The smart way to smart cities

China has decided to tackle congestion of Beijing, by shifting government offices to outside

Most capital cities have a concentration of government offices of various tiers and responsibilities crowded in as close as possible to the real and imagined corridors of power. In India, apart from the ministries, departments and agencies, we also have a concentration of public sector undertakings’ (PSU) corporate offices in New Delhi. Many of these actually need not be here.

Let’s take a few to illustrate this point. Why is the Indian Meteorological Department required to be in New Delhi? Why must the director-general of civil aviation be in the capital? This goes just as well for the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, Central Industrial Security Force, Services Selection Board, BSF, ICG, ICAR, ICMR, ICHR, SAIL, BHEL, COPES and so many others who make for a crowded alphabet soup in New Delhi.

Delhi also has a government, several municipal corporations to add to the overcrowding. That’s why we must ask as to why the NDMC has to be on Sansad Marg, and the Delhi High Court sitting almost next door to the Supreme Court? Apparently there is a magnetism that draws almost every national organisation to be as close as possible to that small part of India where the national leadership lives and works.

Shifting many of these out of New Delhi will not in anyway impair their abilities. The DGCA can operate just as well from Bhiwadi, SAIL from Ranchi, IMD from Pune, BHEL from Bhopal, ITBP from Dehradun or Chandigarh, SSB from Lucknow and so on. And why should the Western Air Command of the Indian Air Force be situated in the capital when it can do its job equally well from, say, Saharanpur? No other military command is located even in the NCR, let alone New Delhi. In these days of near instant communication, proximity is no longer a criterion to effectiveness. There are very few places in India from where one cannot communicate with a person in another part instantly either by cellular phone, telephone, email, fax or Skype. So why should everybody be cheek by jowl?

In fact, shifting their head offices out of New Delhi will only unfetter them from their administrative ministries and all those little joint secretaries who lord over them. Delhi is now easily the most traffic-congested city in the world. Its stop-and-crawl traffic is responsible most for its abysmal air quality and the millions of man hours wasted in traffic jams. The disastrous consequences of not doing anything about the ever-worsening traffic are now well known. But all the solutions are proposed are to further modernise with even bigger and faster mass transit systems, more civic amenities and more construction. These attempts to make the national capital better will only attract more people to it, thereby adding to its problems rather than removing them.

Dispersing offices across the nation will not only decongest Delhi, but will also become an economic driver that will modernise smaller towns. Imagine what a SAIL head office in Ranchi will do to decongest Lodi Road and to the economy of Jharkhand? Or the Western Air Command in Saharanpur will do to relieve traffic around Dhaula Kuan and to modernising Saharanpur and the economy of western Uttar Pradesh? In fact, one can make the same argument for all our major cities. The Western Naval Command can be shifted to a new location on the west coast where it not only becomes a more effective fulcrum of India’s domination of the Indian Ocean Region, but also the fulcrum of economic growth in a virgin area, say Ratnagiri.

In fact, one can make an argument for moving the state capitals out of hopelessly overcrowded cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Patna and Lucknow. This will give a much-needed impetus to the construction sector. Construction has the potential to absorb tens of millions of the rural workforce and create demand for industrial goods that can drive the industrialisation of India.

India needs to create one million new jobs every month to absorb the world’s fastest growing labour market and soon to be the world’s largest work force. India will need to create meaningful employment for almost 800 million people by 2050. Not taking people away from agriculture will only result in a rural labour oversupply, but also increased fragmentation of farm holdings. Already the average farm size is just 0.63 hectares. We see overcrowding of some economic sectors as well. Retail employs over 60 million now, and the modernisation of the retail sector is held back because it involves so many low productivity jobs.

China has decided to tackle the over-congestion of Beijing, now second to New Delhi in terms of air and water pollution, by shifting government offices to outside Beijing. Beijing’s municipal government, which employs tens of thousands, is being relocated to a satellite town, Tongzhou. The Chinese plan is to create a gigantic urban cluster of 130 million people called Jing-Jin-Ji — Jing being for Beijing, Jin for the port city and convention centre of Tianjin, and Ji, the traditional name of Hebel province, where much of this growth will take place.

Some other countries have tried to decongest their capital cities by leaving behind the economic capital and taking out the political capital. Malaysia’s political capital is located at Putrajaya, a brand new city astraddle the highway to the international airport.

The Bharatiya Janata Party in its manifesto spoke of creating a hundred new cities to propel India’s economic and social transformation. Since coming to power it has been scaling down that vision and the government has now unveiled the “smart cities” programme whereby selected towns and cities will be made “smart”, which means nothing more than providing high-speed Wi-Fi networks there. The government clearly needs to think big. Our government suffers from too much micro-management of the routine and often mundane and severe under management of the macro scenario. The smart cities project can be as much an opportunity to save our existing cities as also to build new and better ones. If we think big.

The writer held senior positions in government and industry, and is a policy analyst studying economic and security issues. He also specialises in the
Chinese economy.

( Source : deccan chronicle )
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