No one owns the city

May 14 2014, 05:58 IST
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SummaryUrban turnouts are rising. But urban issues are yet to enter political agendas

Relief has finally arrived for a people bewildered and bemused by the long and cacophonic electioneering. Voter turnout has been high compared to previous elections. The 70 odd constituencies which are patently urban saw large increases from 2009: 22 per cent in Vadodara, 18 per cent in Patna and Agra, 15 per cent in Jabalpur. Across the country, the turnout in urban constituencies has gone up to an average of 63 per cent compared to 53 per cent earlier. Does this represent a change in an urban electorate long regarded as indifferent? Is this part of the churning in the Indian polity and a change in the demand side of expectations? If so, are our newly elected leaders prepared to deal with them?

For the first time, the manifestos of the Congress and the BJP refer explicitly to urban issues. Both want to build 100 “smart” cities. Congress has also promised to revisit the domain of mayors and municipal chairpersons. Our MPs, long used to nursing their rural constituencies with government largesse while living comfortably in cities, are beginning to realise that urban India is a political reality which they have not bothered to understand so far.

“Smart” cities is a superficial answer to India’s urban problems. A city does not become “smart” merely by tacking on that label. In the first three decades after Independence, India built more than a hundred new towns — steel plant towns like Durgapur, Bhilai and Rourkela, administrative centres like Chandigarh, Bhubaneswar and Gandhinagar, project towns like Neyveli and Barauni and many others. As of 2001, the sum total of the population of all these new towns did not even add up to 5 per cent of the annual increment to India’s urban population. New settlements adjoining existing metropolitan cities, such as Navi Mumbai, Noida or Gurgaon, have fared better. In all these locations, the people have prevailed over the plans.

In the last 10 years India’s urban population has grown from 266 to 377 million. The slum population has also increased. Counting the slum population is like shooting the rapids on the Ganga: you can go up to a high of 93 million or a low of 68. Urban and slum growth has occurred across the country. Notwithstanding the fratricidal quarrels in Andhra Pradesh, Nalgonda in Telangana has grown from 110,000 to 290,000. Khammam has gone up from 160,000 to 380,000. In Ongole, the

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