Pitfalls of our fixation with Western cities

Narendar Pani | Updated on June 24, 2019

Dreaming of another land, the youth are not invested in holistic development of their own cities. Their imagination drives projects here

The young in Indian cities are rapidly developing their own brand of nationalism. In the political domain they have a clear preference for political choices that put nationalism above everything else. While it is hardly unusual for urban, or other youth to lean towards extreme positions, earlier generations saw their nationalism tinged with other concerns such as that for the underprivileged or for personal freedom. By all accounts, voting patterns in the recent elections suggested the youth have followed an ideology of ‘nationalism or perish’.

Yet there are few signs of this political commitment extending beyond campaigns on social media. In terms of individual actions there is often little desire to stay and build a nation. Those who can afford it typically prefer to study abroad. While previous generations also valued studying abroad, economic growth has made this a real option for larger numbers of young urban Indians. And this preference does not quite end with education. Much larger numbers of Indians going abroad to study prefer to remain there, as compared to, say, Chinese students. It has been estimated that eight in ten Chinese students in the US returned home after education, while another study found that only one in eight Indian students wanted to return.

Dreams and realities

These preferences of the urban young have a quiet but wide-ranging impact on the nature of the Indian city. Those who believe they have a good chance to realise their dreams of studying, and perhaps living, abroad would see the Indian city they live in as a temporary arrangement. The sense of temporariness about their current city could extend even to those who have lived there all their young lives. Over time their knowledge of foreign cities, often as interpreted by social media, can grow far beyond their sense of the history of their ancestral city.

This fascination with the images of what they believe Western cities are also rubs off on those who do not make it to a foreign city. They begin to see the success of a city in terms of how close it comes to images of global metropolises. These infrastructure-dominated images of modernity typically override more detailed considerations of the costs and benefits of specific investments. The trade-offs between investments in different elements of infrastructure are rarely evaluated in detail. We do not quite know how much the water crisis in a city could be eased if the money spent on a flyover was instead used to implement water conservation measures.

In the absence of such detailed calculations, decisions on urban projects tend to fall broadly into two categories. At one end are the projects that are sensitive to the modern image the city is expected to project. This is usually achieved by high-technology infrastructure investments, such as a bullet train. At the other end are the less glamorous but essential projects, such as those that conserve water. These projects only come into focus when there is a crisis.

At times of a severe water crisis there is considerable concern expressed about the absence of adequate investment in this essential resource. Once the crisis is past, no matter how serious the long-term shortfalls in essential infrastructure, governments tend to focus on the more glamorous projects.

One way to correct this mismatch between the long-term needs of a city and the misplaced priorities of its policy-makers would be to create a framework for policy-making that covers all trade-offs. It would look at the benefits a city gets from an investment against the costs of attracting that investment. It would weigh the long-terms costs to the environment and the use of non-renewable resources, against the short-terms benefits.

Such a longer-term view must necessarily come from the young. Older generations may well be too cynical. The young would usually have a greater stake in the city’s future. The brightest among them would also be better equipped to consider all the options modern technology provides. But those among the young who have the capacity to change the future of Indian cities, see their own future elsewhere. We need to find other intellectual inputs from those who have a personal stake in the future of Indian cities.

The writer is a professor at the School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

Published on June 24, 2019

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