Unlike monkeys, it is not in the nature of humans to huddle though we take to cuddling quite easily. The instinct to explore new frontiers and the excessive demands which we impose on natural resources; both push us to put space between each other. The ancestors of today’s Indians trekked all the way from Africa to the sub-continent around 500,000 years ago, possibly to put space between themselves and their African cousins. It is not for nothing that the self- sufficient, “Marlboro Man” was an icon for three decades starting from the 1960s albeit now discredited in a tobacco-less World.
There already are too many humans at 7 billion. Of these, 1.2 billion souls are concentrated in India, making us the most densely populated, large country in the World. Worse Indians are huddled in habitations in just 9% of the land available. The rest is forests (an implausible 23% in government data), private groves, pastures and agricultural land.
Humans huddle in cities more out of necessity than choice. Group living does not come naturally to humans, unlike lions, elephants, antelopes and penguins. The Swedish alternative lifestyle experiments in the 1960s, demonstrated that whilst cuddling was definitely in, huddling was out. Commune members tended to pair off, even if temporarily. More evidence on human choice is available from the preferences of the rich, who sprawl in gardens, whilst the poor are crammed into tiny, multiple stories precariously piled on houses.
Babus, in India, are willing to serve the government, even without pay, for the privilege of living in Lutyen’s green, heritage, garden city. The nouveau rich meanwhile are busy buying up unauthorized, “farm houses” in Delhi suburbia. Part of the fascination of “going West”, particularly to the US, is the affordability of sprawling houses as compared to the tight, modular, frightfully expensive “paper” abodes of the Japanese.
Neither time not technology, augur well for huddling or cuddling. Thanks to digitization of information; the internet and social media, human relationships are now virtual and often best conducted remotely. Many a face to face encounter has spelled disaster. Business is also increasingly digital and even government is going that way. All of this reduces the need for huddling in cities. The modern “Morlboro Man” is a woman with her Iphone.
Gandhiji’s vision of “self-sufficient” villages and Julius Nyrere’s vision of “Ujama villages”, on which the Washington Consensus smart set poured scorn, now increasingly seems not only a reality but a potential option for preserving the best of humanism. Consider that with the revolution in printing technology, it is already possible to print out a plastic tumbler or bowl in one’s home. Consumer durables are most likely to follow suit. This will completely change the “scale economy” for manufactured goods. The most scalable part of the new technology would be the software, which in all probability may have been conceived in a garage! Of course we would still need some “old industry” type factories to make the chips, the computer accessories and most importantly the printer, which makes all this possible.
Old age technology and industrial habits have fueled the international trend in urbanization towards mega cities (population of 10 million and above) whose number increased from 2 (Tokyo and Rome) in 1970 to 28 in 2013 and will likely go to 37 by 2025. India today has 3 mega cities and Mumbai is the second most densely populated megacity after Dhaka. The demise of the mega huddle of a mega city is not immediately imminent because the available “industrial age” technology still makes them scale efficient. But in India recent data indicates that growth in the mega cities is slower than in second rung cities which shows that they have reached the economic limits of their efficiency.
Mega cities are bad news for the following four reasons.
First, humans are bad huddlers because with the existing technology, cities with a density in excess of 4000 persons per sq km, end up severely polluting the air, land and water. Our mega cities have a density of around 12,000 persons per sq km and are unsustainable, as are China’s.
Second, as population density increases, the pressure on land drives up the price of realty, making “land intensive” business like “international scale multi-brand retail” uneconomic. Contrary to popular criticism, the AAP knows that no international multi brander would want to locate in Delhi because land is too expensive and hence had no downside in siding with the populist naysayers.
Third, increasing population density requires a higher spend on environmental mitigation of local pollution further driving up the cost of doing business.
Fourth urban led growth is inherently iniquitous. It creates pockets of luxury amidst vast swathes of wretchedness. The IMF (the bastion of the erstwhile Washington Consensus) estimates that in the US, 90% of the incremental wealth from growth benefits just 1% of the population. Inequality is a growing concern and a key driver of political and social instability and crime and a major threat for poorly governed countries.
The term SMART city is the current buzzword to make cities efficient. This is a misnomer since cities by definition are not SMART. SMART is to digitize; connect electronically; disperse population; integrate rural and urban areas seamlessly and not to huddle.
Our cities should be self-financing and not draw on central or state funds. Public spending on infrastructure should focus on making rural areas more productive. It should improve the quality of life for rural residents since dispersed habitations make market based solutions for basic services unviable. At the best of times, making sensible public investment is tough. It becomes unconscionable when public funds are used to artificially drive up the demand for realty through public expenditure on creating cities. This growth pattern has also been a key source of corruption with elite capture of the land just prior to its development into an urban area using State finance.
The US is the best example of publicly funded investment in highways since the 1950s. However, even they found it difficult to do so efficiently. They also have bridges to nowhere. The recent publicly financed programs of demand creation since 2008 have been downright wasteful. California, for example, is persistently broke because it is wedded to “big government”. Publicly funded research and infrastructure can only be attempted by very efficient governments and India is not one of them.
We should go back to our roots in communities. Public finance should be used primarily to subsidize connectivity (ports, airports, rail, roads, airwaves and electricity)in segments where market solutions are not available and private investment unviable. Building and maintaining stuff is best left to the private sector.
The urban-rural divide is an artificial cleavage. Gandhi’s village need not be devoid of modern facilities. Migration should be a choice enabling people to vote with their feet but it is demeaning as a necessity. Spending public money on urban areas is like giving a hungry woman a fish to eat. But investing seamlessly across the country is like teaching people how to fish. Only the latter is sustainable.