India’s One Percenter Urbanism

Arun Krishnan

Oct 15, 2022, 06:30 AM | Updated Nov 01, 2022, 01:25 PM IST

The focus should be on sustainable urban development for all and not just for the wealthy and elite 1 per cent.
The focus should be on sustainable urban development for all and not just for the wealthy and elite 1 per cent.
  • This One Percenter Urbanism is why despite economic growth, we don't see the world coming to live and work in India.
  • The next decades should be focussed on sustainable urban development for all and not just for the one percenters.
  • The Sarasvati-Sindhu civilisation was spread over 1 million square kilometres and incorporated autonomously run city states which had immaculate urban planning.

    Despite the evidence of social complexity and sophisticated trade and urbanism, there has been no evidence unearthed yet of a ruling class distinct from the plebians

    They offer one of the finest examples from the ancient world of how cities are complex adaptive systems and how if one gets the basic rules right it can have an impact at scale. 

    Complex adaptive systems are composed of millions of individuals making choices based on simple rules. The underlying rules and their enforcement aggregates to the system as a whole. 

    If the cities of the Sarasvati-Sindhu civilisation are a good example of complex adaptive systems done right, modern urban India is a good example of how complex adaptive systems can break-down when either the underlying rules are absurd or when they’re not enforced. 

    Over the last three decades, India’s economic growth and poverty alleviation have been at a scale never before seen in our history. Yet, our urban spaces do not reflect this economic growth. 

    A common sentiment echoed across the well-travelled classes of India is that India looks poorer than it is. This sentiment is true even without floods and other natural calamities wreaking further havoc on our cityscapes.

    One of the primary reasons for this is that India suffers from One Percenter Urbanism. The one percenter population not only includes the top one percentile of Indians by wealth but also our bureaucratic, legal and political elites. 

    The tiny area in our cities where the one percenters live has well laid out and mostly pothole-free roads, well-maintained pavements for walking, stormwater drains, parks, traffic lights that work and good aesthetics. 

    In addition, there are no overflowing mounds of garbage, encroachments are kept at bay, loudspeakers don't blare at random hours and there is good connectivity with multiple modes of transport despite the denizens of such spaces requiring only their luxury cars for transport. 

    For the rest of us Indians, living in urban India is not value for money given the uneven and unpredictable quality of public services and aesthetics of our neighbourhoods. 

    An under-examined reason for brain drain is the low quality of life in urban India. Given similar (or more) salaries in India and say Malaysia, an average middle-class person will more often than not choose the latter.

    This is not because of a lust for “experiencing other cultures”. This simply boils down to the quality of urban life in India.

    Our One Percenter Urbanism is also manifested in our exaltation of some public spaces. Rather than using those spaces in a multiplicity of ways, these spaces are relegated to single use without any additional value to the public. 

    We do not realise that commerce can be engendered by public spaces by viewing them as a sphere of consumption. Subways and metro stations can double as shopping centres and public performance spaces. 

    The land side of airport terminal buildings can be opened to everyone regardless of whether they’re travelling or not which would help improve the commercials of the retail spaces in the land side while at the same time opening this public space for more than the one percenters.

    Another manifestation of One Percenter Urbanism is the walled off nature of our cities. Driving through New Delhi doesn’t give one a feel of the grand vistas of Paris or Madrid. 

    Most spaces are walled off and one only gets to glimpse vast vistas sporadically. While walling off by private property owners is understandable, walling off public buildings and public spaces are inexplicable and unaesthetic. 

    Aesthetics of walling off cities must be revisited to ensure grander line of sight views. Additionally, vast tracts of land unproductively locked away with PSUs and government should be unlocked for space-efficient developments and public spaces.

    Our urbanism is optimised for cheap transport (among other things). Which means "villages" and "towns" separated by green areas forming a larger urban conurbation, à la the Netherlands, doesn’t exist.

    Villages and towns which have been swallowed by cities have been incorporated without any significant green spaces in between. The only exceptions to this are the one percenter cities like New Delhi.

    The lack of green belts in our cities not only deprives the common public of rest and respite but also spaces for wildlife, groundwater recharge, stormwater drainage etc.

    The view from the top of Jaipur city in Rajasthan
    The view from the top of Jaipur city in Rajasthan

    This One Percenter Urbanism is a symptom of three separate but interconnected issues.

    Firstly, our Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) suffer from resource constraints. ULBs receive precious little income on their own and are heavily dependent on the state and central governments for their sustenance.

    • Whatever little that the ULBs get, the one percenters have the first claim on municipal resources and a disproportionate amount of time and money of the ULBs are spent on areas the one per cent lives in. 

    • This makes the one percenter part of the city (such as New Delhi and parts of South Mumbai) feel like the well-off areas of most parts of the world while the rest of our cities seem little better than bombed-out parts of Baghdad.

    Secondly, our muddled planning and misplaced sense of charity means that we are unable to frame simple rules and more importantly, to enforce those rules at scale. 

    • For example, since the 1980s, a series of legal rulings has legalised encroachment of public spaces by homeless people. 

    • No other nation would use the euphemism “pavement dweller” for the homeless nor would they legally allow the homeless to dwell on pavements instead of building government shelters to take care of them.

    • In India, the government had washed its hands off of providing shelter and food for the homeless and the courts have normalised this by allowing encroachment of public spaces by the homeless. 

    • As a result, the homeless population in cities like Mumbai exploded and encroachment of public spaces multiplied. 

    • However, India’s One Percenter Urbanism means that the spaces inhabited by the bureaucrats, politicians, judges and the richest one per cent were not allowed to be encroached.

    Finally, the One Percenter Urbanism and its focus on using scarce municipal resources for the one percenters means that our cities are woefully unprepared for natural disasters. 

    • The rainy season wreaking havoc by flooding Indian cities annually is a good example of the lack of our disaster preparedness. These annual floods not only cause death by drowning but also due to electrocutions, falling into open sewers etc.

    • Sometimes, this One Percenter Urbanism doesn't work to shield the one per cent. 

    • The annual smog of Delhi which befalls the city like an annual ritual and which causes our political, bureaucratic and judicial machinery to tie itself in knots in order to try and "solve" the issue, is an example. 

    The solution to India’s One Percenter Urbanism is to truly democratise urban governance. Nothing works better for governance in India than providing citizens with the power to choose their representatives. 

    Over the years, several steps have been taken towards this but none of them have led to lasting change in most ULBs. 

    Democratisation would mean being responsive to the needs of all citizens which includes proper enforcement of existing rules to enhance the well-being of all citizens and not just the one percenters. 

    Resource mobilisation for cities can be improved by reinvesting part of the surplus created by cities back into the cities. 

    This would require governments to move away from their focus on rural India which has low productivity towards urban India which is economically more productive and innovative. 

    ULBs should also be looking at new sources of income to augment budgetary handouts from state and central governments. An example of this is levying a small parking charge for on-street parking in our cities.

    India’s database of vehicles, VAHAN, can be used to create an app where road users can pay online for parking and where traffic police can check if any vehicle parked on the road has paid the parking charge and fine them if they haven’t. 

    This has the added advantage of drastically reducing congestion caused by haphazard parking on our roads.

    This One Percenter Urbanism is why despite economic growth, we don't see the world coming to live and work in India. It is why our cities look and feel poor despite our overall GDP being among the highest in the world. 

    It is why the middle classes prefer to emigrate despite having well-paying jobs. The next decades should be focussed on sustainable urban development for all and not just for the one percenters.

    Also Read: Big Change: Amrit Kaal To Foster The Climate Of Social Entrepreneurship In India

    Arun Krishnan is Research Consultant at the Rashtram School of Public Leadership.

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