Economic growth is an imperative if the widely discussed goal of development has to be achieved by India. There are a number of well-known causative factors that lead to economic growth. Among them are an educated and healthy population, reliable and adequate infrastructure, a free and fair market-driven economy, and the availability of public goods such as law and order, political freedom, efficient governance, etc. These causative factors have complex interdependencies and have to be present–simultaneous in time and co-located in space—for economic growth, and consequently, development. Even after a fairly superficial analysis it becomes apparent that these factors of economic growth can be most efficiently provided in – and are usually associated with – cities.
Let’s take a few of these factors and see how they relate to cities. Educated people find the opportunities to use their skills in cities because they need the supporting infrastructure and other skilled people to fully utilize their specialized skills. Cities aggregate a large number of people with different skills which make all of them mutually dependent for being productive. Furthermore, the education of the next generation itself is most efficiently provided in cities. Thus cities are the centers not just for the use of education but the provision of education also. Try educating to a high level the children of small villages within the villages and it would soon become clear that it is prohibitively expensive. It has never happened because it cannot be done. Every center of excellent learning – schools, colleges, universities – is associated with urban areas, either from the beginning or from the urbanization of the place where a great center of learning is created.
Why is that so? Because of scale economies, as economists say. Given a large enough population at a specific location, the demand for education will be sufficient for its efficient supply. And to supply the large amount of educational services, you need a large number of people. These people in turn need non-educational services and they are also provided by other people in that location. To provide these services you need infrastructure—power, telecommunications, houses, parks, roads, water, sanitation, etc. To provide all the infrastructural services, you need yet more specialized people. Following this line of reasoning you soon reach the conclusion that it needs a city. It needs a city because a city is at the heart of a developed modern complex highly skilled highly specialized economy. See any developed and rich economy, and you will see that it is primarily a collection of cities.
You can of course have an economy based on a large collection of villages. For most of recorded history, economies have been just that, village-based, agrarian, and poor. They were not modern, efficient, or rich. Of course, you don’t have to be modern, efficient, and rich. You can choose to be traditional, inefficient, and poor. A Gandhian economy, in other words. An economy which is centered on “self-sufficient” villages is quite feasible. The best part is that one has the choice to live in self-sufficient villages. Very few people choose to do so, however. That suggests that there are very few true Gandhians among the general population. Somehow people appear to prefer the material comforts and opportunities of city living over the smug satisfaction of living a life of poverty and moral superiority in small villages. At the first opportunity, people from villages migrate to cities, and they prefer to do this even though they often end up living in slums within cities. They reveal their preferences by voting with their feet.
It is important to ask and answer the question why people prefer cities. Here is my tentative answer. It has to do with freedom. People somehow have an innate desire for freedom. They want to have the freedom to be who they are and have the potential of becoming. Cities provide us with degrees of freedom that villages seldom do. Not just economic freedom in terms of earning a living most conducive to our abilities and aspirations, but more importantly social freedom. Of course volumes have been written about the dehumanizing anonymity of cities. But there has to be a good reason for why this so-called “dehumanized existence” of urban living is preferred by so many around the world and in all times since cities came into being. Perhaps it is the drive for freedom that impels the population to live in cities that provide them freedom.
I am sure that there are those who have a romantic attachment to village life. I am also fairly certain that anyone reading this who has romantic notions of living in a village actually lives in a city. The luxury of an imaginary idyllic village existence can only be afforded from the comfort of an armchair somewhere in an urban area.
The argument so far: India needs economic growth for development to occur; for economic growth, urbanization of the majority of the population currently living in 600,000 small villages is a necessity; the current urban centers cannot accommodate the present urban population adequately, leave alone taking on any additional burden. Hence the proposition has forced itself on us: we need new urban centers to accommodate the hundreds of millions who must get out of villages for India’s economic growth.
So the next time I will delve into the simple matter of how we can actually create new cities in India. It will not be a blueprint for economic growth, but rather the outline of a strategic plan. I will argue that it is possible to engineer cities that can liberate the hundreds of millions held captive in the dismal little villages of India. Creating these cities would essentially leapfrog India from being largely a village-based poor economy to being a modern affluent economy, and thus allowing the hundreds of millions currently living in villages to bypass the intermediate state of migrating to the slums of ill-planned congested cities.
[Next in the series: Cities as Complex Adaptive Systems.]