Turning Indian cities, that tend to assault the senses, into efficient habitats would represent a giant leap for the nation. Public facilities are crowded, noise levels are high, the air is polluted, roads are gridlocked. Unplanned urbanisation's impact is visible everywhere. Indophiles know all this as the makings of a "functioning anarchy". How can it be transformed? For tourists and investors alike, the world's largest democracy, now the fastest expanding major economy, appears at first look to be a most unlikely place to script the next magnificent Asian growth story.
A century ago, when Mahatma Gandhi declared that the soul of India lives in its villages, less than a sixth of India lived in urban spaces. But the country of 1.2 billion people is changing swiftly and much of the economic acceleration is spurred by urbanisation, repeating the Chinese experience. Today, two-thirds of national output is generated in cities and between a quarter and a third of Indians live in urban settlements. By 2030, India's US$2.3 trillion (S$3 trillion) economy is projected to expand by five times, and its labour force is expected to grow by 270 million workers - with urban jobs accounting for 70 per cent of that growth.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's plan for 100 Smart Cities therefore comes not a moment too soon. In the Indian definition, this encapsulates mass transport within 800 metres of all urban residences, total recycling of solid waste, 100 per cent Wi-Fi coverage, telemedicine and even one school for the mentally challenged per million population. Smart cities will also attempt to address another missing element that has fetched India negative attention - safety of women. Combined with the industrial corridors being planned in the north-western and southern parts of the country, with their own attendant urban agglomerations, the vision is ambitious by any measure. India should seize this moment to not only build cities of the future, but also build them in its own image and with an eye on the environment. Too many of today's modern cities mindlessly ape the expensive steel and concrete towers of America.
India's issue, however, is that while it has no shortage of good ideas, execution is often the weakest part. The democratic process, while useful in channelling popular sentiment in peaceful ways, has inherent drawbacks, such as the way both Parliament and the courts are misused to stall development initiatives. This is compounded by the proclivity of influential parties to play to the lowest common denominator. Provincial co-operation is also key to this gargantuan initiative.
Indians like to keep a clean house but fail to be equally diligent once outside their gates. If they can unite under Mr Modi's vision, Indians may yet produce something that all of Asia could be proud. Their souls may still be in the villages but their sinews are in the cities.
This article was first published on July 14, 2015.
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