Opinion

Pitfalls of our fixation with Western cities

Narendar Pani | Updated on June 24, 2019 Published 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

A letter from the Editor


Dear Readers,

The coronavirus crisis has changed the world completely in the last few months. All of us have been locked into our homes, economic activity has come to a near standstill. Everyone has been impacted.

Including your favourite business and financial newspaper. Our printing and distribution chains have been severely disrupted across the country, leaving readers without access to newspapers. Newspaper delivery agents have also been unable to service their customers because of multiple restrictions.

In these difficult times, we, at BusinessLine have been working continuously every day so that you are informed about all the developments – whether on the pandemic, on policy responses, or the impact on the world of business and finance. Our team has been working round the clock to keep track of developments so that you – the reader – gets accurate information and actionable insights so that you can protect your jobs, businesses, finances and investments.

We are trying our best to ensure the newspaper reaches your hands every day. We have also ensured that even if your paper is not delivered, you can access BusinessLine in the e-paper format – just as it appears in print. Our website and apps too, are updated every minute, so that you can access the information you want anywhere, anytime.

But all this comes at a heavy cost. As you are aware, the lockdowns have wiped out almost all our entire revenue stream. Sustaining our quality journalism has become extremely challenging. That we have managed so far is thanks to your support. I thank all our subscribers – print and digital – for your support.

I appeal to all or readers to help us navigate these challenging times and help sustain one of the truly independent and credible voices in the world of Indian journalism. Doing so is easy. You can help us enormously simply by subscribing to our digital or e-paper editions. We offer several affordable subscription plans for our website, which includes Portfolio, our investment advisory section that offers rich investment advice from our highly qualified, in-house Research Bureau, the only such team in the Indian newspaper industry.

A little help from you can make a huge difference to the cause of quality journalism!

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
You have read 1 out of 3 free articles for this week. For full access, please subscribe and get unlimited access to all sections.