In­dia’s deadly cities

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

China and In­dia are driv­ing Asia’s pop­u­la­tion and ur­ban­i­sa­tion trends. Ac­cord­ing to a 2010 McKin­sey study, the two coun­tries are ex­pected to ac­count for 62% of the growth in the con­ti­nent’s ur­ban pop­u­la­tion be­tween 2005 and 2025, and a stag­ger­ing 40% of such growth world­wide.

Sta­tis­tics like these un­der­score the ur­gency of ur­ban plan­ning and growth man­age­ment. But it is equally im­por­tant to ac­knowl­edge the crit­i­cal dif­fer­ences be­tween the two coun­tries. Vari­a­tions in their ur­ban growth paths, as well as dif­fer­ences in their ap­proaches to en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­icy, are likely to make In­dia’s pop­u­la­tion chal­lenges far more dif­fi­cult to ad­dress.

China may be home to 20% of hu­man­ity, but for more than two decades its fer­til­ity rate has been lower than the “re­place­ment” level (that re­quired to main­tain the cur­rent pop­u­la­tion), with pop­u­la­tion growth ex­pected to turn neg­a­tive within the next two decades. As a re­sult, In­dia, where pop­u­la­tion growth is pro­jected to re­main pos­i­tive for the fore­see­able fu­ture, is poised to be­come the world’s most pop­u­lous coun­try. Most pro­jec­tions have In­dia’s pop­u­la­tion ex­ceed­ing that of China by 2022.

In­deed, over the next 35 years, In­dia is ex­pected to add more than 400 mil­lion ur­ban res­i­dents (more than the en­tire pop­u­la­tion of the United States), while China will add just 292 mil­lion. For the first time, the ma­jor­ity of In­di­ans will be liv­ing in cities – a sig­nif­i­cant trans­for­ma­tion for a coun­try whose ru­ral pop­u­la­tion cur­rently con­sti­tutes two-thirds of the to­tal.

In­dia’s two largest ur­ban cen­ters – Delhi and Mum­bai – are of­ten de­scribed as emerg­ing global megac­i­ties. Delhi is al­ready the world’s sec­ond most pop­u­lous city, and it is ex­pected to close the gap with Tokyo, the world’s largest city, al­most en­tirely by 2030.

When pop­u­la­tion growth on this scale is com­bined with rapid ur­ban­i­sa­tion, the as­so­ci­ated en­vi­ron­men­tal and so­cial im­pacts be­come a for­mi­da­ble pol­icy chal­lenge. In 2014, the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion (WHO) de­ter­mined that Delhi has the world’s worst air qual­ity (based on con­cen­tra­tion of fine par­tic­u­late mat­ter), with In­dian cities oc­cu­py­ing the top four spots and 13 of the top 18.

China has been fre­quently – and of­ten jus­ti­fi­ably – crit­i­cised for poor en­vi­ron­men­tal poli­cies. But, ac­cord­ing to McKin­sey, China has been more proac­tive than In­dia in plan­ning for rapid ur­ban­i­sa­tion, de­mon­strat­ing that it has the ca­pac­ity and the re­sources to ad­dress en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges. In new cities across the coun­try, ur­ban plans al­ready take into ac­count such con­cerns, with ri­par­ian green­ways and ur­ban na­ture re­serves com­ple­ment­ing in­fra­struc­ture projects that have en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits (for ex­am­ple, ex­ten­sive mass-transit net­works).

By con­trast, In­dia’s cities have grown hap­haz­ardly, with lit­tle con­sid­er­a­tion of the func­tion­ing of ur­ban sys­tems as a whole. The coun­try’s ur­ban ar­eas of­ten lack ad­e­quate re­gional trans­port net­works, for ex­am­ple. Large swaths of in­for­mal set­tle­ments have emerged in va­cant in­ner-city dis­tricts and sub­ur­ban pe­riph­eries, com­pro­mis­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions, public health, and per­sonal safety. Land-use pat­terns in­ter­weave in­dus­trial and residential dis­tricts, ex­pos­ing vul­ner­a­ble (and grow­ing) pop­u­la­tions to a host of neg­a­tive spillover ef­fects.

The dif­fer­ences be­tween ur­ban de­vel­op­ment in China and In­dia are clear not only in the sub­stance of pol­icy, but also in the two coun­tries’ gov­er­nance styles. China’s lead­ers are plac­ing heavy em­pha­sis on pol­lu­tion con­trol. In ad­vance of the 2022 Win­ter Olympics in Bei­jing, the author­i­ties are push­ing for a re­gion­ally in­te­grated plan to bal­ance eco­nomic growth with en­vi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment, in­clud­ing the green­ing of man­u­fac­tur­ing pro­cesses and the elim­i­na­tion of “ex­cess ca­pac­ity” in energy pro­duc­tion.

Such multi-ju­ris­dic­tional ef­forts re­quire strong co­or­di­na­tion and a sta­ble vi­sion, which China’s hi­er­ar­chal gov­er­nance sys­tem pro­vides. In In­dia, by con­trast, the cen­tral gov­ern­ment has no role in man­ag­ing air pol­lu­tion, which is a state-level re­spon­si­bil­ity. What­ever Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s ad­min­is­tra­tion de­cides to do, state gov­ern­ments un­der the con­trol of dif­fer­ent par­ties are likely to op­pose his poli­cies, or fail to de­vote ad­e­quate at­ten­tion and re­sources to them.

Ac­cord­ing to the WHO, of the 4.3 mil­lion an­nual deaths re­sult­ing from “in­door air pol­lu­tion” (burn­ing of solid fu­els), nearly one-third (1.3 mil­lion) oc­cur in In­dia. A re­cent re­port ar­gues that more strin­gent en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tion would add 3.2 years to In­di­ans’ life ex­pectancy. This tan­gi­ble wel­fare gain would also in­clude eco­nomic ben­e­fits. The re­sult­ing ad­di­tion of more than two bil­lion “life years” rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant amount of hu­man pro­duc­tiv­ity, cre­ativ­ity, and un­com­pen­sated con­tri­bu­tions to fam­i­lies and so­ci­ety. By fail­ing to ad­dress the im­pacts of rapid ur­ban­i­sa­tion ad­e­quately, In­dia is leav­ing these ben­e­fits un­claimed.

A good-faith, well-pub­li­cised of­fi­cial dec­la­ra­tion would sig­nal to In­dia’s cit­i­zens and the world that the coun­try in­tends to save its grow­ing pop­u­la­tion from the lifeshort­en­ing ef­fects of ur­ban en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion. It would also pro­vide a roadmap for im­prov­ing the qual­ity of life in In­dia’s cities, ben­e­fit­ing lo­cal res­i­dents both di­rectly and in­di­rectly (by in­duc­ing for­eign in­vest­ment).

In­dia’s com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tages in the new global econ­omy are well known. But trans­for­ma­tive so­cial progress will be pos­si­ble only if the coun­try launches a more com­pre­hen­sive ef­fort to ad­dress patholo­gies long brushed off as the un­avoid­able col­lat­eral dam­age of eco­nomic growth.

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