Reimagining Our Big Cities – An Evaluation of the Article

The article ‘Reimagining our big cities’ by Vasanth Srinivasan which appeared in ‘The Hindu’ on 16 December 2015 can be approached with a critical view point. The whole purpose of the article is understood from the first line, ‘Over several decades now economists have been celebrating cities not just as magic pill to get the world rid of poverty but as a turbo-charged engine that can transport people to a land of eternal prosperity’. But what I want to specifically point out is the lack of a strong opinion from the part of the writer regarding the whole issue. The author rightly points out the estimates conducted by various institutions and put forward the facts such as, two-thirds of the global population will be living in urban areas; that the developing world will account for over 90 per cent of urban growth but he fails to bring forth his stand on the article and he just touches the matter vaguely.

The writer points out the opinion of UN Habitat report on cities, ‘the highest pinnacles of human creation’, and also the observation of 2014 Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change Working Group report which says emerging global climate risks are concentrated in urban sprawls, at the same time he also put forward the questions, “Do the developing countries really understand the rules of the game they are so keen on playing? So, is urbanisation with big urban agglomerations a flawed model?, In other words, does the future belong to smaller but easily manageable cities?”, to which he fails to give an answer.

Throughout the article the writer mentions the mixed opinions of different people on the issue which left the readers confused and thus lack of clarity serves to be a major problem. Three different contradictory opinions mentioned are as follows, Durganand Balsavar, principal architect of Artes – Human Settlement Development Collaborative says, “A network of smaller urban centres is a better alternative. A large urban agglomeration cannot be made the norm. The location of the city, environmental conditions, resources have to be considered.”At the same time, Raj Cherubal, director of the organisation, Chennai City Connect says, big cities, given their density and spread, are capable of bringing in transformative changes with long-term sustainable benefits.  Another organisation is of the opinion that, “What we should address is mindless growth. Small or big does not matter.” The contradiction of the viewpoints is noticeable.

When the writer puts forward the question, “Assuming big cities are beasts that can be tamed, what route one takes?” he then again fails to give a correct definition of ‘what and where the city is?’ The author mentions about transit oriented development (TOD)  a high density commercial cumresidential area situated within a radius of 1 km from a transit station as a measure to the problem.

I also felt that the author brings many unnecessary points such as he mentions about  Nagarpalika Act and also the concept of “land value capture” which serves to be of no use in the article. The writer’s claim that one of the reasons big cities are earning a bad name is their inability to mobilise money for infrastructure development and upkeep, a universal problem that is more acute in India given our dismal record in decentralisation, is also arguable. He also brings in the “two capitals” debate. The author quotes M.G. Devasahayam, “If you find Chennai crowded today, it is not because it is the seat of government. Commercial activities need not be concentrated in Chennai. Places such as Coimbatore and Tiruchi have a good industrial base. We should develop these places.”

The author ends the article by saying that administrative decentralisation without empowering people is a road to nowhere. As policymakers reimagine the concept of the “big city”, they need to address the sense of alienation that rapid urbanisation brings with it.