Mohan Guruswamy | Un-crowding India’s capital and decentralising of power

The Asian Age.  | Mohan Guruswamy

Opinion, Columnists

Dispersing offices across the nation will not only decongest Delhi, but will also become economic drivers that will modernise smaller towns.

Delhi is now easily the most traffic-congested city in the world. (AP Photo/Representational)

One of the early textbooks I read on Political Economy started with a scenario set in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a city with huge traffic problems in the 1970s and 1980s, with a traffic jam at a major intersection on a hot summer day that turns into a gridlock, and then leads to people abandoning their cars, unable to bear the severe heat, only aggravating the problems. This then leads to outbreaks of road rage, fistfights and soon into a welter of riots and inflicting a severe breakdown of law and order, that then spreads to others parts of Brazil. But Sao Paulo still functions. I think India is now a better candidate to revolution coming out of a traffic jam.

Most capital cities have a concentration of government offices of various tiers and responsibilities crowded in as close as possible to the real and imagined corridors of power. In India, apart from the ministries, departments and agencies, we also have a concentration of public sector organisations’ corporate offices in New Delhi. Many of these actually need not be here.

Let’s consider a few examples to illustrate this. Why is the India Meteorological Department required to be in New Delhi? Why must the director-general of civil aviation be in the capital? It goes just as well for the ITBP, CISF, SSB, BSF, ICG, ICAR, ICMR, ICHR, SAIL, BHEL, COPES and so many others who make for a crowded alphabet soup in New Delhi. The city also has a Delhi government and a mammoth municipal corporation to add to the overcrowding. Then we must ask as to why the NDMC has to be on Sansad Marg, and the Delhi high court sitting almost next door to the Supreme Court? Apparently, there is a magnetism that draws almost every other national organisation to be as close as possible to that small part of India where the national leadership lives and works.

Shifting many of these out of New Delhi will not in any way impair their abilities. The DGCA can operate just as well from Bhiwadi, SAIL from Ranchi, IMD from Pune, BHEL from Bhopal, ITBP from Dehra Dun or Chandigarh, SSB from Lucknow, and so on. And why should the Western Air Command of the Indian Air Force be situated in the capital when it can do its job equally well from, say, Saharanpur? No other military command is located even in the NCR, let alone New Delhi. In these days of near instant communication means, proximity is no longer a criterion to effectiveness.

There are very few places in India from where one cannot communicate with a person in another part instantly either by mobile phone, telephone, email, fax and skype on the Internet. So why should everybody be cheek by jowl?

In fact, shifting their head offices out of New Delhi will only unfetter them from their administrative ministries and all those little joint secretaries who lord over them. The further these departments and organisations get away from New Delhi, the more effective they will get. This will curb the temptation to pass the buck upwards or sideways to the next tier next door.

Delhi is now easily the most traffic-congested city in the world. Its stop and crawl traffic is the biggest factor responsible for its abysmal air quality and the millions of man hours wasted in traffic crawls and jams. The disastrous consequences of not doing anything about the ever-worsening traffic are now well known.

But all the solutions that are proposed to further modernise it will lead to bigger and faster mass transit systems, more civic amenities and efforts entailing more construction. These attempts to make the national capital better will paradoxically only attract more people to it, thereby adding to its problems rather than removing them. Then there are some things that are only possible by flattening the old. How can we ever modernise the overcrowded inner areas of many of our cities without reducing the number of people in them? Our inability to protect our rivers and air are testimony to this.

Dispersing offices across the nation will not only decongest Delhi, but will also become economic drivers that will modernise smaller towns and result in far more dispersed urbanisation. Imagine what a SAIL head office in Ranchi will do to decongest Lodhi Road and to the economy of Jharkhand? Or the Western Air Command in Saharanpur will do to relieve traffic around Dhaula Kuan and to modernising Saharanpur and the economy of western UP? In fact, one can make the same argument for all our major cities. The Western Naval Command can be shifted to a new location on the west coast and not only become a more effective fulcrum of India’s IOR domination, but also the fulcrum of economic growth in a virgin area, say Ratnagiri.

In fact, one can make an argument for moving the state capitals out of hopelessly overcrowded cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Patna and Lucknow. This will give a much-needed impetus to the construction sector, which for the foreseeable future will be India’s main economic growth driver.

Construction also has the potential to absorb tens of millions of the rural workforce, and also create demand for industrial goods. Construction will create a huge demand for not just steel and cement, but also construction equipment, transit systems, infrastructure essentials such as power and water distribution, and sewage treatment and disposal systems, among others, that will then drive the industrialisation of India.

China has decided to tackle the over-congestion of Beijing, now second to New Delhi in terms of air and water pollution, to shift out government offices to outside Beijing. Beijing’s municipal government, that employs tens of thousands, is now being relocated to a satellite town, Tongzhou.

Some other countries have tried to decongest their capital cities by leaving behind the economic capital and taking out the political capital. Malaysia’s political capital is located at Putrajaya, a brand-new city astraddle the highway to the international airport.

Many of these government departments and organisations can become anchors for new urbanisation and dispersing them will only enhance their independence and effectiveness. Our government suffers from too much micro-management of the routine and often mundane and a severe under management of the macro scenario. This is as much an opportunity to save our existing cities and also to build a new and better India.