Science & Technology

India desperately needs new-age towns. Our tech business leaders must step up

New Delhi October 14 dmanewsdesk: A bunch of tech billionaires have bought land, stretching over 202 sq km, around 96 km away from San Francisco. They propose to build a new town there, a place that would not have the problems of San Francisco, such as unaffordable housing that creates a population of the homeless and pushes away workers who cannot afford ‘Frisco’s costs and, thus, starve the city’s thriving businesses of much-needed talent.

If this example needs to be emulated anywhere on Earth, it is in India. Our cities choke on dirty air, stay stuck in traffic jams and have dysfunctional housing markets with unaffordable rentals that push vital talent out of the city and out of economic viability for many companies. India needs dozens of new towns, a point underlined by the rise in the cost of new housing units at a pace higher than the rise in the cost of construction, indicating a steady increase in the scarcity of land in towns.

As the economy prospers, the process would be driven by off-farm activities, such as food processing, fabricating satellites and coding machine-learning algorithms. People would move from village to town for jobs. According to the World Bank, China is two-thirds urban, and the world average reached 57% in 2022. It is not possible that India would live in its villages. If the current level of urbanisation is 35% (it was 31% in 2011, the latest census figure), and India grows rapidly for the next couple of decades, when the country’s level of urbanisation crosses 50%, it would mean at least 200 million more in towns, calling for at least an additional 16,000 sq km of urban land, assuming high population densities.

Delhi, including the rural areas in its periphery, is a little over 1,400 sq km. The new greenfield city of Atal Nagar-Nava Raipur is 250 sq km. Amaravati, the capital of Andhra Pradesh, after Telangana took away Hyderabad for its capital, is 217 sq km. The urbanisation challenge India faces is clearly, truly massive. It might be unwise to leave it to the wisdom of state-level politicians, who control land and land use.

Nor would it be wise to leave it to real estate builders. Magarpatta, a planned city in Maharashtra, in which farmers pooled their land, built a township on it, and offered built-up space to IT services, hospitals and management schools, is a successful model of stakeholdership of those who give up land for building new towns. Still, the size of the town is 450 acres, less than 2 sq km. DLF, it is true, built Gurgaon. But the basic infrastructure had to be retrofitted later.

India’s real estate companies are relatively small. There is no equivalent to China’s Country Garden, with a total debt of $187 billion. But we need them if we are not to run out of urban space and stymie growth because expensive rentals make workers scarce. Here is the opportunity for our tech or other billionaires to make a difference.

The plan should be to build towns, at least 100 sq km, well-connected to established cities. These can be built for optimal use of public transport, with dedicated lanes for smaller vehicles that provide first-mile/last-mile connectivity predictably and with comfort, without which people would not use public transport.

These cities can use the latest concepts in urban planning to minimise commutes and roads and buildings laid out to eliminate the formation of heat islands.

The cities can come with power cables, water pipes, storm water drains, sewer networks, optical-fibre cables and tunnel systems to let people repair all these other conduits. Effluent treatment, solid waste management, digestion of biomass to produce methane and renewable energy systems can all be provided for, as well as greenery and open and enclosed spaces for sports, concerts and other large congregations.

The towns can plan for lots of rental housing to accommodate young workers, shared workspaces, entertainment hubs and the like. Mixed land use would prevent the need for long work commutes.

Feeding the city with talent, custom and youthful energy, universities can come up nearby. Oxford, Cambridge and Boston and not just the neighbourhoods of Stanford today, hum with the innovations sparked at the respective universities being converted into businesses.

Such new-age cities would call for vision, lots of capital and buy-in from those who give land to the city in return for a fraction of it returned as urban property, longish gestation periods and non-partisan political support.

Who can promote such towns other than our billionaires, especially those from the tech sector, whose need to interact with the rest of the ecosystem had been minimal for their initial years?

Real estate investment trusts can supply capital. Once the basic structure of the city has been built up, conventional real estate can be tasked to finance and build individual segments. Once such urban investors team up, ready with capital and resolve, states could be asked to compete for the projects.

Let the race for decent urbanisation begin!

Views expressed are author’s own

Author : T K Arun

Source : The Economic Times