Better Cities, Better Growth: Lessons for India’s Urban Opportunity

Better Cities, Better GrowthIndia is experiencing an urban transformation with its urban population reaching 420 million in 2015 (33 percent of total). This is expected to nearly double by 2050 to 800 million, with close to 400 million additional people living in towns and cities by 2050 (50 percent of total). By 2031, 75 percent of India’s national income is expected to come from cities and a majority of new jobs will be created in urban areas.

“Given the rapidity of change and long-lived nature of urban form and infrastructure, the decisions that India’s policy makers make in the next five to fifteen years will lock in its urban pathway for decades to come,” said CURS Faculty Fellow Meenu Tewari, associate professor, Department of City and Regional Planning at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “There are real choices to be made.”

Global evidence, gathered in a year-long effort by a team led by Tewari, suggests that an extensive, “sprawled” model of urban growth—with cities oriented around the private vehicle rather than people—can have significant economic, social and environmental costs which undermine prosperity. On the other hand, more compact, connected and coordinated cities can be more productive, socially-inclusive, resilient, cleaner and safer, unleashing the benefits of urban agglomeration.

Meenu Tewari

Meenu Tewari

A new synthesis report by Tewari for the India New Climate Economy Partnership focuses on how India can aim to foster a better urbanization — one that promotes more rapid economic transformation, improves the quality of life of city dwellers and curbs the potential harmful spillovers of urbanization, such as congestion, wasteful energy use and unwanted pollution.

The report draws on an innovative blend of nighttime lights (satellite) data and census, environmental and economic data to paint a picture of recent trends in India’s urbanization and the relationships that exist in Indian cities between types of urban expansion and transport connectivity, and economic performance. It looks at the potential nationwide costs of a “sprawled” model of urbanization, as well as noting some of the current policies and institutional conditions that create incentives for such a model of urbanization. Using case studies of four Indian cities—Bangalore, Indore, Pune and Surat—the report delves more deeply into how this model of urban growth might exacerbate key deficits in basic urban services. It concludes by suggesting policy recommendations to accelerate a better form of urbanization.

Chokepoints: Circulation and Regulation in India’s Siliguri Corridor

India's Chicken NeckKnown as the Chicken Neck, the Siliguri Corridor is a precarious sliver of territory connecting India’s ‘mainland’ to its Northeast. Flanked by international borders, the Corridor funnels a myriad of goods and bodies between Nepal, China, Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and onward to Myanmar and Southeast Asia.

It is a zone of intense traffic and a critical chokepoint of South Asia. The immense volume of resources and people moving through the Corridor puts enormous strain on its infrastructure, not to mention those charged with securing and governing this unruly space. The Chicken Neck remains interwoven with smuggling, human trafficking, and clandestine activities – all of which can easily hide within its chaotic traffic. Traffic has accordingly become the operative condition of the Corridor’s (dys)function.

CURS Faculty Fellow Townsend Middleton, assistant professor of anthropology, spent the summer of 2016 working ethnographically with customs agents, anti-human traffickers, logistics experts and truck drivers in order to understand the cat-and-mouse interplays of circulation and regulation that shape life in this transit zone.

Chokepoint TrucksThis fieldwork by Middleton and his partners is part of an ongoing National Science Foundation-funded, CURS-supported, collaborative research project examining chokepoints around the world. Work sites include:

  • The Panama Canal: a century-old chokepoint of Atlantic-Pacific shipping and emerging global logistics hub. (with Ashley Carse, human and organizational development, Vanderbilt University)
  • India’s Siliguri Corridor (a.k.a. the “Chicken Neck”): a vital geopolitical connector of India and South Asia to China and Southeast Asia.
  • The Bab-el-Mandeb Strait: a critical shipping lane between the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, connecting the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean. (with Jatin Dua, anthropology, University of Michigan)
  • Ecuador’s Esmeraldas Refinery: a processing facility where oil from Amazonian oilfields is piped, refined, and exported for global maritime trade. (with CURS Faculty Fellow Gabriela Valdivia, geography, UNC-Chapel Hill)
  • Russia’s Roki Tunnel: a passageway of arms, bodies, and nuclear matter through the Caucasus (with Elizabeth Cullen Dunn, geography, Indiana University)
  • The Sundarbans: a network of chokepoints straddling the India-Bangladesh border and a critical zone of climatological crisis. (with Jason Cons, public affairs, UT Austin)
Townsend Middleton

Townsend Middleton

As chokepoints, these are sites that constrict or choke the flow of information, bodies and goods due to their natural and anthropogenic qualities. They are, by definition, integral yet difficult to bypass. Importantly, what happens at these sites ripples far beyond their immediate surroundings. Indeed, as Middleton’s research is demonstrating, chokepoints are sites where forces of globalization are powerfully exposed.

“Our aim is understand the human dimensions,” explained Middleton. “We are all dependent on chokepoints. Turning ethnographic attention to these sites, we aim to develop new understandings of the global flows and frictions that define the world today.”