R Srinivasan

Pandemic politics destroying idea of NCR

R Srinivasan | Updated on June 11, 2020 Published on June 10, 2020

Whimsical decision-making is derailing one of the country’s key growth engines

One of the lesser known victims of the coronavirus pandemic ravaging the country may be the idea of something called the National Capital Region (NCR), a 35-year-old act of astonishing foresight and political management, which has led to the creation of one of the world’s greatest urban agglomerations and arguably one of the key drivers of economic growth for India as a whole.

Between their whimsical decision-making, political posturing and bizarre policy flip-flops, the Amit Shah-run Ministry of Home Affairs, Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal and Haryana CM ML Khattar (only a peripheral part of Rajasthan is part of the NCR) may have put paid to the one fundamental idea which underpins not only the creation of the NCR but ensures that it actually works — which is the free flow of human, physical and financial resources across the borders of three-and-a-half States (Delhi is not a full-fledged one) which constitute the NCR.

Closed borders

The latest was Delhi CM Kejriwal’s abrupt decision to “reserve” Delhi hospital beds only for “Delhi residents”, which led to frantic pleas on social media for guidance on how one could generate a Delhi “address proof” overnight. That particular decision was swiftly overturned by Delhi Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal, who is, apart from Amit Shah — whose Home Ministry runs Delhi Police — one of the few with actual powers among Delhi’s Byzantine multitude of authorities and administrations.

But Kejriwal’s move, driven by panic that the City-State will be unable to cope with the exploding number of Covid-19 cases (it really won’t be able to cope, but not because it will be flooded by patients from neighbouring States) is only the latest in a long line of similarly panic-driven decisions. Yogi, for instance, sealed the borders with Delhi, refused to allow migrants to pass through, turned down transportation offers and almost single-handedly created one of the biggest humanitarian crises of the pandemic.

Haryana did similar things on the borders it shares with Delhi. It required some high-level intervention before both UP and Haryana decided to allow taxi services to operate to the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, which services the entire region. And of course, ever since Lockdown 1.0, the Delhi Metro, the lifeline which connects this entire region together and carried more that 4.8 million passengers per day across the NCR in its pre-Covid heydays, has been shut down.

Geo-economic importance

Between the massive exodus of migrant labour (estimates are that half to as much as 65 per cent of the migrant labour in the NCR region could have already left, many never to return); the sudden redrawing of inter-State borders, which most NCR residents had forgotten existed over the past couple of decade; and the disruption of public transport network linking the region may mean that the NCR economic engine may have received a body blow from which it may never fully recover.

That would be bad news not just for the staggering 46 million people residing in its 53,817 square km, spread across the National Capital Territory of Delhi, seven districts in UP, 13 in Haryana and two districts in Rajasthan. Over 72 per cent of the area is already urbanised, making it the world’s largest multi-State integrated urban-rural metropolitan area in the world. And the region now accounts for a larger chunk of the GDP than the former economic and financial capital of India, the Greater Mumbai Metropolitan region.

The NCR is arguably India’s most critical geo-economic zone. The principal cities which constitute the NCR are shining examples of what open borders and free flow of people and resources can achieve. Delhi alone had a Gross State Domestic Product of an astonishing ₹7.8 lakh crore in 2018-19, growing at a compounded annual growth rate (in rupees, current prices) of 12.41 per cent between 2011-12 and 2018-19.

But Delhi, the NCR capital city, unlike its predecessor versions run by the many empires which have ruled India from this ancient city, has not fattened at the expense of the hinterland. Noida (formerly the New Okhla Industrial Development Authority, now rechristened Gautam Buddh Nagar but called by all of NCR as Noida), adjacent to NCT-Delhi and also sharing a border with prosperous Haryana, alone, with a GDP of over ₹1,15,000 crore, accounts for more than 10 per cent of UP’s entire GDP. With an annual per capita income of Rs 6.71 lakh, Noida may well be on another planet compared to some of the less developed districts in UP. UP’s poorest district Balrampur, for instance, as a per capita income of only ₹32,305 per annum!

The story is no different in Gurugram, which calls itself the ‘millennial city’ and whose steel and glass skyscraper skyline rivals that of the mega cities of the developed world. Gurugram has plenty of problems (a lack of civic services means that it has the largest population of feral pigs for any city in India, for instance) but a lack of money is not one of them.

Gurugram has a per capita income of a staggering ₹4.6 lakh per annum, double the State’s average and almost four times the national average. It is now the emerging IT capital of India and, with an annual GDP growth rate of over 13 per cent, the fastest growing sub-region amongst the four which make up the NCR.

Commuting trouble

But all of this is already coming apart because the basic premise on which all this was built — and why original Delhi residents bought flats in emerging Greater Noida, 55 km from Delhi and commute to work in Gurugram, 75 km away — is coming apart. With the State CMs and the various satraps ruling Delhi competing with each other to whimsically seal or unseal borders and impose travel restrictions, the millions who commute for work every day across the NCR suddenly realised that they were actually residents of a particular State and not this notional entity called NCR. A doctor working in a Delhi hospital treating Covid patients was told by her housing society in Ghaziabad (her flat was physically just 4 km from the hospital) that she would need permission from the District Magistrate of Ghaziabad to actually return to her home from work! Stories like this — spreading like wildfire across social media — are hardly likely to reduce the NCR region’s unsold housing stock of over ₹77,000 crore.

The NCR experiment is one of the few urban economic development projects in India that has actually worked. It has created millions of jobs, lifted lakhs out of poverty, created enviable urban infrastructure and above all, created a formidable engine of economic growth. Panicky, short-term decision-making by leaders who refuse to recognise the integrated reality of NCR imperils this.

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Published on June 10, 2020
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