Narendar Pani

Why our cities are so chaotic

NARENDAR PANI | Updated on March 12, 2018

Glamorous infrastructure projects and utter chaos are part of the same city. — G.Ramakrishna   -  THE HINDU

Metros are growing faster at the periphery than the centre. But the periphery has been left to the mercies of real estate developers.

There is now a fairly widespread consensus that managing the processes of urbanisation in India will require very substantial investments in infrastructure. This consensus has been used to justify a wide range of infrastructure projects from airports to flyovers, from Metros to the widening of roads. Much less attention has been paid to the prioritisation of these projects. And the preliminary results of the 2011 Census suggest that the pattern of growth in our larger cities may require prioritising a set of infrastructure projects that are not glamorous enough to attract the attention of major investors.

The picture that emerges of our six major cities – Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad – from the 2011 Census is one of a centre that is slowing down. This is evident when we take the 2001 Census population of the districts that form these cities and project their population to 2011 on the basis of the Crude Birth Rates and the Crude Death Rates of the States they are located in.


When we compare these projections with the figures that have now emerged from the 2011 Census, there are clear indications that the centre of these cities is not keeping pace with the changes in the periphery.

In five of these six cities, that is Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Hyderabad, the actual population of the districts at their centre in 2011 is less than the projected levels.

In the National Capital Region, New Delhi and Central Delhi fall below the projected levels while districts like Gurgaon, Faridabad, North West Delhi and South West Delhi have far exceeded their projected numbers. Mumbai and Mumbai Suburban have fallen well short of their projected figures while Thane has far exceeded it. Kolkata too has fallen well short of its projected figure while South 24 Parganas has far exceeded it.

Chennai has fallen somewhat short of the projected figures, while Thiruvallur and Kancheepuram have far exceeded it. And Hyderabad has fallen short of the projected figures while Ranga Reddy district has far exceeded it.

The only exception to this pattern among the six major cities is Bangalore, with the district’s population in 2011 exceeding the projected figure. But this too may just be a statistical mirage since Bangalore district is defined in a way that includes its periphery. Thus while the other five cities have no rural population in their central districts, nine percent of the population of Bangalore district was in areas classified as rural in 2011.


The immediate effect of a periphery-heavy growth is on the demands for infrastructure. While the more glamorous infrastructure projects tend to focus on districts at the centre of the cities, the real demands for infrastructure are emerging at the periphery. And the process of meeting these demands is further complicated by the fact that growth in the periphery brings with it the challenge of absorbing villages into cities.

The original inhabitants of these villages are not always equipped to make a smooth transition into the urban. They often fall short in terms of educational qualifications and also tend to have a low level of urban cultural capital.

Forced to give up agriculture they have limited urban options. They could continue with the few occupations that are common between the rural and the urban, like dairying. Some may train themselves to provide lower-end services to the city. But the more powerful, and ambitious, among them are bound to look for more lucrative options. And the two most promising alternatives are real estate and politics.


With the provision of basic infrastructure in the peripheries of our cities not being a priority in a situation where the focus is on large glamorous projects, the field is left open to the real-estate financed politicians. They can ‘develop’ the land they have access to without bothering too much about public spaces. The resultant picture of houses encroaching into the already narrow roads is rapidly emerging as the hallmark of most Indian cities.

The challenge posed by this phenomenon is not merely one of managing urban spaces. Such uncontrolled, aggressively competitive growth on the periphery brings with it varying degrees of illegality.

Basic building norms are flouted with impunity and it is hardly unknown for public land to be encroached. This illegality can be sustained through the political clout of the real estate developer. And this political power is typically sustained through identity politics.

To bring this emerging chaos at the periphery of our cities under some kind of control we would need initiatives at a variety of levels: economic, political and social. But whatever the strategy used to challenge this chaos, providing basic infrastructure would have to be a part of it. The development of local roads and the provision of water and sanitation will go a long way towards restoring order to the peripheries of our cities.

The nature of these infrastructure initiatives would necessarily be quite different from that of large projects attracting global investor attention. It will require smaller investors with the skills to deal with possible local resistance.

The details of this process will necessarily be complex and vary across different parts of the country. But ignoring this task would leave our cities with a few glamorous projects in the midst of widespread chaos.

(The author is Professor, School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. >

Published on December 05, 2012

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