January 1, 2006

Up is the only way to go

Globalised demands have no room for the romanticised ideal of the low-slung, spread-out city. Hafeez Contractor insists that there is no viable alternative to high-density development.

The start of a new year is a good time to examine the balance-sheet of achievements and failures. Even as we begin to emerge as a major player in the global political, cultural and economic arena; there have been several instances of total disintegration of the core foundation of a nation’s progress—infrastructure and urban systems. The key to the future is going to depend on the way we plan our urbanization.
   The picture of tomorrow appears to be utterly dismal if we continue to pursue our current policies. Look at our cities—in the last six months, Mumbai, the financial capital of the country; Bangalore, one of the most prominent IT destinations in the world, and most recently another metropolitan hub, Chennai, were all flooded out. Their urban infrastructure went under, completely and disgracefully.
   We clearly have fundamental ideological problems. Today, the government does not have any definite idea on the country’s future development. We are still dilly-dallying on whether we want to be a nation rooted in agriculture or industry. In the last 50 years the population of India has grown two and half times, but Urban India has increased almost five times over. Yet, at the central and state level, while some cognizance is finally being taken of the growing and changing demands of cities, the focus has consistently been on rural development. This may be driven by the dynamics of politics, but it severely jeopardizes our economic future.
Most of today’s major metropolises were established by the British as port cities, cantonments or capitals. Post independence, there have been limited attempts by the Indian government to seriously engage in urban development or invest in upgradation.
By no logic can our economy survive purely on agriculture. We have to encourage a developmental model that will restructure the urban-rural alliance. Focussing on creating a good atmosphere for industries and businesses in urban areas by creating jobs for a larger populace will also guarantee the progress of our agricultural sector. As a paradox to the usual belief of a largely rural India, 30 % of the Indian populace lives in the urban conglomerations, and they contribute over 60 % of national income. Cities drive the economic and social development of the country. The economic base of the nation is anchored in industries, trade, commerce and services present in urban conglomerations. We have to start acknowledging urbanization as an affirmative trend, and invest in cities as a strategic channel towards national development.
Today we follow urban policies that encourage low-density, diffused development, which will have serious negative repercussions. It is rationally impracticable to encourage spread-out cities. Urban systems, municipal administration, public amenities, transportation and other infrastructure services will become ineffective in larger urban conglomerations as it is unproductive to spread out services in a larger geographic area.
Also, in view of our massive population, larger cities will ultimately lead to a ecological catastrophe .We have got to realize the idea that land is a non-renewable resource. If we pursue our present policies and keep acquiring farmland in the outskirts of the city, which will later, consume prime forestland—then we will be creating an environmental disaster of gigantic magnitude. It is of great importance to focus on creating high-density cities with holistic attitude towards infrastructure, environment and housing.
Almost 30 to 40 % of cities consist of dilapidated structures. This means that they still operate on outdated cessed property tax models, and consequently the state of our municipal finance is truly appalling.
Most municipalities are not even able to recover the basic costs for providing essential services. Massive redevelopment schemes and superior property tax mechanisms should be implemented so that our municipal administrations, as a minimum, recover operating costs By 2050 the urban population in India is estimated to cross the landmark of 800 million, from the current 300 million.
If we don’t start getting ready for the unparalleled shift, the massive increase in urban population in our cities is going to setoff a dynamite. Our policies don’t even attempt to house the present population, let alone, think about accommodating millions that will be flooding our cities in the future. At this moment in time, it is of imperative in the extreme to engage in comprehensive urbanplans for higher density development, superlative infrastructure, superior public amenities and a better quality of life.

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