully inadequate. Consider the following:
- Twenty-five per cent of urban India dwells in slums; in Greater Mumbai the ratio is over 50 per cent.
- Barring a couple of small towns in Maharashtra, no city provides continuous piped water. And the water that does come, fitfully, is rarely fit to drink without boiling or other treatment. In contrast, cities in China and Brazil get much better water 24x7.
- Very few Indian towns (such as Chandigarh, Navi Mumbai and Surat) treat over 90 per cent of their sewage (excrement and waste water) before discharge into rivers, sea and lakes. In the vast majority of urban communities, the treatment rate was far lower, well below 50 per cent. Until recently it was 30 per cent in Delhi, and has now increased to 50 per cent.
- Urban India is estimated to produce 180,000 tonnes of garbage every day, most of which ends up in huge rubbish heaps or "landhills", instead of being composted, converted to energy or sealed in sanitary landfills.
Overflowing garbage bins and rubbish heaps are common sights.
- Little wonder that diseases like dengue, malaria, typhoid, swine flu, diarrhoea and respiratory ailments are on the rise in most towns in India.
- Urban road systems are grossly inadequate and poorly maintained. Typically, public transport is scarce: only about 500 out of 8,000 cities and towns have a public bus system.
The writer is honorary professor at Icrier and former chief economic adviser to the government of India. These views are personal