Handle it wisely, smartly

Karnataka’s Phantom Urbanisation

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The growth of the urban population is a global trend. Today, 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas. The world’s urban population is increasing by 60 million persons per year, which is three times the increase in the rural population. In Argentina, for example, almost 91% of the population is urbanised. By 2050, 68% of the world’s population is projected to live in urban areas. Africa and Asia are witnessing the highest rates of urbanisation. Ethiopia remains the least urbanised. Many studies have shown that the economic output per person, especially in the mega-cities, is more than the country’s average in most cases. However, the problems of urbanisation are not necessarily the same in all parts of the world.

The growth of urban areas in Karnataka has seen the growth of peri-urban areas around the major cities and towns. Though, for administrative and planning purposes, this distinction can be made, yet the urban and peri-urban areas tend to merge into one another. Urban areas are constantly expanding and interweaving, which results in new urban configurations. These are largely driven in Karnataka by push factors that drive people away from the rural areas, due to poor living conditions, lack of opportunities or failure of monsoons, as well as pull factors in the urban areas like employment avenues, better health facilities and educational opportunities. Even child survival rates are higher in the urban areas compared to the rural areas.

The urbanisation pattern in Karnataka is undergoing a variety of trends which deserves deeper discussion and debate. Urbanisation need not necessarily be perceived in negative terms. It also provides opportunities for progress in economic, social and environmental terms, though these have to be capitalised upon and regulated. The interaction between urbanisation and growth has always been complex and challenging. Karnataka is no exception.

Karnataka has followed the global and national trajectory. Decadal urban growth in Karnataka has been 2.5 times that in the rural areas. The number of people added to urban areas is unprecedented. Developments in business, science, industry and technology have opened up various possibilities and avenues for development in mega-cities like Bengaluru.

One major trend has been the spatial dimension of urbanisation. The second largest urban population, Hubballi-Dharwad, is only one-sixth that of Bengaluru, which has experienced unprecedented urbanisation. Higher concentration of urban population in Class I cities is a reflection of the trend towards rapid urbanisation, often at the cost of the medium and smaller towns. Rapid influx of population and unplanned growth can result in an urban sprawl with negative economic, social and environmental consequences. Large-scale migrations have resulted in the phenomenon of rising urban poverty, unemployment and homelessness in the major cities. Though there has been a reduction in poverty in the state, the absolute number of extremely poor in the cities and towns has been increasing.

The infrastructure deficit in urban areas poses peculiar challenges. These include, among others, inadequate roads, transportation, housing, education, health, drinking water, drainage, solid waste management and urban lake management. Lack of a good public transport system has resulted in the demand for private vehicles, resulting in severe deterioration of air quality in the urban areas. Unscientific disposal of waste has also resulted in huge health hazards in and around Bengaluru. The JNNURM programme initiated by the Government of India in 2005 focused on urban infrastructure development, governance and basic services for the urban poor. Overall, there is clearly an infrastructure deficit.

Historically, urbanisation has resulted in economic and social transformations the world over. Urbanisation has resulted in change of land use, economic activity and culture. The problem arises in situations of rapid and unplanned urbanisation. This invariably results in poor infrastructure facilities. Mega-cities like Bengaluru have their own peculiar challenges in terms of their sheer size and magnitude. The reality is that all urban settlements have their peculiar challenges of development since urban growth has invariably led to commercialisation and industrialisation.

Piece-meal interventions will not help. The time has come to take an inclusive and holistic perspective to meet the challenges posed by rapid urbanisation in Karnataka. The urban policy of the government needs to deal with the challenges posed by economic concentration, regional disparities and urban crime. Urban planning needs to be broadened to include spatial planning with economic development planning. The former varies from optimum utilisation of resources to ensuring environmental and ecological balance. In other words, the focus has to be on development that is environmentally sustainable, economically productive and culturally vibrant.

Smaller towns and cities have to be developed as growth centres for the future, to reduce the demographic concentration in cities like Bengaluru. In this context, land acquisition policies and optimum land use are critical to development. These have a bearing on the state’s policy choices vis-à-vis industry, agriculture, infrastructure development and tourism. The problems of the urban poor have to be addressed in an integrated manner. 

We are in the days of smart cities. Thailand, for example, is targeting 100 smart cities. Cities have to integrate information and communication technologies to handle everything from transportation to water and energy. The Karnataka government has emphasised the innovativeness and use of sustainable technologies for smart cities. They are good for citizens and for business. The use of data and technologies can even help alleviate some of the challenges posed by demographic changes, urban financing and governance. Urban development in Karnataka is ridden with numerous possibilities and uncertainties, and hence the need to handle it wisely and smartly.

(The writer is Professor and Dean (Arts), Department of Political Science, Bangalore University) 

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