governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Myopic Urbanization

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Divisive economics is worse than divisive politics. Proponents of Urbanization are the loudest proponents of economic divisiveness. The vision they subscribe to is of shinning cities connected by corridors of gold, glittering like diamonds in a waste land of the rest of Bharat. Their justification is that the rest of the World has adopted this approach. But India constitutes 17% of the World’s population and around 33% of the World’s poor people. It is for us to define “good practice” in development, not to blindly follow international examples, which do not relate to the context of India.

A second “best” defense of “urbanization wallahs” is that it is “inevitable” so best to plan for it. The “inevitability” is related, yet again, to the manner in which growth has happened in the past and not to the specific prospects for India in the future. The fact that even by 2039 only 50% of the population is expected to be in “urban areas” is glossed over, whilst making the inevitability argument. In any case we must not succumb, further than we already have, to the “everything is written” syndrome. It is for Indians to write their own destiny.

Here are three reasons why a divisive focus on urbanization is retrogressive.

First, people tend to fall into the category the State creates for them. Caste, gender, religion are traditional fault lines created by “Authority” such as it was defined since ancient times. None of these provide any progressive social value today. The modern World identity of Urban versus Rural is as corrosive.

The needs of a shopkeeper in a village or a city are much the same; a serviceable road linked to the habitations of their bulk suppliers and customers; electricity for extended business hours, storage of perishable goods and medicines; security of life and property; a collection service to collect the trash generated by customers and sanitation facilities; customers with money in their pockets and a bank in which to safely put her money and access credit; telecommunication links to remain in contact with current events and clean water. Why would we want to discriminate in the standards of supply of these public goods between urban and rural areas? By creating “urban” and “rural” labels we are perversely creating a modern fault lines around which antagonistic interest groups start to coalesce. Please stop this. We have enough fault lines as it is. It doesn’t help when power elites benefit from the touting of urbanization.

Second, sustainable development is indivisible. You cannot steal from the future to make the present pleasant. You cannot fatten the urbanite at the expense of the rural poor. In our democratic society, you cannot cordon-off urban development from rural prosperity as China can and does. Urban centric development is self-corroding due to unlimited in-migration from rural areas in much the same way as international immigrants storm the national borders of developed countries, spawning land and migration mafias and vote banks. Cities and rural areas are organically linked as a sugar factory is linked to the cane fields; a steel factory to the iron ore mines and an electric power generating station to the coal mines, the water or solar, wind or marine energy harvesting area.

 Area based “indivisible” development optimizing on the comparative advantage of each development area has been a standard development tool. Why have we abandoned it? Let us instead abandon the decrepit slogans of the past and opt for integrated development which maximizes value generation using resources which are available locally whilst benefiting from India’s vast, common, domestic market and the liberalization of international trade. Innovation in India need not be limited to cities it has to be a fundamental credo of growth.

Third, the literature tells us cities benefit from the economics of agglomeration. That is why incomes are higher in cities and businesses happy to locate there. Population density is higher so it is cheaper to provide public services. Product markets are larger so scale economies kick in for suppliers and effective competition can pass on the benefits to consumers. Finally, the human element; traditional identities (religion, caste and gender) are replaced by modern identities in the anonymity of cities; professional human networks leverage human capacity and aspirations change. In a recent survey, two thirds of Lady Shri Ram College alumni (admittedly an elite Delhi college for women pulling in the best) viewed their professional identity as the primary one, even over gender.

All these are indeed the virtues of cities, but should they also not make the cities self-financed? Do they justify the subsidies provided by the State to keep cities alive and humming at quality-of-life standards far above rural areas? Collection of user charges even in metros is rarely more than 40% of the cost of providing services. Revenue collected by cities from their own sources (by taxing residents and from their real estate and other assets) only meets slightly more than 50% of their expenditure. The rest is grants from the Government of the related State or the Government of India. Development schemes which are off-budget for Cities but are directly funded by the Central Government, like the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission further add to their kitty of goodies. A full accounting of the actual distribution of the government’s resources between urban and rural areas, including expenditure on education, health, science and technology, industry would further skew the allocation in favour of cities, where the elite reside. This resource allocation bias for cities is indefensible.

Relying on urbanization for economic growth is an end-of-the-pipe option, like a housewife resorting to RO filtration to drink clean water as against the State cleaning the rivers and other ground water sources. It is expensive and exclusionary.

Ignoring the human cost of migration from the villages to cities, in search for work, including the life cycle social costs of predominantly male migration, in large numbers, is scary.

Lastly, in the context of the recent democratic trend of targeted social disruption as an instrument of political power, cities are powder kegs waiting to be blown up. A “soft” State, like India, cannot cope with the unleashing of such violent and disruptive, social pressures.   

 

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