India, a Country of Change

As a result of the population explosion that has happened in the last decades, India is now the second most populous country in the world. A significant portion of the country’s total population, which surpasses one billion, lives in the country’s metropolises. Their size, development, and crowdedness takes on unimaginable proportions when compared with Europe.

A solution has yet to be found to ensure appropriate living conditions for those arriving in cities, as these are unable to keep pace with the population growth, and thus face such enormous challenges as the elimination of slums cropping up near city boundaries or supplying basic public service infrastructure. In 2014, the Indian government announced and launched its Smart Cities Mission, the results of which are beginning to come to light. However, even the Smart Cities Mission does not provide a satisfactory answer to the question whether India is in a position to adequately address the social and environmental problems prevalent in metropolises.

Urbanisation in 20th Century India

Urban development in India reaches back all the way to 2300 B.C. The first Indian cities emerged on the northwestern half of the Indian subcontinent in Indus and Ganges River Valleys, and on the subcontinent’s southern half[1] . This is not surprising, as rivers played a serious strategic role in the emergence of the first settlements and towns. This led to the fact that the area between the two rivers boasted no significant population aggregations in India, either. By the 16th-17th centuries, India became one of the most urbanized regions of the world, but in the wake of English colonization its cities regressed, and in time, as the English influence became more muscular, a European-style urban development commenced. In this era, India’s three most significant ports, Kolkata, Mumbai (Bombay), and Chennai (Madras) became metropolises. Moreover, different industrial cities emerged owing to the appearance of modern factory industry and the construction of a railway network, such as Jamshedpur.

The 20th century brought further significant changes for India. In 1941, in the last census conducted before the declaration of India’s independence, the population of 49 cities surpassed 100,000, and roughly 2,500 settlements possessed the title of a city.  After 1947, following independence, however, an unprecedented urban explosion commenced, which constitutes the “golden era” of Indian urban development (1951-2011). In less than 60 years the urban population grew six-fold, but in terms of ratio only about 1.5fold.

The number of cities with a population larger than 1 million people grew from 4 to 45[2], among them the world’s three most populated metropolises (Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata). The pace of growth is not expected to slow, and four more cities (Ahmadabad, Bangalore, Chennai, and Hyderabad) will surpass the magic 10 million count. As a result, 7 megalopolises will be situated in the country’s territory[3].

Despite megalopolises, the level of urbanization is relatively low (30%[4]), but this is expected to grow to 40% by 2030. However, even with such low-level urbanization, the fact remains that every third urban dweller in the world comes from India. If we consider global trends as a comparison, the rate of urban dwellers reached 50% in 2007 worldwide, and this value has since increased, which aptly shows how much India is lagging behind in urbanization.

When we list the engines of India’s 20th century urbanization, then we witness the following decisive events and processes, which helped create today’s urbanization levels:

  • Immediately after India’s declaration of independence, masses of refugees arrived in India from the territory of today’s Pakistan and Bangladesh, who primarily settled in the country’s northern urban parts (in the Delhi or Kolkata metro areas, in Punjab etc.). Oftentimes housing was created for them in certain parts of the cities, but it was not rare, either, that an entire new city was erected for them.
  • Following English colonization an industrialization program was launched, owing to which steel, petrochemical, fertilizer and aluminum production industrial centers were created or reconstructed.
  • One of urbanization’s side effects, a competition between cities, could also be felt. As winners emerged, metropolises counting one hundred thousand and millions of inhabitants, the losers were stagnating or declining small- and medium-sized towns.
  • The difference between metropolises and the countryside intensifies, and it becomes an ever greater challenge to manage the uncoordinated spread of urban outskirts (urban sprawl)
  • The spontaneously emerging slums that spread at an ever greater pace represent India’s most urgent problem today, as the metropolises counting millions of inhabitants are unable to provide housing for the incoming population[5].
How Do We Design an Indian City? Trends from 1990s to out Day

Up to the 1970s, Indian urban development was centralized, which was gradually replaced by a decentralized idea and approach. This meant, on the one hand, that different non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community based organizations (CBOs) participated instead of the state, on the other hand local governments and the private sphere became the decisive actors in urban development. Decentralization only became forceful enough to the 1990s such that the private sphere could play an ever greater role in the realization of large scale urban development projects. This process intensified from the 2000s onwards.

The issue with the spread of the private sphere is that players do not pay sufficient attention to fulfilling social demands. However, the issue is much more complex, as not only privatization is responsible for the unsuccessful urban development directions. Rather, it is the complicated network between the state, the private sector, the elderly local citizens, the migrant workers, and the newly emerging groups that can be blamed for the present situation. In the near future, even more Indians will flow from rural areas into the cities. Several hundred, perhaps several thousand new cities will develop India-wide, therefore it is indispensable that the new issues come in front of an ever greater public, and that special attention is paid to their solution. At present the main challenge is population influx. In many cases a hostile relationship develops between locals and those migrating into the city looking for new jobs. India is in essence living through an urban paradox. City quarters consisting of luxury skyscrapers emerging out of nothing face the world of slums.

Two faces of urbanization

The best counterexample to India’s urbanization is China, which has been successful since the 1980s. After all, China managed to lift hundreds of millions of people out of deep poverty thanks to urban development. This was an important element in Prime Minister Deng Xiaoping’s politics. Africa serves as a negative counterexample. Here, no actual progress can be seen, as the focus was on the development of rural areas, and thus kept millions of people in rural poverty. The existence of effective agriculture is the precondition of successful urbanization, as the development of urban and rural regions mutually influence on another. However, as history is our witness, it’s not agriculture, but urban culture that is the true engine of human development.

Individual cities may apply to participate in the program by applying for the opportunity based on governmental guidance. The cities with best applications receive support (in the first round so far 20 cities received support in the Smart City Program, but actual results can only be reported in the coming years).

The cities’ tenders are evaluated according to the following criteria:

  • the state and quality of existing public services (based on the changes that have happened since the 2011 census, and the municipal budget in the past two years)
  • institutional framework and capacities (and its development in the past three years);
  • ability to self-finance (based on the running costs and municipal payments received by local organizations);
  • developmental path (based on the results and projects realized in the framework of an earlier urban development program [JNNURM]).

While in historical perspective the state typically appeared as the “benefactor of the poor”, the state leadership has recently become a “patron of development”, and later on a “patron of growth”.

Smart vs Slum: A Turning Point In Indian Urban Development

The goal of the Smart City Mission launched in 2014 by the Indian government is to eliminate problems that originate in uncontrolled urban growth. Moreover, it has close ties to the Indian Prime Minister’s, Narendra Modi’s, “Digital India” initiative.

“In the past, cities were built on riverbanks. Today, they emerge next to highways. In the future, the most important consideration will be access to optical cables and next generation infrastructure.”[6] There is a connection between Smart City Mission and Digital India in reality as well. After all, one of the program’s goals is to create industrial corridors (Delhi-Mumbai, Chennai-Bangalore, Bangalore-Mumbai), which create connections between Indian metropolises. Moreover, in the framework of smart cities a more livable and greener city that commands a more efficient public service management would be built.

A smart city is a settlement where existing technological opportunities (primarily info-communication technology) are used in an innovative way, helping to create a better, more diverse and more sustainable urban environment. A smart city is a city with a high rate in green areas, efficient municipal management, and well-organized public transportation; it is environmentally friendly and safe; it has accessible quality education, a cost-effective social and health care system, and convenient and attractive tourism services.


According to the Indian government’s vision, 100 selected cities will be rehabilitated to the tune of 15 billion USD through the introduction of the newest information and communication tools. The largest metropolises will largely be unaffected by this program. It focuses instead on the satellite-cities that can be found around them, as, due to large scale population influx and the large number of jobs, the largest slums emerged here.

The expression satellite town or city refers to such cities, that have been created in a planned manner around metropolises, and whose primary function is to provide relief to the central city. The majority of such cities are created around an industrial center in order to supply the industrial function.

Critical Mass

Despite the fact that the program’s effects on urban development are not yet known, several critical evaluations have been published about it and its expected consequences.

According to some opinions, development would remain the privilege of a few, and its price will be paid by millions in the lower social strata. The critics claim that closed cities will develop, where the interests of large corporations override the legal and governmental interests. They believe it is almost certain that the poorer strata will be excluded from this world. As India is not attempting to build on an existing foundation, but rather is attempting to create smart cities out of nothing, this enforced planning from above will pay less attention to urban inhabitants and their actual needs due to its very manner of operation. There is a danger that large scale social segregation might emerge due to smart cities, or that the contradictions between the rich and poor would further solidify, which would result in an essentially dual social structure for the country as a whole.

The Failure of Smart Cities In Developing Nations

Henrik Valeur, a Danish-born architect-urbanist offered a comprehensive critique. His book on this theme came out in 2014 and is entitled India: The Urban Transition. The book does not employ a traditional academic approach, but rather introduces Indian urban development and its effects from the point of view of a layman, which he illustrates richly with personal experiences gained during long years spent in India.

In his book Valeur lists five elements which he regards as decisive in relation to urban quality of life, and which are richly illustrated with local examples: air, water, food, housing, and mobility. These are simultaneously the needs whose fulfillment presents a particularly large challenge for Indian cities, and in relation to which, according to the author, it would be particularly necessary to rephrase questions, or to seek creative solutions. Valeur does not only criticize, rather, he also offers solutions to remedy viewpoints he regards as problematic. Valeur formulated the concept of and launched the school of development urbanism. Its point of departure is that the framework of the Smart City Mission announced by the Indian government was not developed by practicing urban developers and the scientific era, but rather a handful of multinational corporations, who would like to sell their own information and technological solutions to the cities involved. It is not surprising therefore that Valeur came to the conclusion that the Smart Cities Mission is doomed to fail in the metropolises of the developing world, and that it is necessary to offer a different solution to them. Therefore, development urbanism advocates the elimination of poverty and environmentalism under the aegis of urban development.[7]

What does development urbanism mean?

According to the author, we must differentiate between developed and developing countries when attempting to solve problems occurring in the course of urban development paradigms. He argues that in developing nations various solutions must be interpreted and applied in a different fashion than in developed nations, therefore a wholly new viewpoint and perspective is necessary to find possible final solutions.

What Should We Develop?

Despite the fact that Valeur set clear developmental goals with his own conception, he does pose the theoretical question is his book: what actually counts as appropriate development from the point of view of developing nations? At the end, he reaches the conclusion that everything is equally important. Whether it is the reduction of poverty and social inequality, the development of health care, or the protection of human rights, the protection of environmental and natural resources, after all, problems and challenges are concentrated primarily in these areas.

According to the UN’s prediction, the Earth’s population will grow by about 2 billion people in the next twenty years, a significant portion of which will be located in the developing world’s metropolises.  The expected population growth in the developing world’s metropolises will cause significant cultural, economic, political, scientific, and technological changes, which have to be acknowledged and remedied in times. After all, they might constitute the roots of serious problems.

Metropolises here, naturally, not only possess problems to be solved but also numerous opportunities. If we fail to exploit these positive energies, that would mean lost potential for society as a whole. Therefore, a new kind of developmental approach is necessary for cities, which according to Valeur could be provided by development urbanism. This concept privileges on the one hand human connections, which had hitherto been pushed to the background, as well as cooperation; on the other hand, it emphasizes that cities are not only physical constructions, but rather complex ecosystems, where people live, develop and adjust together to their changing environment.

Quality urban living cannot be determined in advance, instead, an environment must be created where everyone can find the most ideal circumstances corresponding to his demands and opportunities. This is the true essence of the urbanism concept, which, according to the author, might contribute to the reversal of urbanization trends currently transpiring in Indian cities.


The Indian population has grown substantially in the past decades. Migration from the rural areas to the cities has becomes more significant among the population. According to predictions, these processes are expected to continue. Consequently, we may conclude that the urban population will increase substantially both in numbers and in rate.


This degree of metropolitan “explosion” means that the country is facing significant challenges, which the government is attempting to manage with large scale urban development programs. According to the newest conceptions, intelligent city planning and organizing technologies will solve occurring problems, however, some critics already question whether these can ever be efficient.

It is certain that unique solutions need to be developed in order to respond to the urbanization challenges of the developing world, that the import of tried and true Western methods do not in all cases lead to results, that special attention needs to be paid to local circumstances, needs, and demands, and that locally existing experiences need to be mined and built upon.









László Gere graduated in 2009 at Eötvös Loránd University as a geographer, with specialization in regional and settlement development, in 2016, qualified as a specialized and literary translator from English and from Hungarian at Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church, began his PhD studies in autumn 2015 at the Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences of the University of Pécs. He works as senior researcher at PAIGEO Research Institute from 2015. He is specialized in urbanism, the global role and social economic processes of the cities.

Gere László

László Gere graduated in 2009 at Eötvös Loránd University as a geographer, with specialization in regional and settlement development, in 2016, qualified as a specialized and literary translator from English and from Hungarian at Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church, began his PhD studies in autumn 2015 at the Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences of the University of Pécs. He works as senior researcher at PAIGEO Research Institute from 2015. He is specialized in urbanism, the global role and social economic processes of the cities.

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