Why India needs a national urban policy

An excerpt from Devashish Dhar’s ‘India’s Blind Spot: Understanding and Managing Our Cities’

GN Bureau | April 11, 2023

#Urbanisation   #Urban Governance   #Cities   #Delhi   #Mumbai   #policy   #migration   #economy  
The unmanageable traffic in Delhi is a visual representation of the lack of planning that bedevils our cities (GN Photo)
The unmanageable traffic in Delhi is a visual representation of the lack of planning that bedevils our cities (GN Photo)

India’s Blind Spot: Understanding and Managing Our Cities
By Devashish Dhar
HarperCollins, 408 pages, Rs. 899.00

Indian policy has been characterised by a denial of urbanization. This has prevented us from meaningfully addressing the blizzard of policy issues that come with the phenomenon: from governance deficit to infrastructure shortfall, from effective management of land to lack of focus on growing city economies; from access to potable water to incessant flooding; from traffic congestion to sufficient urban green and public spaces; and from lack of safety to marginalization of urban poor, migrants, and vulnerable communities. Consequently, cities have truly become India’s blind spot. And blind spots can be fatal.

‘India’s Blind Spot’, by Devashish Dhar, a former Public Policy Specialist at NITI Aayog, explores our understanding of Indian cities and how we have reached this point of exasperation. The book illustrates that cities are critical to achieving India’s promised destiny and provides policy solutions and innovations to tackle complex issues in our cities. It explains that Indian cities will be at the frontier of driving key global political-economy trends in coming decades. This is a comprehensive study on the phenomenon of Indian urbanization, and what comes with it.

Dhar is also a Mason Fellow from the Harvard Kennedy School and Li Ka Shing Scholar from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore. Plus, he is a Raisina Fellow, an IVLP Fellow, and has authored several articles for national publications.

Here is an excerpt from this new publication:


India is at a tipping point on its urbanization levels, given the increasing role of urbanization in its economic development and the massive movement of millions of people from the rural hinterland to urban centres and from towns to cities. These two factors—along with the lack of preparedness at the city-level and technological advancements worldwide—make it uneasy for anyone to imagine what Indian cities might be like in the coming decades. Indian cities of the future have two daunting tasks ahead of them. First, they have to play catch-up in terms of key urban infrastructure and services, in which they lag compared to not just developed countries but also many developing countries. They will have to also catch-up on present-day standards on local governance and reversing trends in local environmental damage. The currently successful cities have suffered most of these gaps in the past but with their economic growth, could overcome these challenges.

Second, there are certain attributes that would remarkably distinguish the Indian cities of the future from their present situation. The future shape of these attributes cannot be conclusively defined; but yet, India can identify these attributes and adopt the agility to follow, and wherever possible beat, the global trends on these attributes. One such attribute is urban transport: though the nature of public transport will largely be the same, the nature of personal travel is fast changing due to developments such as vehicle-sharing systems, electric vehicles, underground tunnels and the hyperloop rail, among others. Our city planners should look towards issues such as this.

Historically, with the majority of the population living in rural India, urbanization has not received the attention it deserves. Nevertheless, it is time to recognize that it is one of the key areas critical to the transformation and modernization of India. As per Census 2011, 377 million Indians comprising 31.1 per cent of the total population live in urban areas. The UN-Habitat World City’s 2016 Report estimates that the urban population in India reached 420 million in 2015 (UN-Habitat, 2016). According to one projection, the country’s urban population would reach 590 million by 2030 (Sankhe et al., 2010). In 2011, India’s urbanization rate stood at 31 per cent as compared to 45 per cent in China, 54 per cent in Indonesia, 78 per cent in Mexico and 87 per cent in Brazil (CII, n.d.). Therefore, there is substantial potential for accelerated growth in productivity through higher urbanization levels.

The factors driving urbanization in India are also undergoing change. During 1981–2001, India’s urbanization was caused by: a natural increase in the population of cities (around 60 per cent); followed by rural–urban migration; expansion of boundaries of cities; and re-classification of rural areas into urban areas (MoUD, 2011). However, during 2001–2011, the share of natural increase in the population of cities declined to 44 per cent (still a predominant factor), while the share of reclassification of rural areas into urban areas strengthened, and the share of rural urban migration increased to 24 per cent (Panagariya et al., 2014).

Moreover, due to land mismanagement and faulty policies, Indian cities are at present witnessing unfettered expansion along their outer boundaries. This urban sprawl is putting ever-rising pressure on their infrastructure. Lastly, 70 per cent of India’s urban population is concentrated in Class I cities (cities with 100,000 people or more).

During 1951–2011, the number of Class I cities increased from 77 to 468. Out of these 468 Class I cities, fifty-three are metropolitan cities (cities with a population of one million or more) (Shaw, 2012). During 1951–2011, the population share of metropolitan cities increased from
18.9 per cent to 42.6 per cent, and the number of metropolitan cities jumped from five to fifty-three. As per website of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, India added eighteen metropolitan cities in the last decade alone (2001–2011). Today India has three megacities (a population of 10 million or more)—Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata.

India’s renewed orientation towards transforming urbanization coincides with two primary global development agendas—the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Urban Habitat III.

These two agendas have successfully changed the policy discourse on urbanization worldwide. The SDGs were adopted at the UN’s Sustainable Development Summit in September 2015, wherein the world leaders adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which includes a set of seventeen SDGs covering 169 targets. Of the seventeen Global Goals, Goal 11—‘Sustainable Cities and Communities’—focuses on making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Moreover, Goal 11 is not a standalone goal and is interlinked and interdependent on several other goals. The Second Agenda, the 2016 UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development is often referred to as Habitat III and is considered as an extension of SDG 11. This conference concluded with the adoption of the ‘New Urban Agenda’ which focused on sustainable urbanization for the next twenty years up to 2036.

India has been a leading participant in both these agendas. Under the context of urbanization, India recognizes their importance and has absorbed these agendas in its national and sub-national policymaking. The SDGs that pertain to urban life are SDG Goal 1: ‘End poverty in all its forms everywhere’; Goal 3, Target 3.6: ‘By 2020, halve the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents’; Goal 6: ‘Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’; and Goal 12, Target 12.5: ‘Substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse’, among others.

However, given the status of growth and development in India, urbanization policies focus on national priorities, along with balancing them with the two global agendas. For instance, Indian cities have to prioritize infrastructure development, provide good governance, facilitate growth and create jobs in the near term to further achieve their goals on resilience, safety and inclusiveness. Another illustration is the national priority on facilitating domestic migration more than international migration. Thus, it can be said that the urban vision and strategy focuses on national priorities, but works in tandem with the global urban development agenda.

To resolve above challenges, India needs a national urban policy. Such a policy would serve multiple purposes. For instance, in Australia, the national urban policy outlines issues of productivity, sustainability, liveability and governance as important objectives in framing the agenda for cities (Sanghi and Dhar, 2018). Such documents bring everyone on to the same page in terms of issues, role of stakeholders, objectives, key outcomes and new economic entities in cities (ibid.). Such a policy at the national and state levels, is pertinent and a prerequisite to resolving India’s complex urban agenda.

[The excerpt reproduced with the permission of the publishers.]



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