Indian elections: Enough of uncontrolled rampant growth - it is time for reform

Civil unrest amongst the urban poor looms as a crisis scenario that could disrupt the positive momentum of the global economy

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Half of humanity – 3.5 billion people – live in cities today.

Our metropolises are the engines of growth of a global economy emerging from the somber days of the financial crisis. In Bangalore, my home, investment is pouring into a city at the forefront of the Indian economic phenomenon – home to companies like Infosys and Wipro and named one of Forbes’s “Fastest Growing Cities of the Next Decade”. But as the people of Bangalore go to the polls in the state elections this week, they’re likely to have concerns other than the merely economic, at the front of their minds. The financial success stories mask a darker reality – quality of life for many city-dwellers has deteriorated over recent years. It is worth, I think, taking pause to ask what the dramatic growth of the past decade has brought to the citizens of our increasingly globalised world, and what is required of tomorrow’s leaders.

The movement of the rural poor to large cities is one of the exemplary narratives of the modern era. Governments focused on crude measures of economic performance encourage this urbanization. In China, for instance, the relaxation of migration controls in the 1980s and the “Reform and Open” economic policy led to the spectacular growth of the country’s eastern cities. The urban population in China rose from 25% in 1990 to over 50% today. It is predicted to hit 70% by 2035. Whilst the majority of Indians still live in rural areas, this too is changing rapidly. It took 40 years for India’s urban population to grow by 250m between 1970 and 2010. The next quarter-billion will take half that time. 70% of India’s GDP will come from its cities by 2030.

Our cities, though, are simply unable to cope with the influx of migrants. Whilst there may be jobs available in the fast-growing metropolises of India, China, Brazil and other “developing” nations, it is the basic amenities that are lacking, meaning that many of the urban poor live in slums, without adequate health care, water supplies or electricity. Municipalities, often through corruption or poor management, are unable or unwilling to impose rigorous planning regulations, and infrastructure spending is either inadequate or poorly-targeted. Workers come home from their jobs to homes that are dark, dank and depressing. They feel unsafe on poorly-lit streets, they have little access to parks or recreational facilities. Mornings and evenings are lost to long commutes on polluted highways.

The novelty of the rapid economic improvements seen by many city-dwellers in India and China over the past ten years has insulated governments from the repercussions of their poor urban planning. As I take my morning walk through the streets of Bangalore, though, I sense growing resentment from citizens at the inadequacies of their everyday world. There is the perception that they are not seeing sufficient benefits drip down through the system to improve their quality of life. This is why I have been so keen to encourage the people I meet – in person and on-line – to vote in these upcoming elections and to vote wisely – democracy exists precisely to serve as a remedy for the kinds of injustices I hear from the clerks, computer programmers, textile workers and other hardworking Bangaloreans I encounter on my morning strolls and on the Internet. Bangalore is a modern city and the citizens are expressing their displeasure in modern ways – on Facebook, in chat forums, on Twitter.

Governments would do well to heed their citizens’ complaints (and, indeed, to engage with them in these hi-tech incarnations of the Town Hall meeting). Civil unrest amongst the urban poor looms as a crisis scenario that could disrupt the positive momentum of the global economy. It is a threat that might seem far-off whilst growth continues at relatively high rates, but unless workers see the benefit of their labours in the form of improved living conditions, protests could well ensue. Already in China there have been major strikes at factories across the country, at Motorola, Honda, Foxconn – something that would have been unheard of several years ago. There is a growing trend amongst the urban middle classes in China for de-urbanisation – a brain-drain whereby educated city dwellers give up on the rat race and return to the countryside in pursuit of cleaner air, open spaces and better accommodation. We risk our cities becoming literally uninhabitable.

Of the top ten most densely populated cities in the world, seven are in India. The urban sprawls of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore have continued unchecked, unplanned and under-invested for too long now. Urban pollution contributed to 620,000 needless deaths in India last year, the majority amongst the very poor. The number of people living in our slums has doubled over the past decade and is now greater than the population of Britain. McKinsey, the consultancy firm, said in a recent report that India needed to invest at least $1.2 trillion in its urban infrastructure over the coming decade, or $134 per capita. It currently invests only $17 per capita compared with China’s $116 or $292 in the U.S. India spends less on healthcare and education per capita than any of China, Brazil, South Africa or Mexico.

If India is to maintain its competitiveness over the coming years, a focus on dramatically improving the nation’s urban areas is paramount. McKinsey have calculated that the country requires between 700-900 million square metres of residential and commercial space to be constructed each year; 350-400 kilometres of metros and subways (twenty times what has been achieved in the past decade); 19-25,000 km of new roads each year (equivalent to all the roads built over the past ten years). It is a daunting task.

But we, the citizens, will not be daunted. Because despite the grumbling I hear on my morning walks in Bangalore, I hear something else – hope, spirit, a desire for change. We will not lose the enormous gains of the past few decades to slovenly government or corruption. We will work towards a future where the quality of life for our citizens is amongst the best in the world. We will have green spaces, sustainable public transport, clean air, well-built houses, safe streets. This is why I have set up the Nammu Bengalaru (“Our Bangalore”) Awards – to recognise those who are contributing to the improvement of our home, to a vision of a city which is not just feted for its economic successes but also for the quality of life of its inhabitants. These hopes and desire for change now need to be taken on by those who lead. My hope is that Bangalore will be a model for others in the world’s fast-developing countries, a city which places its citizens first.

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