Posted in Urban Issues

China and India: Our cities, their cities

Shedding its rural, feudal past with a vengeance, China has officially tipped over – with 51% of its vast population now living in urban areas. This scale of urbanisation is unprecedented in human history and Chinese cities leave visitors awestruck and dumbfounded as they come in via the Maglev transit system, admire the skyline of a new Shanghai, visit its deep-sea harbour after driving over a 36 km sea bridge, or take off on a 1,460 km journey to Beijing by bullet train reaching there in four and a half hours flat!

There are various enabling factors in China’s formidable infrastructure achievements:

  • Firstly, all urban land is owned and controlled by the local government, and made available for planned development once a plan is approved by the political decision-makers. In India, the urban administrator is not able to achieve even 20% of a 20-year DP because of the hassles in acquisition of private land for public purposes.
  • Secondly, infrastructure is created and developed by specialized technocrats in China, and maintained by retainers of local government; while in India most development bodies are headed by an officer from a generalist service like the IAS, with neither the technical expertise nor the continuity of tenure to see a long-term project through successfully. The indiscriminate entry of the private sector in developing and maintaining infrastructure in India is also considered a mixed blessing, and the leading source of corruption in government.
  • Moreover, resources raised from infrastructure development and urban growth accrue to the local government in China, and this encourages planned urbanization, unlike in India, where metropolitan planning bodies are State parastatals like the MMRDA, enriching the State of Maharashtra by exploiting the land in the city of Mumbai.
  • Planning decisions in China are not only publicised, but put in the public domain through magnificent state-of-the-art audio-visual feasts in their Planning Museums. In India, we have to be satisfied with a statutory ‘call-for-objections’ each time a Development Plan is formulated. There is little or no publicity given to planning decisions: residents of a locality are unaware of what is planned for their neighbourhood; and may wake up one fine morning to discover an abattoir or a crematorium next door!
  • Urbanization itself is greatly controlled in China: While the single-child norm takes care of growth through natural increase; immigration is controlled by the ‘hukou’ or residence permit system, which has built-in incentives like social security, and access to health and education. Anyone without an urban permit is automatically denied these benefits, and although there are squatter settlements in Chinese cities, these are normally at the periphery, unlike India where they dot the entire urban landscape in such profusion, and illegality. Similar controls in India would be deemed unconstitutional.
  • China tackles the problem of urban sprawl by densification, providing high FSI for both residential and commercial buildings (like Tokyo) and negating its worst impact through cheap and efficient public transport systems. Indian cities meanwhile, adhere to outdated and impractical plans for low form urbanisation – another sad legacy of British rule! The resulting urban sprawl and the poor public transport networks make commuting to work a daily hell for millions of people in India’s metros.
  • Like India, China too faces the problem of an informal economy, estimated at around 30%, but there are definite efforts made to formalise it through licensing, controls and provision of workplaces in the formal plan. These issues have remained largely unaddressed in India, leading to 60-68% informalisation of the economy in its metros.
  • Moreover, while manufacturing sector growth in China is incentivized through devices like SEZ’s, India has put most of its economic eggs in the services basket. Thus while the factories in China welcome equally the unskilled, semi-skilled and the highly-skilled worker; India’s IT sector has room only for the highly educated; and the less skilled get inexorably pushed into the growing informal sector.

Indian urban managers and policy makers have a lot to learn from China:

  • Treat Urbanisation as a force for good, not evil. In 2005, China’s Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development proposed the designation of prime cities as National Central Cities, as a first step in reforming urbanisation in China. These NCCs were described as a group of cities in charge of leading, developing, performing tasks in political, economic, and cultural aspects. Consequently, in February 2010, the ministry issued the “National Urban System Plan” and designated five major cities: Beijing and Tianjin in the Bohai Economic Rim; Shanghai in the Yangtze River Delta, Guangzhou in the Pearl River Delta, and Chongqing in western China. They also included Hong Kong as a Special National Central City. The NCCs’ sphere of influence has a great impact on the surrounding cities in terms of modernising and integrating services, infrastructure, finance, public education, social welfare, sanitation, business licensing and urban planning. The Ministry also makes mention of Regional Central Cities (RCCs) like Shenzhen, Nanjing, Wuhan, Shenyang, Chengdu, and Xi’an. India can learn a lot from this visionary approach to regional planning, and National Central City status will go a long way in revitalising the dying metros of yesteryear, like Kolkata and Mumbai.
  • An empowered Chief Executive is key to Local Economic Development. Visiting Mayors from South America and Europe are welcomed like heroes by local bodies in India. Mainly, because they are seen as vital agents of change and reform. Their Indian counterparts (with a few exceptions) have a largely ceremonial role, and the real executive power in Indian cities is vested in a civil servant, who is a State government permanent employee and has little or no investment in local concerns. Contrast this with the clout and powers of a mayor in a big Chinese city. A visit to the official website of the Mayor of Shanghai is a real eye-opener. In the last few months, the visiting foreign dignitaries who have called upon the Mayor include: the Belgian Ambassador, the Chilean Ambassador, Mayors of Dallas and Fort Worth, the Fijian President, the Governor of Yogyakarta in Indonesia, the Mayor of Colombo, the Vice President of South Sudan, the Russian Ambassador, and the President of Portugal. Now that is some clout, isn’t it?
  • Social planning is inextricably linked to land use planning. Not just China, but the capitalist Mecca of Singapore too indulges in fairly rigid social engineering whereby the government decides on where a family stays, where they dispose their garbage, and where their children go to school. Indian cities have a lot to learn from both these countries about the practical side of governance and making cities work, so that the maximum good of the maximum number is ensured and the yawning chasm between rich and poor is bridged to some extent – even if it means stricter laws and tighter enforcement for everyone.
  • Urban development means the full devolution of powers and resources to local government. In China, the benefits of local development accrue to the local government and so the city of Shanghai, for example, has a stake in building new infrastructure and planning new satellite towns because these will enrich the local government. In India, despite the recommendations of National and State Finance Commissions (under the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act) there has been inadequate devolution of resources to local governments, and where a city is a creator of wealth, these profits are creamed off by both State and Central Governments, while the local government struggles to make ends meet – the most obvious example being Mumbai, the largest single contributor to State and National GDP!
  • Urban planning thinks in centuries not decades. When China launched a massive construction boom, building new cities from scratch, the world was first alarmed, then amused, and is now awaiting the big crash. Because these cities are now ready but have nobody living there! But as Gandhiji rightly said: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win.” So perhaps, China will have the last laugh as they alone realise that projected needs and consequently, urban planning, need a much longer timeline than the mere 20 years so popular in India’s Development Plans. Moreover, it is much cheaper to build a city as a greenfield or brownfield project now than attempting to revitalise a dying city 20 years hence – as we have seen under JNNURM! As and when a city reaches carrying capacity, these new towns are ready to take the overflow. Further, unrealistic house prices (prevailing in Indian metros) have led to ever more slums in Mumbai and Delhi. By providing ready, available and affordable housing in and near existing metros, the Chinese have successfully tackled the problem of decongestion in a long-term time-frame. We should also remember that, unlike the West, relocation within China is a matter of Government policy and enforcement, and not left to the whims of market forces alone.
  • Natural resource management essential to prosperity. Another example of long-term planning is China’s heavy investment in natural resources abroad, to ensure that the factories in its cities don’t come to a standstill for lack of raw materials. For example, when China anticipated a drop in its virtual monopoly of rare earths, it was quick to tie up with Australian mining companies, to retain an upper hand. Rare earths are critical in the manufacture of smart phones, wind turbines and missiles. But what gets the West in a real tizzy is China’s foreign direct investment (FDI) in developing the infrastructure and natural resources of Africa. Interestingly, while the American President (despite his proclaimed African origins!) visited only 2 African countries in his first term, his Chinese counterpart visited 14. No wonder, Africa (long and brutally exploited by the West) is ready to welcome another country which helps its development but does not lay down pre-conditions like reform, nor threatens armed intervention in the name of democracy. Needless to say, such geo-strategic long-term planning in its national interest has evaded India for the last 67 years!
  • Connectivity is the safest route to mainstreaming marginal communities. One would not like to brush China’s problems with its ethnic minorities (like Tibet) under the carpet, but the fact remains that one of the greatest engineering marvels of this century has been the construction of the Beijing-Tibet Railway, against tremendous odds. The Chinese believe that connectivity is the shortest route to mainstreaming and national integration (and also allows for easier control and regulation, of course – which is why the British built railways in India so early on in their colonial rule!) Perhaps we can learn a few lessons from China, especially in mainstreaming the isolated N-E region of India. After all, civil unrest in any part of the country eventually affects the national economy.
  • Good governance also means efficiency and effectiveness. Two universally recognised indicators of good urban governance are efficiency and effectiveness, and it is visible everywhere in China – from the punctuality of the tour guide, to orderly queues in public places, to the unfailingly on-time trains and flights. Or the integrated 8-tiered transport hub at Shanghai International Airport. These are the little things which make city life a little easier, and are slowly disappearing from India’s urban dreamscape. Time to wake up and catch up with the world, India!

Summarizing, the magic mantra in China seems to be: analyze, assess, plan and provide… 

Whatever the divergence in their development paths and goals, India and China have a shared destiny as the two largest countries in an interconnected global economy, and they both need to take on board the hazards as well as the benefits of globalisation. Although both countries have taken long strides in developing infrastructure and economic growth, the Quality of Life and Human Development aspects have not received the same attention.

India’s caste and class-riven society sees the gap between the rich and poor growing every day, as does the education and digital divide in the era of global connectivity. This is mirrored in the widening rural-urban divide in China, and the lack of individual liberties that democracies like India take for granted.

Therefore, both India and China need to face up to several challenges of successful survival in changing times:

  • Firstly, how to ensure a more equitable distribution of their recent economic growth across caste, class, gender and region, while at the same time making their specialist areas globally competitive
  • Secondly, how to fix the trade-offs between universal human development and specialised infrastructure requirements
  • Thirdly, how to support the unorganised and informal sectors of the economy so that they yield sustainable livelihoods for the poor
  • Fourthly, how to adapt and universalize technology, especially information and communication technologies
  • And finally, how to realise the full potential of their prime resource – their large populations – to gain the edge in global negotiations…


I am a trainer of Government Officials and Elected Representatives, specializing in the urban and municipal sector. I have also written extensively on Urban Governance, Poverty, Development, Social Accountability and Municipal Management in the Indian context, and wish to share these writings with you through this blog.

2 thoughts on “China and India: Our cities, their cities

  1. Hi.. in 1980 china was 246 bilion $ n India was 248 billion$ ..we r more
    in 2010 china was 15 trilion $ n india was 4.7 trillion $….ie 3 times more
    This is chinese miracle..
    their is no parallel example in world history what china did ???


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