Reports emanating from China indicate that the Chinese Government has moved to apply ‘urban bariatrics’ to its largest cities – Beijing and Shanghai. It seems to have accepted the concept that untrammeled demographic growth of its largest cities is undesirable beyond a point. This, in their opinion, is a disease, termed by the Chinese as ‘Chengshi Bing’, literally translated as ‘big city disease’. This unsustainable ‘city obesity’, China believes, needs to be treated by the application of ‘urban bariatric surgery’.
It appears to have been driven to this conclusion following a tragic fire in central Beijing in which many lives were lost. Directives accordingly seem to have gone to the two city administrations asking “Beijing to cap its population at 23 million by 2020 while Shanghai will have to cap its population at 25 million by 2035”. Both cities, as a consequence of these directives, have embarked on a massive demolition drive, pulling down residential units as well as commercial structures. This has essentially meant evicting certain populations from the city and ‘redistributing’ them over other locations beyond the city limits of Beijing and Shanghai. While we may debate the human aspect of such an action, the Chinese appear to be convinced that some bold measures towards certain populations are essential to ensure livability and indeed, survival of cities.
Exploding urban population of India poses significant political, social, economic and moral dilemmas for city administrations. India’s urban population is only second to China’s and is still growing. We are, therefore, likely to face somewhat similar urban challenges that would require resolution. However, India’s democratic polity may impose constraints that would disallow the use of such instruments that non-democratic systems may choose to apply. This would obviously mean that India may require to employ approaches that are far more nuanced and inclusive.
Just as in the case of China, the propensity of very large cities to keep on multiplying demographically without let or hindrance is also being played out in India’s largest cities. The table below shows the massive growth India’s eight largest cities have clocked over eleven decades. They may display comparatively dissimilar growth trajectories resulting in gain or slippage in inter se demographic ranking, but none of them have stopped rising in numbers decade after decade. Delhi, at the beginning of the last century, ranked as the seventh most populous Indian city with a population just above two lakhs. It is now on way to becoming the largest Indian city. Delhi has grown 76 times its 1901 population. Bengaluru, which did not figure in the first 12 cities in 1901, has grown 52 times its 1901 population. It is now the fifth largest Indian city and is destined to overtake Chennai in 2021.
CITY POLULATION GROWTH (1901-2011)
|1951 (OVER 1901)
|2011 (OVER 1901)
A significant change that is consequential to such growth is the rise of population density per sq. km. of the city. City population density connotes the number of inhabitants per sq. km. living in that city. Mumbai, for instance, was inhabited by about 2,000 persons per sq. km. in 1901. This rose to about 9,000 persons in 1961, over 20,000 in 1991 and around 28,000 today, making it one of the densest cities in the world. More and more people sharing the same total city space has led to consequences, largely negative, in terms of sustainability. This would not be difficult to appreciate if we consider that Mumbai had 500 sq. m. of city space per person to plan all its activities in 1901. This dwindled to 111 sq. m. in 1961, 50 sq. m. in 1991 and 36 sq. m. in 2011.
This brings us to an analysis of the question of overall sustainability and livability in the context of a city. It is widely acknowledged that population density of a city has a direct relationship with its economic strength and city productivity. A city requires a critical mass of people to render its economy robust. This makes the dense city economically more sustainable than cities that have low density. Densities make public transport viable, energy use, housing and service provision more efficient and the city greatly vibrant with a multiplicity of activities. But these cities generally suffer on account of higher levels of pollution, more expensive real estate, and greater congestion. Low densities make cities economically fragile, in transport automobile dependent and the city as a whole less vibrant. But they generally score very well on less pollution, more open spaces and better health.
In dealing with the subject of city population density, there are three related aspects that need to be considered together. The first is economic sustainability. In this regard, it has already been said that high population density supports greater economic activity. Secondly, along with economic sustainability is the question of environmental sustainability. Here environmental sustainability may be understood as the overall quality of life delivered to a city’s dwellers, including quality water, air, transport, education, health, markets and recreation, to mention only a few. The third is social sustainability. This may be understood as the delivery of employability and quality of life with equity so that urban dwellers, both rich and poor, can find affordable working and living space in the city and live in reasonable comfort.
To strike a proper balance between the three, a closer look at population density is required – what is the point at which very high population densities become counterproductive and upset the equilibrium that is needed between the three ‘sustainabilities’. That drives us towards quantifying the acceptable population density. This means the level of population density beyond which a city in one or more of the three vital ways cited above becomes unsustainable.
There is good ground to believe that population density should not be an unending road. While western thinkers are convinced that cities need to be denser and have been advocating a rise in densities, in India we need to approach this issue with a pinch of salt. A thousand people per sq. km. (something that many western cities display) is a density subject to question. But so is a density approaching 30,000 persons per sq. km. The former is suspect on account of low population density; the latter on account of a surplus of human concentration. The issue needs more thorough analysis. Chinese methods may be highly questionable and equally impracticable in a democracy like ours. But the idea is potent and a question that urban planners and those dealing with the affairs of cities would have to answer. In India, the answer would lie in pre-determined planning strategies, not in post-development excision.
Today, such pre-determined planning strategies have not been evolved, because this question has not been asked. A solution is unlikely to come from the developed world since they are facing an entirely antithetical situation. The answer, therefore, has to be internal, based on India’s own experiences of urbanisation.
One of the most significant strategies could be to abandon the current practice of population projection over a 20-year period based on a demographic study and then plan for that end-year population. In a situation where urban populations are set to rise for several decades beyond the plan period of the first 20 years, such planning forces us to adjust larger populations in about the same original land mass. This is a recipe for an escalating deterioration of quality of life. Instead, an optimum population that suits our Indian context may be projected, and areas be demarcated in the plan accordingly. Some public amenities and infrastructure are difficult to improvise for a larger population once development has happened. Roads and public open spaces are prime examples. For such infrastructure and amenities, optimum land needs to be provided ab initio for an optimum population.
It is evident that in the given urban context of India, decentralised urbanisation holds the key to healthy urban growth. Such a strategy may assist many viable cities to grow and share the urbanisation pressures concentrated today on a handful of premier urban centres. This would, however, require concerted industrial, economic and infrastructure inputs that would incentivize such development. The Integrated Development of Small & Medium Towns (IDSMT) scheme of Government of India acknowledged this need. But it was too fragile and sketchy to take on the magnitude of the task. A fresh programme with similar objectives but with a hugely enhanced financial layout would have to be launched.
The strategy would additionally require recommending realistic national standards for city amenities for adoption rather than have numerous standards adopted in different States and cities. This will demand a closer look at the Urban and Regional Development Plans Formulation and Implementation (URDPFI) guidelines of the government that take into account possible space distribution for various uses in the socio-economic context of India and the urbanisation context that the nation faces. It would then be possible to work out optimum densities that the cities can live with.
Dr. Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at ORF Mumbai. A former IAS officer, he is currently Chairman, Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee and Officer on Special Duty overseeing the revision of Mumbai Development Plan 2034.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.