February 09, 2006

City as engine

The journalism students at Bombay University put out a monthly magazine, Workshop. Each issue has a theme, and the January 2006 issue's theme is "India Minus the Metros?"

This essay was my contribution to the issue.


It happens every now and then when I am in a particularly crowded suburban train. As we pull into a station, several men will call out to people waiting on the platform to get in: "House full!" No place for more, they mean.

Yet of course, people always find their way in, always more than the few who get off. That is, few pay heed to the calls from the train and wait for the next train. (After all, that one's likely to be "House full" too).

Nevertheless, the calls continue to ring out from somewhere inside the press of men on the train. We're all afflicted with the urge to keep others out, from trains or elsewhere. It's us and them, and the them had better stay where they are: out.

Trains or elsewhere ... In Bombay, state Ministers regularly pronounce that the city has enough people and cannot absorb any more; its services are already stretched to the limit and cannot be further expanded. House full, in other words. Nor is this just from Ministers: respected journalists, film stars and academics feel similarly, as do any number of less exalted citizens of Bombay.

And therefore, they will say, we must prevent more migration into the city. House full, they might as well be saying.

There's so much wrong with this that it's hard to know where to start.

First problem: the idea that migration is the reason for the city's growth is utterly false. Migration's contribution to growth is about 33 per cent, and has been falling steadily for decades.

But apart from that, as long as Bombay remains incomparably wealthier than its hinterland, it will attract immigrants. Understanding this requires no great insight: it is a phenomenon that happens all over the world. Naturally, people will do their best to move to where opportunities are greater, where wealth is greater. So there must be greater efforts to stimulate the economy of our rural areas, so that moving to the city is a less attractive option.

Also, those who mutter on and on about the need to stop migration into Bombay assume that there is some unstated theoretical optimum size for the city. They assume as well that we are well past that optimum. Never mind that nobody knows what this size is nor how to calculate it.

Meanwhile, the city's population has better than doubled in the past 20 years alone and continues to grow. This idea of an optimum size has some meaning when it prompts the development of satellite townships, taking the pressure off Bombay's civic services. Yet our planners use it, perversely, to decry migration.

But apart from these aspects of urbanization, here's something that's not so well understood. If prosperity is to increase -- and surely that's what we want, in this country -- our urban population must increase. It's that simple. In India as in every other country, it is cities that fuel the economy. Here's what the National Commission on Urbanization once had to say about our cities: they are "heroic engines of growth, not only creating skills and wealth for the nation, but also generating employment for the waves of distress migration from rural areas."

Is there a conflict here with my earlier point about encouraging growth in rural areas? Not at all. Smaller cities and towns in the country must develop and grow as well, for the total urban population to rise. More than that, over two-thirds of India lives in villages. The interests of those people must be served regardless of the growth of the cities. Economic growth must touch everyone if it is to be sustained.

But the truth is, in nearly every developed country, the share of the population that lives in urban areas is over 70 per cent. This trend is evident even in Asia's emerging economic powers. In the last 30 years, Malaysia's urban share has gone from 27 per cent to about 50 per cent. China's, from 18 per cent to nearly two-thirds. India's share, in contrast, has moved from 20 per cent to about 28 per cent (2001 census).

These numbers, oddly enough, are a fair reflection of our prosperity compared to those countries.

The point about a growing urban population is this: we may not like it. We may be dismayed by the conditions in which people must live in our cities, the housing crisis, the strain on utilities and so forth. We may wonder, and rightly so, how our cities will cope with even more growth. We may look at villages as places of romance and charm, which they are not, but we may see them that way nevertheless.

We may do all that, but none of it really has any bearing on reality. And that reality is, again: the cities are, and will remain, drivers of growth. They may be ugly, and life may be hard for their residents. But they generate wealth.

And why is that?

Because of the nature of cities. When you have great numbers of people concentrated in a small area, when many of them are highly motivated to work hard and excel, you will have a flowering of intellectual and entrepreneurial activity. And it is that flowering that is so attractive to so many from across the country. They come to the cities and further stimulate that flowering.

Think of California's Bay Area, that immense nest of intellectual creativity. Why is it that way? The universities there are superb and feed off each other to get better. The companies use the brainpower oozing from universities and the fierce competition among themselves to get better in turn. The world's finest talent works there; that itself attracts more of the world's finest talent to come work there. This is the air that everyone who comes to the Bay Area breathes. The result? The Bay Area is the planet's premier hotbed of technical excellence.

As scenic as Virginia's mountains are, as agriculturally productive as Nebraska's cornfields are, they can never hope to be the kind of lodestone of jobs and opportunity that the Bay Area is.

And that's the way to consider cities.

So yes, certainly India is largely rural, certainly a substantial fraction of our economy is still based on agriculture, certainly we need to invest in rural areas. Let's recognize and understand all that. But let's also understand that it is our cities that have always and will always generate opportunity. And it is that opportunity alone that holds promise that India will defeat poverty.

So it's a pleasant exercise to think of an India without its cities, just as it sets off chuckles in a crowded train when commuters shout "House full!" But just as that shout is futile, dreaming of India without cities is futile.

In a real sense, India would not exist without its cities.

And once we understand that, the challenge is not to keep out the outsiders, but to see that the rising tide of prosperity spreads outwards from our cities. That is the great promise of urbanization.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

I'm always intrigued by Mumbai in particular. Me, I love visiting there and being hosted by someone with a nice apartment, but I wouldn't think of moving there unless my employer gave me a half-decent place to live in not too far from my workplace. Which is not the case with most of the millions that move into Mumbai.

Your comparison with the bay area isn't really apt -- the bay area isn't a city but an overgrown suburb. Even the largest cities there -- San Francisco and San Jose -- are villages compared to Mumbai.

New York is a big city, but still not as brimming-over as Mumbai. You can get bigger apartments at lower rents in Manhattan than in south Mumbai.

We do need to grow our cities, but there are so many other cities out there that seem increasingly attractive and, if they grow in a controlled manner, would have all the advantages that you ascribe to Mumbai. Pune, Nagpur, Aurangabad could easily take over some load from Mumbai. It's already happening: 20 years ago nobody thought of Bangalore as a major city, now it's ahead of Chennai in perception on most things. Pune today is probably ahead of where Bangalore was then.

But even now people continue to move into Mumbai and share squalid houses with 10 flatmates. It's true that Mumbai offers much more activity and excitement than any other Indian city, but I doubt that's the consideration of most of the crowd moving in.

Are jobs still easier to find in Mumbai?

Or do they all have Bollywood dreams?

Sunil said...

only one comment for this superb article??

Vikrum said...


I wondered the same thing.


Excellent article.