Over the past two decades, alongside the story of India's impressive economic growth is the story of its urbanisation. Urban centres like Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai have seen their industry and populations explode to new highs, placing tremendous strain on existing systems and infrastructure. However the story of urban India's success seems skewed: media reports and research allude to the notion that South Indian cities have handled urbanisation more successfully than their northern counterparts. Is this indeed the case? And if so, why?
The southern perspective
According to the 2011 India Census, approximately 31 per cent of all Indians now live in an urban setting. South India, however, demonstrates the greatest movement twoards urbanisation, where with the exception of Andhra Pradesh all states claim that more than 35 per cent of their population is urban. In Tamil Nadu alone, 48 per cent of people live in urban areas.
... media reports and research allude to the notion that South Indian cities have handled urbanisation more successfully than their northern counterparts. Is this indeed the case? And if so, why?
Economically, southern states also claim India's fastest growth: in the 2007-08 period, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala all had higher economic growth rates than the yearly national average: 10.6%, 12.9% and 10.4% respectively. The factors that fueled this growth are in no small part due to the flow of international business into the country as India became the world's IT king and services emporium. This global economic influx has faciliated the formation of metropolitan hubs, with particular concentration in the south.
Hubs in the south such as Bangalore and Chennai have benefitted from better city planning historically due to their important positions as economic or military centres. It can be argued that India's south has been better prepared for urbanisation because of its exposure to global influences via international commerce and trade on its shores.
India's Silicon Valley
In many ways the southern city of Bangalore exemplifies the South Indian urbanisation success story. The capital of Karnataka, and the country's third-most populous local government area with nearly 5.44 million inhabitants, Bangalore is the IT hub of India, which economics columnist Rupa Subramanya Dehejia touted as "the city that globalization built".
The city's meteoric rise results directly from India's economic reforms 20 years ago that opened the country to the world. One-third of India's total exports consist of IT and outsourcing services, of which one-third comes from Bangalore directly. In the 1998-2005 period, real income increased by 73 per cent, considerably higher than the national average. In 1998 Bangalore's average real income was 24 per cent higher than the country's; last year it was greater by 70 per cent.
Aside from Bangalore's recent economic successes, the city has a long history of exposure to globalisation and technology. The original town was founded in 1537 as a mud fort, and incorporated into India's British rule with the establishment of the Bangalore Cantonment in 1831. The town's modernity was promoted by the introduction of the telegraph and the construction of a direct railway connection to the city of Madras in 1864. As economist Narendra Pani wrote in the scholarly publication Habitat International, 'the Cantonment's identity was that of a service oriented economy with a large English speaking population that had access to education.' And in the post-independence era, Bangalore was the centre of a globalised garment industry before its progress towards IT.
However impressive its history, Bangalore is confronting the same social and infrastructure problems common to other Indian cities. Over the last 64 years, certain basic services and infrastructure have been built to meet the needs of a modern city, for example through the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board and the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport. But Bangalore's roads were not well-developed to accommodate car traffic. The city's road network exceeds 2,900 kilometres, but with vehicular traffic growing at an average of eight per cent per year, the city is struggling to keep up, much as it is struggling with migration.
In March of this year, The Times of India reported that every third Bangalorean lives in a 'sub-human slum'. According to the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahangara Palike (BBMP) or Greater Bangalore Municipal Corporation the city has 569 slums where as many as 341 are unauthorised settlements, with Commissioner Siddaiah suggesting that 'more than 1,000 slums can be found in the city if we do a detailed analysis'.
Gurgaon: north versus south
1,276 miles to Bangalore's north in the state of Haryana is Gurgaon, 15 miles to the south of India's capital New Delhi and one of its four major satellite cities. As per the latest census data the population of Gurgaon is more than 1.5 million people. Today, it is one of India's fastest rising districts, having grown more than 70 per cent since 2001.
In June, Jim Yardley of the New York Times assessed Gurgaon as a place where 'dynamism' meets 'dysfunction'. He wrote: 'In this city that barely existed two decades ago, there are 26 shopping malls, seven golf courses and luxury shops selling Chanel and Louis Vuitton.' Gurgaon 'would seem to have everything, except … a functioning citywide sewer or drainage system; reliable electricity or water; and public sidewalks, adequate parking, decent roads or any citywide system of public transportation.'
While Bangalore has its own infrastructure challenges, those seem minimal compared to the dearth of systems and services in Gurgaon. The difference is in the initial phases of city planning and continued maintenance. Gurgaon was not founded to be a city; it was a small farming village as recently as the 1970s.
As is a common sight in Indian cities, the haves and have-nots live side-by-side in Gurgaon, and that juxtaposition partially explains how Gurgaon is both a success and a failure. As can be predicted, real estate prices are astronomical. The global outsourcing demand and its proximity to Delhi have made Gurgaon an ideal location for private business. The private sector has proven more efficient than the government itself in filling in civic and infrastructure gaps. But problems like inconstant electricity, pollution, very limited transportation and water scarcity persist. And although there are no official data on how many slum dwellers are in Gurgaon, it may be as many as 450,000 people, nearly 50 per cent of the city's population.
It is evident that Bangalore has been better prepared to confront the challenges of urbanisation. Its history as a globally-oriented city helped Bangalore to ease into its status as a major economic hub today, but it has inherited the problems typical for other Indian cities as well.
The fact that Gurgaon was a small village before becoming part of Delhi's metropolitan hub is not unique in North India, which is dominated by agrarian economies. However, as the boundaries of Indian cities expand, they encroach upon rural areas ill-equipped to handle urban demands. In this new context the disparity between haves and have-nots becomes sharper, making clear the necessity of greater investment and intervention.
Because there is a prevailing lack of faith in the Government of India's efficiency, the private sector has risen to the occasion in Gurgaon and filled in important civic leadership gaps. However this has not been equitable. The rise of informal settlements will continue, and in conjunction with the public works void this means that the poor and vulnerable will be weaker still.
As India's star continues to rise, its dynamism needs to be the antidote to its dysfunction. Can cities like Gurgaon learn lessons from their southern counterparts? Bangalore's history prepared it for urban demands, but its success is to a large part a story of the last twenty years, just like for Gurgaon. There is both intellectual capital and wealth present in both cities that may prove to be the catalyst for fortifying urban planning efforts. And undeniably the government will have a role to play as well.