The proposed network cities model for Andhra Pradesh can ensure balanced development and its success is important to all States grappling with rapid urbanisation

In another three months, the residual State of Andhra Pradesh will not have a capital of its own. The location of the new capital city is yet to be settled and the search is on. If the reports to develop about ten cities as “specialised mini capitals” rather than investing only in one mega capital city are anything to go by, it appears that a good solution is in sight.

The proposal is to develop multiple urban nodes such as Visakhapatnam, Vijayawada and Chittoor on an equal footing and make one of them an administrative headquarters. This might be a political necessity in order to placate the people of the region angry at the loss of Hyderabad, but it is a sensible move. This network cities model can ensure balanced and dispersed development, and its successful implementation is not only important for the residual State of Andhra Pradesh but also to other States, which are grappling with the issue of rapid urbanisation.

Over the past few years, urban policy in Andhra Pradesh and other places had gone wayward. Resources and attention were bestowed only on one alpha city — usually the capital — creating a humongous urban agglomeration at the expense of other potential urban centres. For instance, Hyderabad had grown to become the largest urban centre in the State with a population of about 7.75 million while the next big city, Visakhapatnam, has a population of only 1.73 million. Though historic reasons and location advantage contributed to the differences in growth, myopic policies have exacerbated it and skewed the urban pattern.

Policies that failed

Since the 1980s, various policies have been insisting on developing small and medium towns. The plan was to improve infrastructural facilities and employment opportunities in these towns and make them centres of growth. The reasoning was that developing carefully chosen places would fairly disperse urbanisation. State and central governments together spent about Rs. 1,600 crore on improving 1,854 towns, but it did not yield the desired result. In 2005, the governments concluded that big cities continued to dominate the spatial pattern of urbanisation. They gave up the policy to develop small and medium towns and started to fund only urban services projects in these places.

They blamed the lack of availability of land, inadequate funds and inability of local bodies to execute the schemes for the failure, but never admitted that their own ad hoc actions undermined the project. Since the 1990s, after economic liberalisation set in, the policies and programmes clearly shifted in favour of promoting metropolitan cities as destinations of global and domestic capital. Policymakers overlooked the rich urban diversity and gravitated towards mega cities. Consequently, as a study by Eric Denis et al (2012) showed, though substantial urban growth remained outside large cities, the state paid less attention to them. The economic potential of these smaller centres remained inadequately harnessed.

This approach continues, and the mega city model has not yet changed. For instance, the steering committee on urbanisation for the Twelfth Five Year Plan has recommended that the government develop satellite towns and twin cities near existing metropolises to manage growth. It is silent on dispersing urbanisation. In this context, the proposal to develop medium-sized towns in the residual State of Andhra Pradesh assumes significance and could mark the beginning of the much-needed course correction.

The residual State has a better distribution of urban centres than Telangana. There are about 32 towns with a population of more than one lakh compared to the 14 towns in Telangana. More importantly, if one leaves Hyderabad aside, eight of the nine large cities, which have a population of more than 4 lakh, are in the residual State. Most of these towns have registered more than 20 per cent growth in their population between 2001 and 2011, and possess great potential to emerge as important urban centres in future.

The way forward

Developing them is critical to ensuring that the benefits of economic growth reach vast rural hinterlands. Drawing from evidence across the world, scholars of urbanisation such as Cecilia Tacoli have emphasised that the growth of intermediate urban centres is particularly important at times when the process of globalisation is justifying “concentration of activities in the large cities, increasing the already significant regional differences in living conditions and productivity.”

The way forward is to carefully select cities to network and plan them well to provide good quality of life; emphasise public transport, social housing and environmental protection; put in place a good governance structure; and empower local bodies.

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