Indian Cities Grow In Size And Economy But Fall Short Of Quality Of Life

The biggest Indian cities are enveloped in layers of pollution and struggle with basics like sewage and water supply. While high population is often cited as a reason for the poor state of affairs, that cannot be an excuse for Indian cities failing to improve standards of life even as Indian economy continues an upward march.


Photo: Dinesh Parab

Delhi and Mumbai have been rated as the most liveable cities in India. 

While Delhi is the national capital and a city that people migrating from all corners of the nation and even abroad have called home for a thousand years, Mumbai is the financial capital and the City of Dreams. These two cities might be India's crown jewels, but they are nowhere close to the global standards. 

Consider this: of the 173 cities ranked by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) on the Global Liveability Index for 2023, the best-ranked Indian cities of Delhi and Mumbai jointly got 141 rank.


At the moment, both Delhi and Mumbai are shrouded in layers of pollution that have become the starkest identifier for these cities. For cities symbolising India's rich heritage and constant upward economic trajectory, being identified with pollution in the rest of the world is not something to be proud of. 

One excuse that often seeks to justify the poor standards of life in India when compared to Western cities is Indian cities' populations. While there might be truth in this excuse, this cannot continue to cover up to the failure of Indian cities to improve the standards of life as the Indian economy continues to be on an upward march. While the best-ranked Indian cities are still among the world's worst, the only country comparable to India in terms of population, China, has 10 cities in the top 100, with Nantong getting the rank of 82 as the most liveable Chinese city, according to The Print.  


What plagues Indian cities?

Delhi has long been infamous for its air pollution. Now, it has been joined by Mumbai as well. 

The air quality index (AQI) of Mumbai was 201 as compared to Delhi's 263 at the time of writing. This might come as a shock to some, but Mumbai has been on a spiral for a few years. Last Tuesday, the average AQI of Mumbai was 193 as compared to Delhi's 84, according to The Indian Express. 

The Express also reported the following startling facts about Mumbai: 

1. There were 66 days during November 2022-January 2023 of 'poor' or 'very poor' air quality in Mumbai. The previous year, the number was 20.
2. There were 14,396 deaths of people suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) during 2016-21, coming to six deaths per day.
3. There were 1,220 deaths due to bronchitis and 6,757 due to asthma during 2016-21.
4. There were 923 lung cancer deaths in 2021 as against 621 in 2009.

It is not just air pollution that plagues Indian cities. Every year during monsoon seasons, most of the cities, including Delhi and neighbouring Gurugram which is home to India Inc, get flooded. While drainage itself is an issue, the condition is much worse when it comes to sewage treatment. 

Indian cities treat only 28 per cent of their sewage and 10 states and Union Territories (UTs) —Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Lakshadweep, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland— do not treat sewage in their cities at all, according to the 'State of India’s Environment in Figures 2021' report by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). The report further says that another 13 states and UTs treat less than 20 per cent of their sewage, seven more treat 20-50 per cent, and only five states and UTs treat more than 50 per cent of their sewage.


Among the most interesting findings of the report was that, despite the constant overall economic growth of India, cities and particularly state capitals were lacking in generating economic opportunities for residents. 

"Only one state capital (Bengaluru) demonstrates a decent economic ability, scoring 78.82 out of 100. Four other state capitals (Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi and Hyderabad) provide middling economic opportunities. The rest have all scored less than 30 out of 100," says the CSE report. 

Ramanath Jha, a Distinguished Fellow at the think tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF) noted that, naturally, economic growth of cities should translate into an increase in the quality of life in those cities as well, but that has not been the case. He points out that cities are failing on fundamental indicators, such as affordable housing, traffic congestion, quality of air, and the city’s ability to withstand natural disasters.


"The situation of affordable housing in all large cities almost without exception is tragic, exemplified by the draft Delhi Master Plan 2041, which estimated that 85 per cent of residents cannot afford a regular shelter. They live in unauthorised settlements. Affordable rental housing faces a similar backlog. The air quality in Indian cities is deteriorating, highlighted by air quality measurements and the rise in respiratory diseases. Climate change has ravaged almost large cities with floods every year and no city appears in a position to effectively deal with them," said Jha in an article for ORF.

Why are Indian cities failing?


The reasons for the failure of Indian cities to be more liveable may be subject to debate, but whether they are failing or not is not. It's a fact. 

Experts have pointed out a number of reasons for poor urban spaces, such as poor approach to urban development, focus on symbolic populist projects instead of projects actually needed, lack of urban planners, and surprisingly lack of resources. 

The focus on India in recent decades has shifted from people-centric projects to ones that are symbolic in nature and are more about invoking national pride than addressing the requirements of residents on the ground, such as the Mumbai's Sea Link and Bengaluru-Mysuru Expressway, said Somdeep Sen, Associate Professor of International Development Studies, Roskilde University, in an article for Al Jazeera. 


Initially after Independence, the focus of the state-run economy, modelled after the Communist Soviet Union, was on addressing the various facets of the state-led economy, such as building housing for government workers, industrial workers, low-income groups, etc. While the economy took a leap with the liberalisation in 1991, the urban planning failed to catch up with the changing times. 

"Urban development was no longer aimed at bettering the lives of citizens [after 1991]. Instead, the aspiration was to make the city look like a hub of global flows of talent, capital, innovation and culture. Doing so, according to political leaders and planners, was a matter of national pride and indicative of the country’s global ambitions...Still, pitching urban development as a national cause clearly works politically. But it does little to solve the crises faced by India’s cities. It is only when urban development is focused on the most marginalised and vulnerable can cities truly belong to all, and genuinely become liveable," noted Sen for Al Jazeera.


Moreover, while it might sound odd, Jha of ORF also points out that urban local bodies, which are actually in charge of our urban spaces, are short of revenues and are therefore stretched financially to do meaningful work.

"The substantial increase in city wealth translates into minuscule growth in the revenues of ULBs or parastatals that are charged with the responsibility of providing numerous services to their citizens...However, the falling share of ULBs as a percentage of national GDP demonstrates that the ULBs are left high and dry. No wonder, most cities cannot go to the bond market because they will not be able to procure a good credit rating to raise debt," notes Jha. 


Not that it needs to be repeated, most of the urban projects don't appear to factor in environmental concerns that not only affect public health but also have financial implications. The World Bank has noted that air pollution could have an impact as high as 1.6 per cent of the Indian gross domestic product (GDP). 

All of these reasons come together to make our cities more about mammoth construction pits where machines are almost always running to churn out this memorial or that flyover, but little gets added to the quality of life. Environmental concerns are mostly ignored, green lungs are being compromised, public transport remains patchy except for some cities like Delhi or Kolkata, and that explains why even the best Indian cities rank among the least liveable in the world.