Posted in Urban India

Rethinking India’s Urban Agenda

Very early on in my career, from the vantage point of an apex training Academy, I formulated Nasrin’s First Law: A cliché is the shortest distance between two bureaucrats. And the clichés abound in every government policy paper, programme, and proposal.

The latest example is from a newspaper report on “India’s concerns about HABITAT III” where the country paper on India is rife with the usual platitudes: inclusive, sustainable, decentralized urban governance with an appropriate devolution of powers and resources to the local level. Never mind that the informal-formal divide in Indian metros grows day by day; India has some of the world’s most polluted cities; and the 74th Amendment on decentralization and devolution has remained on paper since 1992. So much for inclusion, sustainability and decentralization…

One of the reasons for this myopia about India’s urban future, is the absolute monopoly of the urban discourse held by an inbred group of academics, retired bureaucrats, planners and NGOs. They never tire of hearing each other mouth the same clichés at seminars held in sylvan 5-star surroundings, away from the smell and noise of the urban reality, and are forever jetting around the world to ‘study’ innovations like Participatory Budgeting in Brazil, only to return and declare: this would never work in India…

The present Indian Government, like the last one, apparently believes in investing only in infrastructure in the metros, with scant regard for education, health, or the environment of Indian cities, hoping that they will one day become that beloved cliché the ‘generators of economic momentum’  – at last allowing the long emerging Indian economy, to well, emerge… But a couple of reality checks:

By 2030, it is estimated that there will be 1,350 cities > 5,00,000 population; with the world’s 7 largest cities in Asia and no European city among the 30 largest:

Urban Didtribution 2030

However, the Indian megacities highlighted above, will be nowhere on the global economic landscape, as estimated by the World Economic Forum:

Cities contributing most to global GDP

The HABITAT III to be held next year in Ecuador, will set the agenda for the world’s urban settlements for the next 20 years, and there is great excitement in development circles at the prospect of combining climate, sustainable development and urbanization in a unified time frame, with a lucky concatenation of the Kyoto Protocol, SDGs, and Habitat III.

Unlike its two predecessors, Habitat III is expected to project intermediary and small towns as the world’s urban future, as never before; and India  with almost 58% of its urban population living in such towns is well suited to make a paradigm shift in its approach to urbanization.

All that is needed is to get (wannabe-Chinese) Indians away from their obsession with infrastructure, metropolitanization, and crass industrialization, rescue the urban discourse from the Delhi ‘urban mafia’, and put our faith back in developing small towns as agriculture hubs to tertiarize the rural economy, reduce endemic poverty, stem migration to cities, and address the root causes of India’s growing agrarian crisis.

We need to rethink Indian urbanization from a purely Indian perspective, and leave the clichés to the bureaucrats…


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.

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