That they do have high densities should not be a surprise, it is after all the second most populated country in the world. But the fact is that, after Dhaka, the top 7 densest cities in the world are in India ! Also, high densities seem to be the norm everywhere in India, except the North East. Even cities like Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad which are in states that have below replacement fertility rates (or close to it) have the same densities as Mumbai, Delhi or Kolkota. Finally, the most populated (UP, MP) and densely populated (Kerala, Bihar) states dont seem to have big or densely populated cities. By comparison no Pakistani or Chinese city is even in the top 20. This is a surprise because much of Pakistan and China is desert, in the latter’s case 95 % of the population lives on a third of the land.
One must understand that countries like India, with large urban-rural disparities tend to have large migrant populations. The cities are an economic magnet attracting rural migrants. A city like Mumbai, which was never historically significant became a major economic center due to its location, and after the original boom based on trade and manufacturing it now has a large service economy that keeps attracting migrants. Similarly for every tech sector job created in Bengaluru, 3 or 4 migrants are attracted to the corresponding service industry. In India, there are relatively few magnet cities and a huge number of potential migrants in villages, leading to a sudden population boom. It would be interesting to evaluate the population of a major city in India that is ‘native’ born, but I think it will be relatively less.
There is a paragraph in the book Maximum City (about Mumbai), where author Suketu Mehta asks a Dharavi family why they would live in a slum. They mentioned among other things, the prestige that living in Mumbai gave them in their village. Some others mentioned, “Nobody starves in Mumbai”. So the opportunity to migrate is a very important power that being Indian citizen provides. And they make full use of it. However, with their galloping populations, Indian cities are urban nightmares, with problems that seem to be growing rapidly. To ‘rescue’ Indian cities, the government needs to think about how to generate good livelihoods and provide basic facilities in rural India, especially the heartland. One possible step that can be taken is rural non-farm enterprises that manufacture for the growing middle class.
Of course, simple migration is not the only reason. Government in India is pretty centralized administratively at the state level, and fiscally centralized at the union level. The mayor is pretty much irrelevant, the guy really in charge is the Municipal Commissioner, appointed by the state chief minister, who is resposible mostly to the vast rural population. The demographics and districting have made the cities politically irrelevant. So in India’s cities have suffered from a rural majoritarianism. They raise most of the revenue, but are effectively ignored in elections. I dont know what the solution to this problem is. An important step could be administrative decentralization, i.e. having the mayor and not the CM make administrative appointments. Delhi has effectively done this (by becoming a psuedo-state), Sheila Dixit who appoints the administrators of Delhi answers to the population of Delhi not that of entire UP or Haryana.
The third reason is that while governments in other countries have ‘enlarged’ their cities, this has been stiffly resisted in India. The only cities that seems to be having some success in enlarging their boudaries seem to be Delhi and Pune, but even then their new ‘satellites’ do not fall under the administrative purview of the city-proper.
Having high densities can be both a blessing and curse. The curse part is obvious. But the blessing is the fact is that in my home city, getting anything done, from buying toothpaste to buying clothes is in walking distance. If you are lucky enough that the place of your work is close to home (like many people in the slums are) life becomes a lot easier. If not, life becomes a traffic jam. Indeed, learning from this, places like Magarpatta in Pune, are showing the way forward with their way walk to everything in life paradigm.
Perhaps, these ‘first’ cities of India are bearing the brunt of unplanned and uncontrolled growth, hopefully the second and third tier cities of India (places like Nashik, Jabalpur and Lucknow) where the bulk of the Indian population might live in the coming decades will be more livable. But that will take thoughtful policies and careful urban planning.