The Indian Economy Blog

April 30, 2007

Ancient Cities, Modern Slums

Filed under: Growth — Atanu Dey @ 9:19 pm

Isn’t it astonishing that 2,600 years ago, when most of the world was living in tiny little human settlements, the Indus Valley civilization had well-planned cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro?

“Some of these cities appear to have been built based on a well-developed plan. The streets of major cities such as Mohenjo-daro and Harappa were paved and were laid out at right angles (and aligned north, south, east or west) in a grid pattern with a hierarchy of streets (commercial boulevards to small residential alleyways), somewhat comparable to that of present day New York. The houses were protected from noise, odors, and thieves, and had their own wells, and sanitation. And the cities had drainage, large granaries, water tanks, and well-developed urban sanitation,” the Wikipedia article on urban planning says.

What is even more astonishing is that now, two and a half millennia later, most of the current inhabitants of land of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro civilization live not in well planned cities but in tiny little impoverished villages, and some in unplanned congested mega-slums. The shame of the whole thing is that as a collective not only have they lost the knowledge of what cities mean but they don’t even dream of building and inhabiting cities. One wonders when the regression started and what led to the death of the spirit that built those ancient cities. Something snuffed out the spirit, something killed those dreams, something made the inheritors of such great vision and accomplishment into myopic poverty-stricken masses living in misery, huddled into very primitive small villages.

The world – or at least some parts of it – has moved on. They have built many wonderful cities, much grander in scale than Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. Over the centuries, human civilization has progressed pari passu with the development of cities. Immense understanding and knowledge of what works and what doesn’t in city planning has accumulated.

With a modest investment in airline tickets, our leaders can visit great cities and see them with their own eyes. They don’t even have to imagine. Yet they refuse to dream or perhaps they are incapable of dreaming. Perhaps they are too busy with their incessant bickering over who gets how much of the little pie of material wealth that is created. Their mental poverty doesn’t afford them the luxury of dreams. They just want a little bit more, not something better. Their vision has narrowed to focus on how to continue to live in villages. I have yet to hear or read of even one leader of India calling for the creation of great well-planned beautiful cities. More shameful than our material poverty is the poverty of our imagination and aspirations.

We have the power to imagine a different future even if our leaders don’t. Using our collective wisdom and skills, we have the power to dream big. More importantly, having dreamt the seemingly impossible dream, we have the power to make that dream a reality. We need to ask the question: if not us, who else?

[This is part 1 of a series on "Urbanization and Growth." For the next part, see "Designer Cities."]


  1. One of the biggest issues for urban development is the land use pattern in India. Unlike all other major countries, most of the land mass in the country is claimed by someone or other who has been staying there for centuries. Almost every Indian state is quite densely populated, which is rather unusual.

    Among other major nations if you see the population distribution, Canada is just a line running parallel to US border, Australia is just the coasts, Brazil and China mostly concentrated on their dense east coasts running few hundred miles interior, Russia is just few pockets on their European portion and even US has vast tracts of emptiness in interior – Montana, Wyoming, Dakotas, Nevada, Arizona, where each of the state just have 1-2 major cities holding all the effectie population.

    This unusual population distribution for a major country is both a challenge and opportunity. Its an opportunity for telecom and retail services that could utilize a vast spread, but for urban development it is an utter mess. You cannot do in India like taking a vast tract of land in Nevada desert and making into Las Vegas. For any major project you need mass displacement, and mostly displacement of poor and uneducated who are little prepared for job opportunities offered by the development project.

    A good example is Mumbai. For its skyrocketing land prices, we would expect the poor to sell off their lands and can coast of their rest of their life just in the interest income. A 500sq ft shanty might get them Rs.50lakhs in some places and even if they get 10% of it and put it in a fixed deposit they could get Rs.5000/month and hang up their boots. But, these are not happening, leading to more inflexibility in land development.

    So, for Indian urban development, we need politicans with guts, businessmen with vision and education for everybody.

    Comment by Balaji Viswanathan — April 30, 2007 @ 11:54 pm

  2. Atanu,

    I’ve been following your Cities and Urbanization series over on your Deeshaa blog with interest and definitely agree that urbanization through the emergence of new urban areas is key to India’s development. Development across 600,000 villages is impractical and adding millions to already strained urban areas would not be ideal.

    However, I have one question for you as far as implementation is concerned. How do you propose to deal with the land zoning regulations that exist all across India? Currently, many of these new SEZs the national government’s setting up are on land that is designated as “Agricultural,” making it of limited value. The government in some cases has bought the land, re-labelled it as “industrial” or “urban” or what not (only the government has the power to do this in India, I forget the exact provisions in the Indian Constitution on this though), and turned around to sell it to developers for a huge profit as its value is now much greater since it can be used for more than growing vegetables. How would your proposed RISC plan get around this? While I find your plan appealing, it seems that the incentives are aligned completely against it happening as removing zoning restrictions requires action on the part of the state or national government. These governments’ politicians gain more if they make some $$$ “transforming” the land from “agricultural” to “urban/industrial” for friends or developers with deep pockets than if they pass a law eliminating zoning altogether, allowing private players to buy land at market prices from farmers and thus allowing RISC-type projects to be undertaken.

    Comment by Rahul Reddy — May 1, 2007 @ 7:07 am

  3. Rahul Reddy, surely you are not suggesting that “land zoning regulation” is something that is akin to a fundamental constant of nature such as the speed of light or the gravitational constant?

    Land zoning regulation is something that is made by people — they are not immutable laws of nature. They can be changed if one feels like it.

    Comment by Atanu Dey — May 1, 2007 @ 8:21 am

  4. it is a habit of a theorist to exaggerate grandeur of the old…
    in any case we are not even sure if pakistani MJ & H residents’ were indeed indo- (i deleted european here, as some chimps always get excited about that) speaking folks or not..
    modern day “indian”s’(indians defined as folks living in modern day india as bequeathed by the British. As such, intrinsically, india doesnot really exist, rather it is more like a federation of a nation of tamils, a nation of punjabis etc etc) inability to crack those inscriptions could be either plain ineptitude or more likely a severe case of misidentification.

    Comment by andiron — May 1, 2007 @ 4:59 pm

  5. from balaji:”Almost every Indian state is quite densely populated, which is rather unusual.”

    density in india varies a great deal..out side of
    “metropolitan” areas, Ganges valley is most dense across UP/Bihar all the way to Bangladesh.. South of Vindhya, density drops (MP has very low density)..density peaks up on the west & east costs like any other country..
    So the Gondwana (ganduwana??) land is not dense as well..

    Comment by andiron — May 1, 2007 @ 5:04 pm

  6. Atanu,

    I have been following your series on urbanization.

    As I read more, some questions still remain unanswered in my mind. Although your point that cities will drive growth is well taken, I feel that cities will also create poorer living conditions due to shortage of resources such as water. We should not be under the impression that such issues will go away with economic opportunities. I am not sure how such issues will be resolved.

    Also, I am not very clear if cities are a consequence of (much broader ) macroeconomic growth or its consequence, as you seem to argue.

    Comment by Girish Mallapragada — May 1, 2007 @ 7:37 pm

  7. From Balaji: A good example is Mumbai. For its skyrocketing land prices, we would expect the poor to sell off their lands and can coast of their rest of their life just in the interest income. A 500sq ft shanty might get them Rs.50lakhs in some places and even if they get 10% of it and put it in a fixed deposit they could get Rs.5000/month and hang up their boots. But, these are not happening, leading to more inflexibility in land development.

    The right way to fix this is to raise the property taxes. Make the owner pay atleast 1 or 2 % of the market price of the land a year. The govt has to make it economically unviable to have a shanty shop land worth 50 laks. Thats how it is done in the US. Moreover, the communists shouldn’t have problem with raising taxes.

    Comment by muttan — May 2, 2007 @ 12:05 am

  8. Also, the first step towards modernizing our cities is to raise the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) restrictions in the cities. This ratio is ridiculously low in our cities. It leads to high land prices, slums, sprawl, congestion, etc etc.

    Comment by muttan — May 2, 2007 @ 12:27 am

  9. @Andiron
    No doubt, there is a variation of densities between states. But, the variation is far lesser than in other major countries.

    All of India’s major states except probably J&K and Rajastan is quite densely populated by world standards. Bihar, UP, Kerala, West Bengal, Punjab, Andra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamilnadu, MP, Gujarat, Orissa all have quite a population…. whereas in China there is a huge variation as you go interior. You could get hundreds of miles of nothing in Inner Mongolia, Gobi Desert regions or Tibet. Same in US (states NJ,NY & CA vs WY, MT, NV…), Brazil, Canada, Australia.

    In India, simply there is no place where you could get few hundred square miles of virgin land. Even the desolate Thar desert and Kashmir Glaciers are out of reach (these due to security reasons) :(. Without this flexibility our city developments are really tough. Basically, we dont have enough swap space to reorganize the current shanties of India.

    Comment by Balaji Viswanathan — May 2, 2007 @ 3:59 am

  10. Btw.. Madhya Pradesh’s density is 196/km2, which is rather pretty high for a huge state.

    All the southern, western states are over 200/km2 and in north except for dispted J&K and the small Himachal and Uttrachancal, others are dense and east and interior all the states are desne.

    In comparison, the US interior has huge states like Wyoming: 1.96/km2, Montana: 2.39/km2 (basically they are all virgin lands), almost half of China is of huge provinces like Tibet (2.2/km2) Inner Mongolia (20/km2), Xinjiang (11/km2) that will allow them to build the next generation cities if they ever want to. Whatever little land that India has of lower densities is in troubled North East, Kashmir and in the desert border with Pakistan (Kutch and Rajastan) that are taken over for security reasons.

    So, to build a huge city India has to clear up quite a bit of people from a region and Singur like clashes will emerge.

    Comment by Balaji Viswanathan — May 2, 2007 @ 4:16 am

  11. From a contribution to GDP perspective, every new construction activity creates jobs, creates demand for steel and cement, and therefore adds to GDP numbers. But are we subtracting the productivity loss created due to this urban chaos? Isn’t that called “uneconomic development”?

    Though India is blessed with world class institutions in architecture and town planning (Delhi’s SPA is one), the issue however is lack of social responsibility. DLF’s (one of the major construction firms in north india) founder K.P.Singh appeared in Forbes list with a personal fortune of $10 billion!! DLF did build fancy looking office buildings and apartment complexes in Gurgaon (Delhi’s suburbs) but you would think that a man worth 10 billion would have a sense of social responsibility…he could learn something from Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Jane Fonda, Bono…could he have contributed to better town planning even if city of Gurgaon/state of Haryana made no effort. Same is the story of many other Indian entrepreneurs in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Pune who are busy growing their personal net worth and have these trial beliefs in benefiting their offsprings only and in the process they’ll leave behind ugly concrete structures and traffic jams :(

    Comment by Ashutosh — May 2, 2007 @ 2:40 pm

  12. Their mental poverty doesn’t afford them the luxury of dreams.

    Oh so true. Jawaharlal Nehru feels exactly the same and discusses this topic in his Discovery of India. He also tries to trace the reasons for this gradual degradation. One obvious reason he quotes summarizes to the continuous social and economic depression for about 160 yrs of British rule where most Indian thoughts were forced backwards leading to the raise in mis-understood Hindu rituals and as a resultant effect, immediate downfall in scientific thinking and aspirations. And the fundamental moral ethics lost in this battle.

    He even sites that, its not his generation which is feels this pain but of the generation previous to him during the early 19th century.

    But I am only sad with the fact that no other nation takes this long to realize that something needs to be done.

    Comment by Rohith V — May 2, 2007 @ 9:37 pm

  13. [...] [This is part 2 of a series on “Urbanization and Growth.” The previous part is “Ancient Cities, Modern Slums.”] [...]

    Pingback by The Indian Economy Blog » Designer Cities — May 3, 2007 @ 9:39 am

  14. 2600 years ago..? you mean at the time of buddha..? are you not making a mistake, mr. dey.. ?

    Comment by abhay tiwari — May 7, 2007 @ 9:09 am

  15. [...] [This is part four of a ten-part series. The previous parts are Ancient Cities, Modern Slums, Designer Cities, and “Best Laid Schemes.”] [...]

    Pingback by The Indian Economy Blog » Financing Designer Cities — May 7, 2007 @ 11:48 am

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