Challenges and changes -- urbanization in India

India is on track to become the most populous nation in the world, with a projected population of 1.6 billion by 2050. But how can urban planners and city and regional governments handle this huge growth in numbers? India experts say despite the challenges, life in India's cities is improving.

India's challenges are legion: urban poverty, urban planning and access to basic services such as water and sanitation are just three of the many difficult issues facing this country of 1.2 billion people. And yet, "I think the future is bright for India," says Dinesh Mehta, Professor Emeritus at the Center for Environmental Planning and Technology University in Ahmedabad, India, and former head of the Urban Management Programme at UNHabitat.

Mehta spoke at a conference hosted by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's Department of Architecture this week on "Urban India," which was offered as a part of the university's 9-day India 2011 event, designed to promote research and cultural ties between NTNU and its sister universities in India.

Presentations by Mehta and other conference participants examined trends in India's urbanization, and provided a broad overview of what different areas have done to address the stresses and problems posed by urban growth.

No evidence of rapid urbanization

Preliminary Indian census numbers for 2011 show that India is not urbanizing that rapidly, despite assumptions to the contrary, Mehta said.

"In fact, the census trends show that 90 million people were added to urban areas and 90 million people were added to rural areas," he observed. And while "many scholars are wondering if we are on the path of accelerated urbanization, in the big cities, the rate of growth is very low and may be declining."

Fully 60 per cent of growth in India's biggest urban areas over the last decade was due to natural population increases, while just 20 per cent was due to migration. Another 20 per cent of the growth was due to expansions in the boundaries of big cities – which itself is a mixed blessing, Mehta said.

"Indian cities are losing their compact form," he observed, which as a trend poses challenges in delivering services such as roads, water and sanitary services – as does another trend, one that Mehta calls "the Crisis of Prosperity."

Nevertheless Mehta says that because urbanization is tightly coupled with economic growth, India needs to embrace urbanization rather than try to prevent it. "And despite the huge challenges, life in cities is actually improving," he said.

A growing middle class

Poverty remains a pressing concern, with as much of 50 per cent of the Indian population living under the poverty line by some definitions, but India is becoming increasingly prosperous, Mehta said.

"Ten years ago we earned half of what we are earning today," he said. "So now we are consuming much more than ever before."  Cars, water, food, clothing – the demands of the growing middle class are putting stresses on urban infrastructure "which is unable to keep up with the rising demand."

At the same time, "there is poverty among the plenty," he said. Herein lies "the Crisis of Prosperity," which is particularly obvious in cities such as Mumbai, where the poor make up 50 per cent of the city's population but occupy just 5 per cent of the city's land area. Because they occupy such a limited area of the city, it is easy for urban planners to overlook their needs. "How do we bring the poor in as a part of the planning process?" he asked his audience of architects and urban planners.

Lo-cost or no cost solutions
When it comes to providing basic services, such as water and sanitation, India has both made progress and lost ground, Mehta said.

For example, about 95 per cent of residents in urban India had access to basic water services in 2004, which could be counted as a success under the United Nation's Millennium Development Goals. But the percentage of houses where there is a household level connection to a water system has actually declined from 54 per cent in 1990 to 47 per cent today, he said. The picture is also mixed when it comes to sanitation, with 54 per cent of the population having basic access to sanitary services such as toilets. And yet, fully 18 per cent of India's population is still forced to defecate in the open. "It is inhuman," he said. "It is not acceptable. Internationally, we are worse off than a lot of countries in Africa."

But Mehta described one approach that is helping planners come to grips with these difficult situations – a programme funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation called the Performance Assessment System (PAS) Project ( The project, which is being administered by Mehta's university, is developing appropriate methods and tools to measure, monitor and improve delivery of water and sanitation in cities and towns in India's two western states of Gujarat and Maharashtra.

Mehta says the project allows cities to see what other cities are doing, and to share information so they can find "low-cost or no-cost solutions" for their sanitary problems. In one example in Ahmedabad, the project was able to look at 550 different slums comprising 325,000 households to determine "who has water and who doesn't." Knowing where the needs are is the first step in correcting the problem, and "if you provide water and sanitation to slum dwellers, they will improve their housing on their own," he said.  

Expanding Delhi
While Mehta looked at overall trends, P.V. Mahashabdey provided on-the-ground examples of the issues facing planners in India's second largest city of Delhi – home to 16 million people and the eighth largest city on the planet. Mahashabdey is Additional Commissioner (Planning) for the Delhi Development Authority.

Mahashabdey walked the audience through four decades of planning, graphically illustrating the dramatic growth that the city has needed to accommodate. With the first plan in 1962, city planners assumed that they would need to provide for the housing and infrastructure needs of about 5.3 million people by 1981, which would give Delhi a density of 100 people per hectare (pph).

By 1990, the master plan for the city assumed the population would grow to 12.8 million by 2001, with a density of 180-200 pph. "The vision was for low rise, high density urban development, with decentralization of the city centre and multi-modal mass transit," he said. The latest iteration of the plan, developed in 2007 for the year 2021, foresaw a projected population of 23 million people, with the need to acquire between 20 000 and 22 000 hectares to accommodate a density of 225-250 pph, he said.

But planners couldn't foresee everything. For example, there was "phenomena growth" in the number of personal vehicles, which has led to huge parking problems in the city and traffic problems, with the number of automobiles doubling from 3.05 million in 1998 to 6.3 million 2008/2009. Delhi now has roughly 85 cars per 1000 people, compared to the nationwide average of 8 cars per 1000, he said.

The projected population numbers will also place huge demands on the need to expand everything from water supplies to solid waste disposal. In most cases, Delhi will need to double, or triple its capacity in these key municipal services by 2021 to serve its growing numbers, Mahashabdey said.

"Everyone wants to be the next Bangalore"
If Delhi is a city where planning has been in force, Bangalore, known widely as the "Silicon Valley of India" is a place where a successful IT economy developed largely because "the government used a hands-off approach that has had both positive and negative effects," said Rolee Aranya, associate professor in NTNU's Department of Urban Design and Planning and conference chair.

Bangalore's IT success began when Texas Instruments built a microchip research facility in the city in 1984, which capitalized on the pool of skilled labour from the city's university. Government investments followed, with the construction of a communications infrastructure and satellite station in Bangalore in 1991, just in time to respond to the burgeoning Y2K industry from 1995-1998, where international companies needed scores of skilled programmers to correct a fundamental flaw in the way that computer programs recorded dates.  

Since then, government tax holidays from corporate taxes have brought more global corporations to Bangalore, but there has been a fundamental shift in the industry towards more IT service related jobs. "This brings employment, but it could also be seen as a downgrading of the industry," Aranya observed.

Nevertheless, Aranya, like Mehta, sounded an optimistic note for her native country. "There is no lack of challenges," she said. "But there is no lack of innovation, either."