No choice, yet many aspirations
Internationally, planning circles are abuzz with the connect between creating quality places and attracting talent to keep cities competitive. What about Indian cities? Are Indians flocking to cities like Gurgaon, Bangalore or Pune because of the quality of life they offer or simply because that’s where the job are today.
I live in Gurgaon and I ask myself this everyday. In just a decade, this city has from from half a million people to 1.5 million inhabitants. And yet, quality of life has not improved, but fallen drastically in every sense of the word. Is the widely accepted theory that cities that offer a better quality of life and that therefore succeed in attracting talent will thrive in the new age economy based on innovation and creativity failing in India? Or are we talking apples and oranges here? Are cities in India so different in their dynamics that they cannot be expected to follow global models of growth?
The answer, I would think, would be both yes and no. Yes, cities in india are not comparable on this scale because the Indian citizen is only just learning to expect a certain basic minimum from her living environment. It’s shocking how little governments can get away with and yet get rave reviews from the media and certain sections of society! In Gurgaon, there is a growing sense of resentment against the lack of infrastructure and governance, and yet a sense of inertia about taking action. Activism doesn’t come easily to the affluent and the only kind they can safely support is the kind that involves clicking the like button on a Facebook page. It’s a deplorable situation and it’s high time citizens of one of the highest tax paying districts in the nation made their voices heard. I must mention, as an aside, that active Residents Welfar Associations (RWAs) and citizen groups do exist that exert some pressure on real estate developers and the municipal authorities. Also, Gurgaon has a very new municipal commission that is still getting on its feet, so to speak!
To return to the narrative…..On the other hand, India is at a nascent stage in it’s economic growth and while the dynamics are different from the west, things are beginning to change. As opportunities and prosperity increase, more people will be in a position of choice-of job, of city of residence, of type of home or school or car…. At that point, when a certain threshold number of people cross over into this group empowered by choice, the liveability of a city will kick in as a clear concept in citizens minds.
How close or far we are from that point is hard to say. I would argue that in a country like India, many seem already there. While for many others, even a decade would not bring them to that level. In that sense, I would say governments and city planners need to encourage choice in order to create a situation of competitiveness among cities. This will offer incentives for cities to improve public amenities, infrastructure and spend on social programs, beautification, culture, art and many other neglected areas. The private sector can be roped into many of these with innovative yet simple partnerships. An important element here is that offering choice should be the objective for all economic categories of citizens. The urban poor, in fact, would be the most crucial group to target. If quality of life can be improved for them, we can ensure that industry will flourish and cities can dream of inclusive and sustainable growth.