India must reimagine its cities to cope with urbanization

India must reimagine its cities to cope with urbanization

Cities have existed for more than 10,000 years, but throughout history the vast majority of humanity has always lived in settlements that were not urban. Even as recently as 1950, only 30 percent of the world’s population lived in cities. For this reason, it is worth taking a moment to note that we are living amid the high tide of a swift and historic switch in human patterns of living. 

In 2007, the world’s urban population eclipsed the rural population for the first time. The trend is irreversible. In 1950, 750 million people lived in cities; in 2018, 4.2 billion do (of course this figure also factors in a massive rise in world population in this period). For as long as humanity survives — assuming we are not wiped out by climate change — our era will be remembered as marking the triumph of the city.

New statistics and projections released this month by the Population Division of the United Nations provide further evidence of the thunderous pace of urbanization taking place in the world right now, led by Asia and to a lesser extent by Africa. By the year 2050, the UN’s “World Urbanization Prospects” report says two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. 

Just three countries — India, China, and Nigeria — will account for 35 percent of the growth in the world’s urban population between now and then. Cities today take their cues from New York, London and Tokyo, but the future of urban life may be shaped by new developments in transport, water management, architecture and land use in New Delhi, Lagos, Dhaka and Cairo.

In India, urbanization will be especially ground-breaking because of the enormous hold the rural way of life still exerts on the country’s values and lifestyles. India still has the largest rural population in the world at nearly 900 million people (it is not expected to be until about 2050 that urban dwellers in India outnumber their rural counterparts). 

This is a vast social bedrock of peasants, artisans and pastoralists who will become exposed to the codes and mores — and therefore the allure — of the city by televisions and mobile phones, or (more dismayingly) will be forced to migrate to cities because of rural distress and the fragmentation of land holdings. Even today, the colloquial expression in Hindi for going to a foreign country is “bahargaon” (outside the village), suggesting the conceptual division of the world into the village and all that is outside it.

The fact of India’s increased urbanization in the coming decades is a given; what remains to be worked out is the capacity of Indian policymakers and urban planners to manage urban complexity on such a vast scale — and to devise an Indian model of the sustainable city. 

By the year 2050, the UN’s “World Urbanization Prospects” report says two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities

Chandrahas Choudhury

Currently, the great Indian metropolises are a vast drain on the surrounding areas, sucking up water from farmland, spilling noxious sewage into rivers and mountains of garbage into landfills, and consuming electricity generated in far-off coal-fired plants while villages deal with power cuts. Internally, too, they teeter on the edge of infrastructural collapse and social anarchy, building ever more roads to be choked by cars and condemning a majority of their residents to life in congested shantytowns while feeding them the fantasies of Bollywood films. 

And, despite the modernity of their amenities and the cultural diversity of their streets and neighborhoods — the reasons that have attracted people to cities throughout history — they remain iniquitous with respect not just to class but also gender (not to mention being a nightmare for the disabled). 

Women have a radically different experience of the Indian city compared to men. Even communal spaces in Indian cities — trains, parks, streets, maidans, roadside food stalls; all the places that in Western cities symbolize a space of freedom for the socially disadvantaged — are really spaces for men. Indian mayors need to take the lead of Bogota’s former mayor Antanas Mockus, who in 2001 launched the idea of a “Night for Women” when all men were asked to stay at home and allow women to experience the city at night.

India’s cities, then, are currently concentrations of economic capital without necessarily being generators of social capital. Resources are scarce and inequitably divided, and sociality is stratified and ghettoized, denying most residents a chance to experience the genuinely liberating power of the city. These are not problems that can be solved just by technological fixes, such as those proposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Smart Cities Mission.” They ask not so much for a material change as for a new imagination of the city.

Still, the prognosis is not uniformly dire. My own city, New Delhi, has been transformed in the last 20 years by the arrival of the fairly cheap and highly efficient Delhi Metro, which is now used by 2.7 million people a day over a 250-kilometer network. Miraculously, unlike on the streets, commuters do not litter Metro compartments (even though there is still some friction at stations with people wanting to get on at the same time as others are getting off). 

And who could have predicted in 2000 that the long stairways of Metro stations would become terraced hangout joints for the youth; sites for a chat, a conference, or even a date without the expense of a cafe? Perhaps a future generation will be able to say that Indians discovered a new way of being urban on the Metro.


  • Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of the Mumbai novel “Clouds,” published in January 2018 by Simon & Schuster. Twitter: @Hashestweets
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