One of the early textbooks I read on political economy started with a scenario set in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a city with huge traffic problems in the 1970s and 1980s, with a traffic jam at a major crossing on a hot summers day that turns into a gridlock and then leads to people abandoning their cars unable to bear the severe heat, only aggravating the problems. This then leads to outbreaks of road rage, fistfights and soon it’s a welter of riots, inflicting a severe breakdown of law and order, which then spreads to others parts of the country. Brazil tackled the problem with its characteristic simple, out-of-the-box thinking. Sao Paulo still functions. I think India is now a better candidate to coming out of a traffic jam.
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 PSU, corporate offices in New Delhi. Many of these actually need not be here.
Lets take a few to illustrate this. Why is the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) required to be in New Delhi? Why must the directorate general of civil aviation (DGCA) be in the capital? It goes just as well for the ITBP, CISF, SSB, 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 the Delhi government and several municipal corporations to add to the overcrowding. Then we must ask as to why the New Delhi municipal council (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 other 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 (IAF) 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 National Capital Region (NCR), let alone New Delhi. In these days of near instant means of communication, proximity is no longer a criterion of 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 on the Internet. 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. The further these departments and organisations get away from New Delhi the more effective they will get. This will curb the temptation to pass the buck upwards or sideways to the next tier next door. Delhi is now easily the most traffic-congested city in the world. Its stop-and-crawl traffic is responsible the most for its abysmal air quality and the millions of man-hours wasted. The disastrous consequences of not doing anything about the ever-worsening traffic are now well known.
But all the solutions proposed to further modernise it will mean even bigger and faster mass transit systems, more civic amenities and efforts entailing more construction. These attempts to make the national capital better paradoxically only attract more people to it, thereby adding to its problems rather than removing them. Then there are some things that are only possible by flattening the old. How can we ever modernise the overcrowded inner areas of many of our cities without reducing the number of people in them? Our inability to protect our rivers and air is testimony to this. Dispersing offices across the nation will not only decongest Delhi, but will also become an economic driver that will modernise smaller towns and result in far more dispersed urbanisation. Imagine what a SAIL head office in Ranchi will do to decongest Lodi Road and to the economy of Jharkhand? Or having 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 and not only become a more effective fulcrum of India’s Indian Ocean Rim (IOR) domination, 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 which, for the foreseeable future, will be India’s main economic growth driver. Construction also has the potential to absorb tens of millions of the rural workforce, and also create demand for industrial goods. Construction will create huge demands for not just steel and cement, but also for construction equipment, transit systems, infrastructure essentials like power and water distribution, and sewage treatment and disposal systems among others that will then drive the industrialisation of India. And let us not for a moment forget that 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 workforce. India will need to create meaningful employment for almost 800 million people by 2050. No
t taking people away from agriculture will only result in a rural labour over-supply 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, to shift government offices to outside Beijing. Beijing’s municipal government, which employs tens of thousands, is now 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, with Jing being for Beijing, Jin for the port city and convention centre of Tianjin, and Ji, which is 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 BJP in its 2014 manifesto had spoken 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 now has the “smart” cities program whereby selected towns and cities will be made “smart”, which means nothing more than providing high speed wi-fi networks there. That is if one goes by the money provided for urban development. The government clearly needs to think big again and also think of how to make dreams realities.
Many of these government departments and organisations can become anchors for new urbanisation and dispersing them will only enhance their independence and effectiveness. Our government suffers from too much micro-management of the routine and often mundane and a severe under-management of the macro scenario. This is as much an opportunity to save our existing cities and also to build a new and better India.
The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy...