The Urban Challenge: Berkeley Goes to India
Are India’s cities ready for the challenges of tomorrow? Over 20 faculty, researchers and graduate students will travel to New Delhi from UC Berkeley to take part in a symposium/workshop (March 23-25) on “The 21st-Century Indian City: Developing an Agenda for Urbanization in India,” writes Ashok Bardhan.
(Above): Taxicabs brought to a standstill in Kolkata. It is in the cities of India that the vast opportunities opened up by rapid economic expansion collide with the seemingly insurmountable challenges of managing the frantic pace of national transformation.
Some 50-odd years ago, UC Berkeley scholars (including Kingsley Davis and Catherine Wurster) organized a pathbreaking conference on India’s urban future, here at the Claremont Hotel. This coming spring break, more than twenty faculty, researchers and graduate students will travel to New Delhi from Berkeley, to take part in a symposium/workshop (March 23-25) on “The 21st-Century Indian City: Developing an Agenda for Urbanization in India.”
Sponsored by the Kanwal and Ann Rekhi Foundation, the Center for South Asia Studies, Global Metropolitan Studies, and the Fisher Center for Real Estate & Urban Economics, it is perhaps the first time a major U.S. university has organized a symposium abroad with such a range of multidisciplinary participation.
UC Berkeley is uniquely positioned to lead a conference on Indian cities, given its unmatched expertise in the field of South Asian studies, as well as Urban Studies. Departments represented include Anthropology, the Business School, City and Regional Planning, Economics, Electrical Engineering, Energy Resources Group, Geography, Political Science and Sociology. On the Indian side, speakers will include scholars and policymakers from leading research institutions and non-profit organizations, such as the Center for Policy Research (the local co-sponsor), Jawaharlal Nehru University, Institute of Urban Affairs, National Housing Bank, Institute of Economic Growth and many others. It will be a time to take stock of urban developments in the past half century, review best practices in urbanization from around the world, and showcase the vast research capabilities and global, comparative perspective of Berkeley scholarship.
(Above): Chhatrapati Shivaji Station in Mumbai. Dysfunctional infrastructure creaks under the combined pressures of lopsided growth, political skullduggery and governance gridlock. Yet, these cities are also undeniably beacons of hope for millions.
We keep hearing that the 21st century is destined to be the Asian century; if so, its epic dramas will unfold on an urban stage. More than half of humankind now lives in urban areas, and much of this present-day urbanization is taking place in Asia, especially in India and China. This process of urbanization is both a consequence of, and a further boost to, the forces that are driving economic growth in these countries. It is, however, turning out to be a mixed blessing. Indian urban centers are monuments to poverty, inequality, congestion and pollution.
Dysfunctional infrastructure creaks under the combined pressures of lopsided growth, political skullduggery and governance gridlock. Yet, these cities are also undeniably beacons of hope for millions. They are the incubators of the new middle-classes, fertile ground for the emergence of social movements and political mobilization, ceaseless job creators for rural migrants, and the wellspring of civil society growth.
It is in the cities of India that the vast opportunities opened up by rapid economic expansion collide with the seemingly insurmountable challenges of managing the frantic pace of national transformation. The institutions of urban planning, local finance, municipal governance and public-private initiatives are straining at the seams, making day-to-day affairs of urban management profoundly difficult.
(Above): Chandni Chowk in Delhi. Indian urban centers are monuments to poverty, inequality, congestion and pollution. Over 20 faculty, researchers and graduate students will travel to New Delhi from UC Berkeley to take part in a symposium/workshop on “The 21st-Century Indian City: Developing an Agenda for Urbanization in India.”
The issues of land acquisition, slum revitalization, affordable housing, public transportation and city services are all intertwined together with local politics, socio-cultural factors and growing activism, condemning any simplistic approaches and policy quick-fixes to failure. With that in mind, all the panels have been structured in a unique way: each will be multidisciplinary, and will have a speaker from Berkeley, from Indian academia, from the Indian policy establishment and the non-profit activism sphere. The symposium will be built around four broad themes, with each theme representing a core challenge that has to be met in the coming decades: 1) Urbanization, Globalization and Economic Growth; 2) Infrastructure, Environment, and Planning; 3) Democracy and Governance; 4) The Social and Civic Life of Cities.
Some of the questions raised will include:
Are first tier Indian cities too big?
What are effective and appropriate transportation solutions to the specific nature of Indian traffic congestion?
What are the determinants of effective urban/municipal governance? What are the solutions to politico-economic gridlock and the hijacking of power by local elites?
What will it take to design an affordable and viable public housing scheme?
How can decentralization in service delivery (such as water) work with increased private sector participation?
What are the salient attributes of the emerging urban middle class and what is its role in civil society?
What experiments with democracy do urban spaces allow?
What regulatory structure and which incentives need to be created for sustainable urban development?
The future of humankind is inextricably linked with urban habitation. Cities attract us and keep us there, whether it be the lure of jobs, the dense network of relationships, the recreational and cultural attractions, or simply, as Milton said – “Towered cities please us then, And the busy hum of men.” Cities are central to national life and urban space plays a starring role in political and social events, whether on Tahrir, Trafalgar and Tiananmen squares, or Sukhumvit and Champs Elysees avenues.
Hopefully, the workshop will help in developing comparative insights and policy prescriptions, which are attentive to India’s needs and are informed by the successes and failures of other developing and developed countries. Fifty years ago, the collaboration between Indian urban scholars and policy makers and Berkeley took place in Berkeley. Today, as we move towards creating a forum where ideas about urbanization can be debated and shared in the spirit of global intellectual collaboration, it is only fitting that Berkeley goes to India.