There is an old adage in Hindi language that roughly translates as “master one, master all”. Nowhere has it seemed more applicable than in the context of Sustainable Development Goals.
Off the 17 goals accepted and propagated by the United Nations in 2015, goal number 11 (sustainable cities and communities) is the one that can be the vehicle to achieve all the other goals. This goal encompasses all other goals and if you meet the targets of this one you will automatically achieve all.
The goal says that we need to make our cities and the communities that live within that space sustainable. For this it talks about making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe and resilient.
Cities as Magnets of Opportunity and Doom
Cities are both magnets of opportunities and graveyards of failed aspirations. This is one of the reasons the number of mega cities (cities that have a population of 10 million or more) have been continuously rising since 1990. Thirty years ago there were just 10 mega cities but today their numbers have risen to 28.
The rise has been uneven and mostly concentrated in Asia and Africa. Cities like Lagos, Cairo, Delhi, Mumbai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu, and Jakarta have witnessed two kinds of migrations from their respective hinterlands. People with aspirations and desperation have both migrated to the cities in search of a better life.
Both have had mixed results. Those who landed in big cities trying to run away from abject poverty in rural areas on an average fared better as they at least got food to eat and a place to live, no matter how decrepit the conditions were.
However, the story of aspirational migration is lot more colourful. There are many rags to riches stories followed by a long list of shattered dreams and broken wills.
For India, the city of Mumbai is the fabled lamp, which if rubbed right can turn any aspiring Sindbaad into an overnight success. Many film stars, businessmen, social entrepreneurs; sportspersons are a testimony to this magical quality of the city.
However, there are countless stories of equal failures running into hundreds of thousands. While most of the failures accept their fate and bow down to the diktats of time, there are handful who refuse to submit and turn to a way of life that’s detrimental, not only to them but to the society in general.
It is visible in the form of tough neighbourhoods, which is a stark reality of almost every big and medium sized town around the world.
Cauldron of Competition
This is because in the last thirty years the pace of urbanisation in Asia and Africa has been unparalleled in the history of humans both in size and scope. The cities that were built to house small number of people are now home to populations that rival small countries. For example the population in Delhi is equal to that of Australia.
In 1951 Delhi’s population was just five hundred thousand and it’s consumption of electricity was close to 100 megawatts (MW) daily. Today the population stands close to 24 million and peak summer demand for daily electricity last year was nearly 7000 MW which is poised to go up to 7400 MW this year.
Similarly, Dhaka was again a small sleepy town of five hundred thousand inhabitants in 1965. Today the same city is bursting at its seams with a population load of 15 million people.
With the possible exceptions of China, South Korea and Japan most of the urbanisation in Asia and Africa has been haphazard, piecemeal and organic. It kept growing without any clear directions from the central, state or local governments.
So today, most of these urban centres are choking as their meagre infrastructure and hopelessly limited resources are being overwhelmed by a mass of humanity, they never thought would access it.
In such a scenario the rich and the poor, the educated and the illiterate, traditionally urban and newly arrived rural people, talented and stupid, skilled and unskilled all compete for a pie that is forever shrinking.
This leads to the rise of privileged groups with tightly guarded accesses, band of marauders, identity groups that act as pressure groups against the ruling elites. It also leads to pockets of wealth within gated and manicured enclaves (Victoria Island, Lagos or Lutyens Delhi) amidst sea of poverty in sprawling shantytowns (Favelas in Rio or Dharavi in Mumbai).
Competition, like everything, is good in right doses. A constant state of heightened competition bordering on hostility and occasionally sliding into anarchy is never good for the overall social and financial health of a city. It robs the megacity of its innate genius, forces it to underperform and condemns it to punch much below its weight.
Take the case of Delhi and its adjoining suburbs that make the National Capital Region (NCR). Its annual Gross Domestic Product is close $150. A population of 25 million in NCR produces $150 billion while in Shanghai a population of 26.3 million produces a GDP of $440 billion.
Melting Pot of Opportunity
History has been a testimony to the fact that access to good quality free primary and secondary education, a far sighted skill enhancement programme, affordable housing, good quality affordable healthcare and impartial and non-discriminatory law and order agency are keys to unlocking the true potential of a mega city.
Beijing and Shanghai have done it in the 21st century as have Seoul and Tokyo in the third quarter of the 20th century.
Humanity’s march towards becoming an urban species is now irreversible. By 2050 a total of 6.5 billion people will be living in urban areas. Right now the number of urban dwellers is 3.5 billion globally. Among them, 828 million or close to one third of them live in slums.
To re-orient the newly emerged megacities in Asia and Africa from cauldrons of competition to melting pots of opportunities, the cities need to become more equitable and develop an egalitarian ethos. Those in the leadership positions in these continents and countries should know, letting cities emerge in an organic way is a strategy fraught with danger. This strategy turns a city into a jungle.
Organic growth works on the principles of natural selection where might is right and the fittest or the toughest and not necessarily the best survives. It leaves many groups of people permanently disadvantaged and creates enclave within the city domain where they are finally dumped, condemned and forgotten. Movement from these disadvantaged areas to a decent living becomes an uphill task where only exceptionally heroic efforts see some success.
US crown jewels of success, cities like New York or Chicago, have these kinds of enclaves which have created wide chasm between the haves and have-nots. They are a reminder that leaving everything to organic growth theory can create permanent fault lines.
In a country like India, which is already dealing with caste, class, region and religious divides, the policymakers and administrators would do well to guide cities in a way that they emerge as melting pots of opportunities consuming all fault lines.
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