BHUBANESWAR HAS LOTS OF GREENERY - a good bus system, scant signs of rubbish, and inviting public spaces around the ancient temple at its centre.

The east Indian city, capital of the state of Odisha, recently acquired broad pavements, orderly parking and modern lighting. Soon it will have 24-hour drinkable tap water - a basic service that even the poshest corners of Delhi and Mumbai lack. Most Indian cities are not like Bhubaneswar.

They are more often decrepit overcrowded and unprepared to be the engines of growth that India needs them to be. Most Indian cities - of which 59 have populations of over a million people - lack adequate housing, sanitation, clean water, health care, education, public transport, trees and shade.

According to the U.N., in 2020 roughly half of India's urban households lived in slums. This is a huge problem.

India's cities accommodate about 700 million people, or half the population, a share that is rapidly increasing as people flood in from rural areas, seeking refuge from poverty in sweltering fields and the added opportunities that cities provide.

India's urban centres generate 60% of its GDP. By 2026, according to an official estimate, 73% of Indian population growth will take place in urban areas. Workers in big cities command a wage premium of 122% over those in the countryside.

Just 5% of Indian city-dwellers are ''multidimensionally poor'' [a sophisticated poverty ranking] compared with 19% of people in rural areas.

Recent governments have promised to address the problem. Most failed, in part because of countervailing demands from poor rural areas, where the other half of Indian voters live.

The administration of Narendra Modi and its counterparts in several states are making a better fist of it.  The Hindu-nationalist central government has poured money into urban housing, water, electricity, metro systems and other infrastructure schemes.

'' For the first time cities have become politically salient,'' says Srikanth Vishwanathan of Janaagraha, an NGO focused on urban development.  

India's long-standing neglect of its cities is rooted in Gandhian ideology as well as electoral exigency. Mohandas Gandhi, in some ways India's founding father, preached that '' the soul of India lives in its villages'', a view that gave cities a poor footing in independent India from the start.

The constitution sets out power for the federal government and for states, but hardly mentions cities.

Municipal authorities are therefore weak; the state governments are mainly responsible for urban policymaking. Only one in eight Indian government employees works at the local level, compared with two in three in China.

Where China boosted its urban centres by rewarding local governments for economic development,  notes Nirvikar Singh of the University of California in Santa Cruz, no such mechanism exists in India.

The Publishing continues. The World Students Society thanks The Economist.


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