Can India’s Urbanization alter its Development Trajectory?

Aromar Revi on the country's urbanization conundrum
by Akash Parmar and Sarang Barbarwar
13 April 2017

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Aromar Revi, director of Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS), Bangalore, is an alumnus of IIT, Delhi  and Law and Management School, University of Delhi. Currently, He is an internationally practicing urban planner and has an interdisciplinary experience of 30 years in public policy making, governance, development, technology, with a strong focus on sustainability and human settlements. He also holds the position of co-Chair at the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Networks (UN – SDSN) – where he has led a successful project on global urban sustainable goals for SDG across 300 cities and organizations. He is a leading expert on global environmental change and climate mitigation and a leading scientist helping structure the IPCC AR Six 1.5 C Report supporting Paris Climate Accord.

He has also served as an editor for international journals and has led over 100 research and implementation assignments in India as well as abroad. With a deep interest in academics, he has taught and presented lectures in over 35 different universities across the globe and has think tanks across six continents. 

Click here for the lecture’s video.

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The is session was about the current situation and implications that urbanization has across all sectors. It made it brutally clear where India stands on a global level in terms of ‘development’.

Aromar Revi started the lecture by introducing the term ‘Urban Science’ which plays the role of the backbone for understanding the urbanization conundrum in India as well as in other parts of the world. He continued emphasizing on the role of cities and why they are important as cities are the product as well as platform for urbanization. About India he maintained that the country has a strong anti-urban bias since it has focused more on rural development compared to its urban counterpart. He went further to state that this trend has seen a shift during the 1980s, mostly because of the political leadership of the time.

From a global perspective, he made a sharp statement of numbers that population migration to urban areas of the world has gone from 0.75 billion to 2.9 billion in nearly 60 years and more surprisingly the urban economy has seen a gigantic growth of ten times, from $3 trillion to $30 trillion. Next, he highlighted in the estimates for 2030 that over 5 billion people will be living in urban areas and the urban economy would amount to $90 trillion. All of this population will be geographically located in the cities  and economic development will get triggered. With this data forming the backdrop, he put forth a striking question -

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“Is the real driver of development the economic value addition or concentration happening around cities?”

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In the coming years, the world and especially Asia will witness huge urbanization as well as brisk economic growth and all of it would come with a challenge. Urbanization would come with adverse effects on environment and climate like significant temperature increase, since it will essentially mean increase in population and consumption of goods and natural resources. Again narrowing down the context to India, he poses another question – “Is Urban Transformation Possible for India?”, since India has more cultural diversity, poverty, high crime rates, conflicts and many more internally convoluted issues.

Taking a look at the urbanization related experiences of other parts of the world – Revi stated that Dubai has seen a dramatic change and so has Pudong in Shanghai. Considering the similarities in the character of China of1980s and India of today, he said China has managed to become the single largest economy of the world but not without issues like social conflicts, poor environmental quality, etc. Through various examples, he proved the point that transformation is possible but it is accompanied by a host of other dimensions that are different for different settlements. To give a glimpse of possible dimensions, he discussed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the impacts that each goal has had. After explaining SDGs, the one core question that emerged from Revi’s brilliant discourse on the many countries he touched upon, was -

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“How can we create jobs for our people? Jobs – not only in the government sector but also in the private and informal sectors. To drive it, urbanisation needs the simple force of employment opportunities.”

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He stated that employment is a prime factor, along with other important factors such as adequate and safe housing, water supply and sanitation, secure food supply, etc. In the Indian context, how the nation addresses issues such as the state of its farmer community, labour market, land market, mobility and transportation, built environment, access to green public spaces, will play a critical role in designing its future. While discussing this he maintained that for all of these, electricity is a basic requirement and in the coming days only renewable energy would be an appropriate choice. Now the bigger problem is, he said, that we do not deliver the solutions all together, we deliver them in silos. We must also understand that people will only fetch us the results that we aim for, he said.

“It’s also about multi-trillion dollars’ urban infrastructure and housing financing opportunity: same conversation as the global financial architecture.”

After discussing the reasons and driving forces as to why and how urbanisation should take place, he came to the financing part and acknowledged that global financial architecture needs to be upgraded since currently the largest portion of capital is reserved in East Asia – namely China, Taiwan etc. The capital that can be used to urbanise the rest of South Africa and some countries of Latin America is lying bound in these countries and hence he calls attention to the need for  restructuring global finances and distributing this capital sensibly.

In the same vein as before, this time in context of India’s political institutions and framework, Revi stated that Indian polity is governed with focus on rural development only. To counter this India should set up a new political settlement according to which local and regional governments are required to be in coherence, says he.

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Putting up a world view of SDGs being implemented all across the world, he started with the SDIs of different countries and made a remark that each country is doing well with some goals and lagging with others. India having SDI of 110 is struggling way behind the other urbanizing countries of the world. He drove the rest of the session to the urbanization’s face in India and the focus was shifted to performance of different states and the overall entire country.

Marking a huge backdrop for India’s development figures, he talked about the lack of available data from census as well as the collected data not being consolidated enough so as to analyse it. Amalgamation of economic census and demographic census is one possible way to fill in this gap, according to him. Looking at the economic dynamics of Indian Urbanization, he explained that the major share of GDP is still from rural areas and out of 4000 urban centres spread across the country, only 100 centres contribute to 40% of the GDP – devising a massive gap in socio-economic strata. 

Moving deeper, it was explained by him that we are missing out on a huge employment sector which is informal sector and not counted properly and considered in the GDP. For such further analysis, IIHS took the initiative of the research and tried to figure out the variables that affect urbanization in India and carried out a comprehensive study of different states. Various factors such as demographic variables, employment variables, water supply and sanitation, roads and parks, housing, IT and communication and economic output were considered for the research led by him. The results talked about urbanization working out for economic development and as a result of that economies of scale have been created across the country between 2001 and 2011. 

He mentioned other social issues and factors such as child sex ratio, female literacy rate, caste distribution, etc. and how these affect urbanization in one way or the other.

As he began to wrap the session, he went back to issues of urbanization in the Indian context such as poverty, employment, inequality, connectivity, etc. He said that India needs a smart distribution of resources, be it capital or labour. He concluded with the suggestion to prioritize  investments in social and infrastructure sectors and understanding the location and time needs of both. Ultimately, the session proved to be thoroughly analytical and insightful for urban thinkers and urban doers.

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“Can India’s Urbanization alter its development trajectory? Yes, it can and it is. All we need to do is mould the urbanization in a more Indian way, dealing with local problems and coming up with harmonious solutions.” 

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Moving deeper, it was explained by him that we are missing out on a huge employment sector which is informal sector and not counted properly and considered in the GDP. For such further analysis, IIHS took the initiative of the research and tried to figure out the variables that affect urbanisation in India and carried out a comprehensive study of different states. Various factors such as demographic variables, employment variables, water supply and sanitation, roads and parks, housing, IT and communication and economic output were considered for the research led by him. The results talked about urbanisation working out for

economic development and as a result of that economies of scale have been created across the country between 2001 and 2011. He mentioned other social issues and factors such as child sex ratio, female literacy rate, caste distribution, etc. and how these affecturbanisation in one way or the other.

As he began to wrap the session, he went back to issues of urbanisation in the Indian context such as poverty, employment, inequality, connectivity, etc. He said that India needs a smart distribution of resources, be it capital or labour. He concluded with the suggestion to prioritize  investments in social and infrastructure sectors and understanding the location and time needs of both. Ultimately, the session proved to be thoroughly analytical and insightful for urban thinkers and urban doers.

“Can India’s Urbanisation alter its development trajectory? Yes, it can and it is. All we need to do is mould the urbanisation in a more Indian way, dealing with local problems and coming up with harmonious solutions.”