Imagining Indian Cities

Nandan Nilekani on his Imagining India blog makes an excellent case why Indian cities need to have local control rather than being controlled by state or central government agencies. He points to the Mumbai’s most recent episode of Islamic terrorism and asks where was the mayor:

I doubt many in Mumbai even know who the mayor of the city is – it’s a largely ceremonial post. There was no powerful official representing Mumbai’s city administration simply because the administration has no power to speak of. The responses in the immediate aftermath of the attacks – orders to the police and military, evacuation operations – flowed from the state and central governments. It was the state, central and defence officials who seemed to be in charge. An entire tier of government at the local level appeared non-existent.

This had huge repercussions in the speed and efficiency with which Mumbai responded to the attacks. The city’s police were ill-equipped for any sort of rapid response. The NSG commandos who cleared the hotels had to be flown in from Delhi – and after their arrival in Mumbai, had to wait for hours to be transported from the airport.

As economists have pointed out, urbanization and economic prosperity are bidirectionally related as causes and consequences. To a significant extent, the poverty of India is directly a consequence of the neglect of planned urban growth. Gandhi and Nehru — as they usually do — get the wrong end of the stick and India suffers. I have made this point too frequently on this blog. Here’s Nandan:

The Indian city has long been exiled from our collective imagination. The romance of the ‘village republic’ for India’s politicians and the strong association of the city with the British Imperial Raj doomed the city in Independent India. Gandhi said, ‘I regard the growth of cities as an evil thing’ and for Nehru the city of New Delhi was ‘un-Indian’.

Now there is some hope for India. Thoughtful and influential people like Nandan Nilekani understand how the world works much better than politicians like Gandhi and Nehru. Which brings a broader point to mind: the shift of power from the (widely recognized as corrupt) politicians and bureaucrats to thoughtful people who create wealth and actually help social welfare.

Related posts: See “Urbanization and Development of India.”

Categories: Cities and Urbanization

6 replies

  1. Atanu,

    Yes, the shift is happening. Such leaders need to have wider publicity and bigger connection with general public. It is possible to get such leaders elected to top posts only after this. Otherwise they have to be satisfied writing books and advising governments in various fora.


  2. Just read Nilekani’s blog.Was disappointed about his tone.Even more so by his limited perspective of ‘my home town is the ground zero and we are solving all problems’ attitude.

    Coming to your post, Atanu, I feel the shift of power should not happen to people like Mr.Nilekani.If we have thoughtful people among our businessmen, there is nothing that stops a good number of them from joining politics to make a difference.

    A more meaningful change would be to work towards a better model of local self government, with the taxes collected in a village/town/city primarily spent on that area, and a fixed percentage going to the levels above (district/stste/union).The current model of most revenues going to the Union, followed by the State, leaves cities, districts and small towns at the mercy of the politicians and bureaucrats.Even 61 years after the Brits have left, we still see our villagers go with a begging bowl to the Dist Collector or the MP/Minister.And the States do that with the Union.


  3. “The Indian city has long been exiled from our collective imagination.”

    Nothing could be farther from the truth.The romantic notion of village republic is just that – a notion.

    Fact of the matter: In India, we don’t believe in local self government.Whether at the city level or at the village level.

    And for all the thoughtfulness and influence that Mr.Nilekani and Mr.Narayana Murthy have, things are pretty abysmal in Bangalore w.r.t. civic infrastructure.And firms like Infy have obtained hundreds of acres of land at ridiculously low prices in all major cities of the country.If these entrepreneurs were so concerned about Imagining a New India, they should have focused equally on building up the domestic IT industry, a startup eco system, and also setup their huge campuses in semi-urban areas to facilitate the development of new cities. No, much like the subsidies in the higher education system, these companies have also benefited from the govt policy (or lack of policy).And going by the furore about the SEZ/STP policy, many of these firms still want a tax holiday.

    In other news, Satyam Computers uses its money to buy stock in Maytas Infra – move cash reserves from IT business to the safe haven of infrastructure business.Lets see what Infy does with the land bank it has built up..


    I know I am being a bit harsh and even emotional may be.But the likes of Indian IT bigwigs just do not cut with me.They have been sitting on billions of dollars of cash reserves which could have been used to create a technology-enabled revolution in the Indian hinterland.That’s my grouse against them.


  4. Dear Atanu
    Thanks for a new interface for this site, its looks attractive . Keep it up.


  5. Atanu, couple of things that need attention in the otherwise visually-appealing new look and feel. #1 — No more “random” posts link on the website… used to love them! #2 — two links from the “pages” have appeared on the top frame in the form of tabs. Please see if you can work around them.



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