Nagpur, India's next city

Image: a young woman in Nagpur, India (cc-licensed, shot by Flickr user dhyanji).

Alex Goldman says,

My dad worked for the U.S. Embassy in India during the Johnson administration. He says that if you draw a straight line from India's four cities, they intersect there.

Now India wants to turn the city into a metropolis to take the load off of the other cities (Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, and Kolkotta (sp?), and Madras that's five so I'm not sure what specific cities it's between).

He remembers a city that was a rural village with a massive airport. Every day a mail plane would leave from each of the four major cities and fly to Nagpur and exchange mail bags and fly back.

One day dad was late in Madras and caught a ride on one of the mail planes back to Delhi, where the embassy was. Landed in Nagpur c. 4 AM and the locals were all lined up at the fence, watching the airplanes. Dad asked one of the people on the plane why people were at the fence and he was told there was nothing else to do in Nagpur.

Now the government is building an air conditioned mall and other urban infrastructure but the road and rail are Indian quality, so the only reliable transport is air.

Will the city develop? Can a government build a city? Brasilia, D.C., and Canberra are all artificial but they are seats of government. This is new.

Statistics from an Economist article on urbanization suggest that in the future, the average city dweller will live in a slum in Asia or Africa.

Perhaps this is the start of a trend — artificial cities built to draw the misery from slums.

The density (shacks packed so tightly that many are accessible only on foot); the dust (in the dry seasons) and the mud (when it rains); the squalor (you often have to pick your way through streams of black ooze); the hazards (low eaves of jagged corrugated iron); and the litter, especially the plastic (women, lacking sanitation and fearing robbery or rape if they risk the unlit pathways to the latrines, resort at night to the "flying toilet", a polythene bag to be cast from their doorway, much as chamber pots were emptied into the street below in pre-plumbing Edinburgh). Most striking of all, to those inured to the sight of such places through photography, is the smell. With piles of human faeces littering the ground and sewage running freely, the stench is ever-present.

Link to related NYT story today.

Reader comment: Rudrava Roy says,

To clarify's Alex Goldman's comment/question:
(Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, and Kolkotta (sp?), and Madras that's five so I'm not sure what specific cities it's between)

Historically, India has had 4 'metros' – Delhi, Bombay, Madras and Calcutta (Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata to use the new names). Bangalore is considered a metro now but it has achieved that status only within the last 7 years. India also has the following metros that can be considered 2nd tier – Chandigarh (in Punjab – close to Delhi), Pune (close to Mumbai), Ahmedabad (also close to Mumbai) and Hyderabad (not quite close to any of the other major metros). Nagpur is quite a 2nd tier metro – I'd consider it 3rd tier rather than 2nd esp because it is very low key and too far away from most major hubs to be of interest. On the other hand, Nagpur, along with another very small town (Itawa) in the neighboring state of Madhya Pradesh, sit spank in the middle of the national rail network and hence are of immense strategic importance. Mind you, trains have been, and still are, the de facto means of long distance travel in India for the masses. So, the relevance to the rail network is of significance.

If government effort is concerted and well meaning, it certainly can catapult a lesser known city into prominence as evidenced by Brazil's Curitiba. I haven't witnessed Brazilian politics first hand, but from friend's accounts, socio-politics in Brazil is very similar to that in India. So, if Curitiba is possible in Brazil, Nagpur may well become the Indian analogue. Maharashtra politics is much cleaner than that in some other parts of India and Marathi people are one of the most disciplined among (maybe even the most) among north Indians. So, if the local bureaucracy can see beyond short expediency through corruption and realize the long term gains, such efforts actually can bear fruit.

But looking at a broader picture, India's future still looks gloomy. Population is still growing at an insane rate but resource utilization hasn't changed one bit – if anything, it has become more chaotic. This place some people who control resources positions of enormous power leading to corruption. Democracy is supposed to automatically balance that power, but democracy doesn't work with an illiterate electorate (it hardly works in one of the most advanced nations of the world!). There are no signs that people will get motivated to utilize resources more efficiently even in the near future. Agricultural problems due to global warming are only aggravating the issue. As far as I can tell, the current road is leading India to widespread internal conflict of the likes of Sudan and Zimbabwe.

Of course, these are my views and most people in India who can afford to read the NYT article or Boing Boing will probably differ. I might even be considered a pessimist – although I consider myself a pragmatist or at worst a sceptic.

I believe you've been through South America and parts of Africa. I'd suggest going to India for a contrast. I myself haven't been to either of South America or Africa (although I hope to do so soon!), so I am in no position to contrast.

Amit Varma says,

This piece is an edit in an Indian newspaper, Mint, on why India needs to urbanize (Link). Excerpted paras:

"India is urbanizing at a rapid pace, and will be a predominantly urban society in the next few decades. People move into cities not just in search of jobs, but also to escape the oppression of the traditional village. B.R. Ambedkar encouraged his followers to migrate to the cities to escape caste discrimination. Like it or not, the steady flow of villagers will continue for many decades to come, for economic and social reasons.


Where do the millions trying to get out of their villages go? One option is the second-rung cities, where the quality of life can be better, but job opportunities are still inadequate. Jaipur and Nagpur, for instance, are transforming themselves–building better infrastructure and attracting older manufacturing industries as well as new-generation businesses such as retailing and outsourcing. These non-metropolitan cities could take some pressure off the main cities.

But given the sheer force of urbanization, even that may not suffice. India needs to build new cities for the 21st century. These can act like growth hubs for various regions. Though we are generally suspicious of government intervention, the task of building new cities is clearly a job for the state–either on its own or in tandem with private developers. The economic reasoning is that building new cities entails economies of scale and positive externalities. They are a public good."