Analysis: Our cities need stronger foundations to thrive

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Half of humanity – 3.5 billion people – lives in urban areas today. Our metropolises are the engines of growth for a global economy emerging from the shadow of financial crisis.

In Bangalore, my home, investment is pouring into a city at the forefront of the Indian economy’s transformation – home to tech firms such as Infosys and Wipro, and named by Forbes magazine as one of the fastest-growing cities of the next decade.

But as Bangalore’s citizens prepare to go to the polls in state elections, their concerns are not merely economic. The city’s financial success stories mask a darker reality: quality of life for many city-dwellers has deteriorated over recent years as urbanisation has sped up.

In China, for example, the relaxation of migration controls in the 1980s and the opening of the economy led to the spectacular growth of the country’s eastern cities. More than 50 per cent of Chinese live in urban areas today, up from 25 per cent in 1990. The proportion is expected to reach 70 per cent by 2035.

While the majority of Indians still live in rural areas, this, too, is changing fast. From 1970 to 2010, India’s urban population grew by 250 million. The next quarter-billion will be added in half that time. By 2030, 70 per cent of India’s GDP will come from its cities.

But cities are unable to cope with this influx. The fast-growing metropolises of India, China, Brazil, and other major emerging economies offer plenty of jobs, but basic amenities are lacking. As a result, many of the urban poor live in slums, without adequate healthcare, water, or electricity.

Municipalities, due either to corruption or poor management, fail to impose rigorous planning regulations. Infrastructure spending is either inadequate or poorly targeted. People feel unsafe on poorly-lit streets, and have little access to parks or recreation facilities. Hours are lost to long commutes on polluted roads.

The novelty of the rapid economic improvements seen by many city-dwellers in India, China, and elsewhere over the past ten years has insulated governments from the repercussions of poor urban planning. But as I walk through Bangalore, I sense growing resentment of the inadequacies, and frustration at insufficient improvements in citizens’ quality of life. Bangalore is a modern city, and its citizens are expressing their displeasure in modern ways – on Facebook, in chat rooms, on Twitter.

Of the world’s ten most densely populated cities, seven are in India. The urban sprawl of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore has continued unchecked, unplanned, and with under-investment in infrastructure for far too long. Urban pollution contributed to 620,000 needless deaths in India last year, mainly among the very poor. The number of people living in slums has doubled over the past decade, and is now greater than the population of the UK.

The consultancy McKinsey said in a recent report India needs to invest at least $1.2 trillion in urban infrastructure over the next two decades; $134 per capita annually. It currently invests only $17 per capita, against $116 in China and $292 in the United States.

India’s city dwellers – like those elsewhere – do not want to sacrifice the enormous gains of the past few decades to ineffective or corrupt governance. They want to work toward a future in which their quality of life is among the best in the world, with green spaces, sustainable public transport, clean air, well-built houses, and safe streets.

• Rajeev Chandrasekhar is an Independent member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian Parliament.