I visited India a few years ago, and spent a week in Gurgaon, a suburb of New Delhi. Leaving aside the culture shock — crazy drivers, cattle in the streets, public defecation — I was astonished that the infrastructure was being left up to private developers. So, for example, at many intersections streets would have a two foot gap between them, filled with sand, and the streets ‘meeting’ at different heights. This was the result of two different developers creating those streets without reference to a standard from the local government.

In today’s NY Times, Alex Tabarrok and Shruti Rajagopalan write about the haphazard way that Gurgaon grew:

Indian urban development has suffered under an imposing edifice of overlapping bureaucracies and a philosophy of economics that prioritizes village life over urbanization. Together, Nehruvian bureaucracy and Gandhian economics, romanticizing rural agrarian life, have made it extremely costly to convert rural land for urban use. Indian urban development has lagged that of China, and the pressures for urbanization have resulted in the unofficial building of slums and illegal and chaotic development in large cities.

Gurgaon, a city southwest of New Delhi, is an exception. Gurgaon was a small town 25 years ago, but today it’s a city of some two million people filled with skyscrapers, luxury apartment towers, golf courses, five-star hotels and shopping malls. Often called “the Singapore of India,” Gurgaon is home to offices for nearly half the Fortune 500 firms.

Gurgaon, however, grew not by plan but in a fit of absence of mind. After the state of Haryana streamlined the licensing process, it left developers in Gurgaon to their own devices with little intervention from any national, state or local government. As a result, almost everything that works in Gurgaon today is private. Security, for example, is privately provided for almost all housing, shopping and technology complexes. Over all, about 35,000 private security guards protect Gurgaon, compared with just 4,000 public officers. Gurgaon also has India’s only private fire department, filling an important gap, because it must be capable of reaching Gurgaon’s tallest skyscrapers.

But not all is well. No developer in Gurgaon was large enough to plan for citywide services for sewage, water or electricity. For a price, private companies provide these, but in inefficient ways. Sewage doesn’t flow to a central treatment plant but is often collected in trucks and then dumped on public land. Tap water is often delivered by private trucks or from illegally pumped groundwater. Reliable electricity is available 24 hours a day, but often using highly polluting diesel generators.

The authors point out that by 2050 India will need to house an additional 400 million people, which is equivalent to building all the cities in the US in 35 years. But it can’t be accomplished in the Gurgaon way. No way.

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Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

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