Monday, May 23

Of Dreams and Skylines

Urban infrastructure in Delhi NCR is a question-mark that lurks behind corners, like a sly predator waiting to ambush you in an unguarded moment. Step into Gurgaon where I live, and it will be clear what I mean: global and gobar are concurrent realities that, despite the paradox, coexist peacefully in Millennium City. Its tall office towers with imposing green-glass facades, or glitzy spoilt-for-choice malls, may not be engineering marvels, but veritably showcase New India's ambitious dreams. Soar high in their alluring promise and you are up for a rude awakening: the grating sound of your car's underbelly being tested on sludge-filled, potholed dirt-tracks that often pass off as the city's roads. The contrast is telling; the Government's criminal apathy in a revenue-rich district is obvious. Yet, it also betrays the resigned compromise its denizens have made with sarkaridom's contempt for its upkeep.

This dichotomous backdrop made a piece in HT Comments (Our Forbidden Cities, Francesco Giavazzi) on Monday especially interesting. Its moot point was that youth (bigger dreams, more energy to realize them) provide the power; and urban infrastructure the vehicle for development. The logic virtually anoints cities as playgrounds for progress, with benefits that ultimately accrue to large populations. Giavazzi argued that such transformation is difficult but achievable, predictably citing Shanghai's example (I say ‘predictably’ without malice – a visit back in 2006 had convinced me that anyone struggling to grasp the meaning of ‘economies of scale’ merely had to spend a day in China's showpiece city). The part left almost unsaid was how India did not really have much of a choice in the matter - at risk is our much vaunted demographic dividend itself.

Going beyond Shanghai, better utilization of scarce urban land can have significant economic and social benefits for our country too. This is true in the sense of upgrading our Tier 2 and 3 towns as well as replacing haphazard growth in larger cities with more planned and sustainable one. On the first, consider how amenities (or even look and feel) in city #100 in the US compares with NYC (except scale) and see the gaping hole between merely Delhi and Patna. I say this not simply enamoured by downtown skyscrapers in any American city of note, but the economic realities that support such growth, and quality of life for citizens that results from it (including but not limited to impact on curtailing migration that seems to so upset the Sheila Dikshits and Raj Thackerays of the world, if they actually believe in their flawed diatribes).

Suggestions abound on the second aspect too, namely making the most of our larger cities. For instance, consider replacing Sarojini Nagar's ubiquitious sarkari structures with modern high-rise apartment complexes. An important point is that this model benefits not just yuppies or the moneyed: its erstwhile civil servant occupants too would enjoy (at marginal cost) facilities they often bemoan 'overpaid MBA types' for accessing. Similarly, better intra-NCR connectivity can do more for Noida's realty prices than sending a highly-leveraged me twenty SMS offers a day (last I checked, the much promised KMP Expressway was set to miss its fourth revised deadline; nor is such lackadaisical execution a hallmark of the national capital alone - Mumbai's pride and joy, the Sea Link, is grossly over budget and timelines, and only half complete).

No doubt there are other larger, more contentious issues. Land policy, subject of a typically token recent demonstration by the ruling party's Gen Secy cum PM-in-waiting, is prime among them. Or the need to stamp out corruption in implementation that has similarly hogged headlines. Yet, Gurgaon is living proof of the inadequacy of our urban planning policy (either non-existent or hopelessly delegated to private developers) to support growth of infrastructure, far less stimulating it; and an educated citizenry's failure to propel the Government to action. I hope for our sake, and our children, that at least one of these changes soon.


Aditya Bhuyan said...

Very nicely written and reflects a deep understanding of issues n solutions.