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Is India becoming more urban? | The Economist

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Published on Feb 24, 2013

India's urban future: An animated infographic that shows why India needs to get better prepared for a boom in urban living

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Recent decades saw an astounding expansion of India's population beyond the billion mark. Still, mostly young and poor Indians, have the momentum to keep on growing fast. As India keeps expanding from its 1.2 billion people today, it will outpace China in a little over a decade. Becoming the most populous country on Earth.

India is also crowded. Much of the north, especially, is densely packed with people. The competition for land, for farms, for housing, for factories, among a sixth of the world's population is growing intense.

Yet Indians have just 2.4% of the world's land mass to squeeze on to. On average some 382 people are packed on to each square kilometre of territory.

To enjoy the world's average population density, Indians would need a country more than five times larger. Land the size of Russia.

For now Indians remain an unusually rural people. Two-thirds of the population still live in villages, broadly defined. The great rush to the cities has not properly got started yet.

Not everyone in a village makes a living from a farm, but many still do. Roughly half of all Indians, especially in the poor and North, still rely on agriculture to survive.

But all this is beginning to change, and fast. Over the years India has seen several massive cities grow. It'll soon have many more and much bigger ones. As people get richer and better educated, they increasingly want jobs in offices, shops, call centres, and factories. That means more urban life.

By 2030 an extra 250 million people are likely to have moved to India's towns and cities but that means overcoming a huge problem. It generally builds and runs urban spaces badly.

Far too many people already live in slums and tens of millions more will join them there. India needs good, cheap, healthy and central housing for its poor.

India's cities are dreadfully polluted. In a few big cities like Delhi, air quality improved in the past decade thanks to limits on car and bus pollution, but smog is now coming back. Take the most basic needs, access to a toilet. Even in bigger cities, many lack a safe hygienic latrine. Move to smaller towns and even access to a basic pit latrine can be rare. City dwellers also too often struggle to find safe drinking water, reliable power, or transport.

Still, a few examples of success exist and could be replicated. One hopeful corner is the booming city of Surat in the western state of Gujarat. 20 years ago it was known for dirt disorganization and a reported case of plague. Now it's well-run, clean with public services like rubbish collection done by efficient companies.

Though the city population is growing by 5 percent a year, the fourth fastest in the world, a capable municipality gets every house connected to piped water and proper sewage. Bus, rapid transport, new flyovers, and metro system are coming up which speeds traffic. Not too long from now Surat will be bigger than London. If it can get things right so can the rest of India.

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