In April 2010, McKinsey Global Institute published a comprehensive report on the current trends and projected course of urbanization in India for the next twenty years until 2030, complete with a series of policy recommendations. It’s a pretty impressive piece of consultant-speak — extensive research and analysis  presented with alarming clarity peppered with generous sprinkling of diagrams, charts and data. The report is no light bedtime reading and it is bound to turn into one of the early influential documents for physical and policy planners focusing on urban India and for the strategy planners in national and multinational corporations who stand to gain enormously from India’s growth. The report is structured and framed around five topics — funding, governance, planning, sectoral policies and shape of urbanization.

Even if the future reality doesn’t match with MGI’s projections, the growth trends and the practical challenges that lie ahead are too sobering to ignore. Firstly 2030 is not too far off. Most of you who are reading this blog now are very likely to be around during the next twenty years. By then the Indian city dweller will have plenty more company – an additional 250 million people swelling the ranks of city population from an estimated 340 million in 2010 to 590 million in 2030. Cities will account for 70% of  GDP and will provide 85% of total tax revenues that MGI claims will benefit the 200 million rural population who live in proximity to 70 of the largest cities in the country.

To realize this urbanization-on-steroids, MGI estimates India will need:

  • $1.2 trillion in capital investment
  • 2.5 billion square meters of roads to be paved
  • 700-900 million square meters of commercial and residential space
  • 7,400 kilometers of subways and transportation to be constructed

Just to put things in perspective, to realize 700-900 sq.m ( 7.5 – 9.6 billion SF) of commercial/residential space, India would need to build a city that is twice the size of Mumbai or city the size of Chicago every year for the next 20 years. How do you move around these super-sized cities ? Certainly not in dumpy Tata Nanos if you want to get to work in less than four hours from where you live. We would need a world class network of public transportation where you don’t have to cling for your life…or share a cosmopolitan sweat-fest. Enter the grade separated Metro that doesn’t have to stop when ever there is a stray cow or a chief ministers convoy or a political demonstration…where the maid and the mistress can travel in the same Chinese-made air conditioned coach . MGI estimates we would need 7,400 km of subway by 2030. The current length of Delhi metro is around 110km – in other words we would need more than 3 Delhi metros at its current length to be completed each year for the next 20 consecutive years. By all accounts the realization of Delhi Metro is an impressive piece of public sector miracle completed with a successful public-private partnership in a record 25 years from planning to implementation. Completed on schedule and even close to turning a profit, Delhi metro is a miracle of sorts in the history of Indian infrastructure planning and implementation. But then it is the nation’s capital with independent governing authority, inextricably linked to the nation’s power center, with a plenty of cash and political will. And the benefit of being headed by the incorruptible CEO/project manager extraordinaire Elattuvalapil Sreedharan  who at 77 is yet to exhibit any biological traits of cloning himself for other metro projects.

This brings another key issue highlighted by the MGI report – the need for a fiscally independent Metropolitan governance to realize large scale urban infrastructure projects. Similar to most successful cities in industrialized countries, this would be a true devolution of power towards metropolitan democracy and leadership powered by active civic participation and public oversight where cities can envision, manage and implement their own physical destinies with a fair share of their tax revenues. What does this mean in practical terms? The city mayors will call the shots and would have more power and financial resources at their disposal compared to the Chief Minister who would be dealing mostly with the big picture issues affecting the entire state. The mayors of Mumbai and Pune would have to compete with each in wooing the next corporation that would deliver thousands of new job while they make sure they don’t suck the ground water dry for its residents.  The planning departments in Chennai and Kolkata will have more trained planners and policy makers than civil service bureaucrats who had successfully memorized the geological significance of silurian and devonian periods in cracking their Union Public Service Commission examinations. The middle class would have to get off their butt and start playing a more active role in their civic duty and get used to imbibing politics that they have so long loathingly referred to as sewage

Because this study is primarily about cities the report also conveniently doesn’t talk about the other 685 million  rural population that wont be living in proximity to the cities. While the report mentions that rural areas that are currently outliers of the metropolitan regions  would stand to benefit from the urbanization, the fate of the bulk of the rural population far removed from the metropolitan influence is left unanswered. Perhaps that is not the the objective of the report. Yet, any projections and recommendations on urbanization is bound to be incomplete if it does not take in account the future of under-served rural economies that are bound to gravitate toward the pull of the cities constantly overwhelming the limits of the urban infrastructure.

Link to MGI report