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Invest in small towns to save Mega Cities

Dr Bharat Jhunjhunwala
Delhi Police has reported a steep increase in crime. Number of incidents of rape were 1559 in 2013 against 680 the year before. This increase does not appear to be due to the reporting of rapes in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya case because there is an all round increase in crime. Number of snatching incidents has increased from 1371 to 3319 and number of house thefts from 1617 to 2872.  It is predicted that Delhi will become the 2nd largest urban conglomeration in th world by 2025 and Mumbai the fourth largest. The situation of other mega cities is not different.
An across-the-board migration from villages to mega cities is taking place throughout the country today. Reason is that there are structural limits to earnings that can be made from agriculture. It is not possible to invest beyond two tube wells and one tractor in a field of 10 hectares. Income from agriculture is limited because the amount of capital that can be invested is small. One hundred software engineers working in an urban building can produce software worth many crores of rupees in a year while a farmer with a large land would be hard pressed to produce even ten lacs worth of crops. We should here not get swayed by exceptions like floriculture which have limited scope anyways. This is a normal process of economic development. Less than one percent of the workers are engaged in agriculture in America yet that country exports large amounts of food grains and apples. We are inexorably moving in the same direction. There is no going back here.
Urbanization is further encouraged by the availability of better facilities in the cities. It is cheaper to provide water, electricity and roads here. I did a study of the Water Policy of Rajasthan some time ago and found that the cost of reaching drinking water to rural communities was about 10 times that of the city. Long water lines had to be placed. There was muck breakage and leakage. And it was nearly impossible to recover user charges. The same holds for electricity. It is cheaper for the Electricity Boards to supply 10 MW of power to one high rise building. Hundreds of kilometers of wires would have to be laid to supply the same amount of electricity to the villages. Bus services are sporadic in the villages because there is simply not enough traffic. Good schools also cannot be established because the required large number of students are not available and living conditions are not conducive to attract good teachers. The lack of these essential services in the villages is pushing the people towards the cities.
The Government has tried to promote rural industrialization through various programmes since Independence to counteract this tendency, to no avail. The problem is purely economic. Industries are located where the total transport cost of raw material and finished goods is minimum. Sugar factories are located in rural areas because it is easier to transport 100 kg of cane to the rural factory and transport 10 kg of sugar to the city. Establishment of a sugar factory in the city would require transportation of 100 kg of cane over long distances. On the other hand flour mills are mostly located in the cities. There is virtually no difference in the cost of transporting 100 kg of wheat or 90 kg of flour made from it. Generally it is more convenient to establish factories in cities because of more regular power supply, access to the market and availability of skilled labour. Factories are established in rural areas only when transport cost of raw materials are exceptionally high such as in the case of sugar mills. This explains why industries such as weaving have almost wholly moved to the cities.
Another factor encouraging migration to cities is the direction of public investment. The elite lives in the cities. It captures the resources of the state with the result the capital city rises like a pillar amidst a barren desert all around. The small towns are deprived of investment in public facilities. This has been the bone of contention between Seemandhra and Telengana. The taxes collected from Seemandhra were largely invested in Hyderabad for many decades. Now the people of Seemandhra feel cheated. They will be deprived of using the facilities established with taxes paid by them. Such imbalance would not have been created had the monies been spread more evenly between Hyderabad, Vijaywada, Guntur and other cities. Correspondingly the migration of people from Seemandhra would have spread across various cities of the State instead of a single pointed movement towards Hyderabad.
The large scale migration towards mega cities is bringing forth a new set of problems though. Health problems are increasing. Large numbers of people have to live in slums in not so clean conditions. This leads to breeding of mosquitoes and the spread of diseases like Dengue and Malaria. Crime is increasing. Unemployed youth find this to be a lucrative business. A study by Joshua K. Leon of Iona College, New York tells us that the space for public parks in Mumbai is only one square meter per person against 26 square meters for New York and 31 square meters for London. All our mega cities are moving in the direction set by Mumbai. Rampant construction on the river bed of Yamuna and the Aravalli Ridge is depleting the open spaces in Delhi, for example. The mega cities are becoming living furnaces.
We have to find a solution between two problems. The inherent limitations of agriculture mean that migration from villages to the cities will go on and cannot be stemmed. On the other hand problems of health, crime, increased temperatures and lack of open spaces are killing the mega cities. Perhaps the solution lies in making more investments in smaller cities. A study by McKinsey Global Institute has suggested that Tier 3 and 4 cities be given an additional grant of Rs 1000 per person per year. This would enable them to provide better services. That would divert part of the flow of people from mega cities to small towns.  There is a natural tendency for the elite living in the mega cities to capture the resources of the state. But this is self-defeating. They are inviting large scale migration to the mega cities by depriving small towns of their legitimate share in the state’s resources. Less investment in the mega cities and more in smaller cities alone will help contain this migration. A flood cannot be controlled by taming the river directly. The small rivulets entering the river have to be diverted. Similarly the elite living in mega cities must invest more in small cities in their own self interest.


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