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Cities an urban mess in India, says World Bank report

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With three times higher air pollution than in Beijing, Delhi is world’s most polluted city

Even as India gears up to go the smart cities way, a World Bank report depicts a very grim picture of the urban space in India as well as other South Asian countries.

“Well-managed urbanisation can lead to sustainable growth, but cities are a messy affair in India and other South Asian countries,” says the report titled ‘Leveraging Urbanisation in South Asia’.

Issued on Thursday, the World Bank document points out that recorded air pollution in Delhi is almost three times higher than in Beijing, making it the world’s most polluted city, and that the situation is not much different in other South Asian cities, which are notable for polluted air.

Referring to the under-five years mortality rate, it says for the very poorest in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan, it is higher in urban than in rural settings.

South Asia — which also has Afghanistan, Bhutan, the Maldives and Sri Lanka — produced only eight per cent of global gross domestic product in 2011, while having 14 per cent of the world’s urban population, the report said. “On the other hand, East Asia — China, Hong Kong, Japan, Mongolia, North & South Korea and Taiwan — produced 29 per cent of global GDP, with 32 per cent of the urban population.”

Messy urbanisation in India is reflected in the nearly 65.5 million, who, in the country’s 2011 Census, lived in urban slums, as well as the 13.7 per cent of the urban population that lived below the national poverty line. Mismanaged cities are also reflected in the increasing sprawl that afflicts many Indian cities, the report said.

“Hidden urbanisation is seen in the large share of India’s population that lives in settlements that possess urban characteristics, but do not satisfy the criteria required to be officially classified as urban,” it observed. The report called for initiatives at the policy and institutional level to tap the economic potential urbanisation offers.

Among various other suggestions, it recommended land pooling and land readjustment to tackle the problems. This refers to land assembly through a process by which land parcels with different owners are combined into a larger, contiguous land area for more efficient subdivision and development. In this connection, it praised Gujarat for using the policy effectively.

“Although they have made progress, India and other South Asian countries can make better utilisation of opportunities that urbanisation provides them to transform their economies to join the ranks of richer nations,” the report said.

The World Bank said there has been difficulty in dealing with pressures that increased urban populations put on basic services, infrastructure, land, housing and environment, fostering “messy and hidden” urbanisation. This has constrained the region’s full realisation of the prosperity and livability benefits of urbanisation.

“If managed well, urbanisation can lead to sustainable growth by increasing productivity, allowing innovation and new ideas to emerge,” said World Bank Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer Sri Mulyani Indrawati, on a three-day visit to India. She said absolute poverty has come down in the region but South Asia has not realised the potential of urbanisation and much needs to be done.

When asked how much well-managed urbanisation could add to GDP growth in India, World Bank Country Director Onno Ruhl said it is difficult to specify.

The report said India added seven multi-city agglomerations between 1999 and 2010, cities are not able to take full advantage of these agglomerations. The largest metropolitan centres — Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, and Ahmedabad — saw a 16 per cent loss in manufacturing jobs between 1998 and 2005 within 10 km of their city centres. On the other hand, job growth in their immediate peripheries increased by almost 12 per cent.

Even population growth has been fastest on the peripheries (beyond official administrative boundaries) of these major cities. For example, population growth for the district of Delhi was 1.9 per cent a year between 2001 and 2011, while the population growth in Gautam Buddh Nagar (or Noida, its eastern periphery) was 4.1 per cent a year.

For many major Indian agglomerations, rapid growth in peripheral areas has been accompanied by evidence of stagnation at their core, where land management policies are limiting the extent and intensity at which land can be used by industry, commerce and housing, the report said.

The economic push away from city cores is also imposing a burden on businesses and people by elevating market connection costs for firms and commuting costs for workers, with negative consequences for productivity, welfare, mobility, and livability in the major cities.

Ruhl lauded the efforts of the present government to have ‘smart’ cities and the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT). “The challenge will be to make this transition inclusive, providing opportunities and jobs to youth, especially women, and supported by efficient service infrastructure” he added.

Report’s Highlights

  • For the very poorest in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the under-five years mortality rate is higher in urban than in rural settings. Besides, South Asia’s cities are notable for polluted air
  • South Asia produced only 8% of global gross domestic product in 2011 while having 14% of the world’s urban population
  • Messy urbanisation in India is reflected in the nearly 65.5 million who, in the country’s 2011 Census, lived in urban slums, as well as the 13.7% of the urban population that lived below the national poverty line
  • The report suggests measures, such as land pooling and land readjustment, among others, to tackle the problems
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