LUCKNOW, India — Voting is drawing to a close Wednesday in India’s largest election ever, and a slowing economy, terrorism and the rural poor have been front and center in the campaign. But of growing concern are the country’s teeming new megacities, which are swelling rapidly even as jobs dry up and funding for infrastructure disappears.
This capital of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh was once an orderly place known for its baroque monuments and lush gardens. Today, Lucknow has more than 780 slums, overflowing sewage pipes and streets choked by gridlock. Its population of 2.7 million, nearly triple the number in the 1980s, is adding as many as 150,000 new residents a year.
Shami Shafi, a 35-year-old laborer in Lucknow, has seen his daily income drop by half in recent months to 50 rupees, or about $1, for carrying bags of potatoes and other goods in a local market. But "I’m not going back to my village," he says. If work gets harder to find, "I’ll just go to another city."
Across India, poor migrants keep streaming into cities like Lucknow, many of which are woefully mismanaged and ill-equipped to handle the influx. India has at least 41 cities with more than one million people, up from 23 two decades ago. A half dozen others will soon join the megacity list. Urban experts say the risk is now rising that some of these cities could face the same fate as Mumbai and Calcutta, which became synonymous with poverty and decay in the 1970s and 1980s.
Although city planners have tried to learn from Calcutta and Mumbai’s untamed sprawl, they haven’t been able to manage the growth in Lucknow, which suffers from over-crowding and weak infrastructure. Patrick Barta reports from India.
Known for its baroque monuments and lush gardens, Lucknow could face the same fate as Mumbai and Kolkata, which became synonymous with poverty and decay in the 1970s and 1980s.
Indian politics has long been dominated by rural constituencies — 70% of the population still lives in the countryside. But urban voters are seen by candidates as increasingly crucial. Both of the main political parties have tried to capitalize on rising urban discontent by promising to deliver more spending on power, roads and other infrastructure.
There is "no doubt that India’s future is in the cities," says M. Ramachandran, secretary at India’s Ministry of Urban Development.
What’s happening in India is part of a world-wide challenge. Megacities are sprouting around the globe. But in billion-person India, the trend is on steroids.
The country already has 25 of the world’s 100-fastest growing urban areas, according to City Mayors, an international urban-affairs think tank. That compares with eight in China. Pune, near Mumbai, has more than four million people, about the same as the Houston area. Kanpur, in north central India, has more than three million, as does Surat, in western India. India is expected to add 10 million people a year between 2000 and 2030 to its 5,161 cities, according to the United Nations.
If India fails to get a handle on its new urban areas, it could be saddled with more bottlenecks and inefficiencies that could doom the country to years of subpar growth, says Dharmakirti Joshi, an economist at Mumbai ratings agency Crisil. India’s gross domestic product has been growing faster than that of most other developing countries, averaging 8.8% a year in the past five years, according to the International Monetary Fund. But economists say inadequate roads, electricity and other infrastructure shave one to two percentage points off growth each year.
See population growth rates and profiles of some of India’s fastest-growing cities.
Officials have taken some steps to improve things. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission was launched in 2005 by the national government to help more than 60 major cities by spending $10 billion to upgrade sewers, water supply, roads and other necessities. But that falls far short of the $52 billion the government estimates it will take to fix India’s urban infrastructure.
Lucknow offers a case study of the challenges India’s newer metropolises face. The city is famous as a center of high culture dating to the 1700s and 1800s, when it was ruled by a group of extravagant Persian noblemen known as nawabs. They built giant pleasure gardens and baroque monuments, some of which remain, and they left a legacy of courtly manners, poetry and fine cuisine.
The city has changed dramatically in recent years. As the capital of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most-populous state, Lucknow has attracted hundreds of thousands of migrants from rural areas, swelling the city’s population. Yet the city hasn’t completed any major new sewage infrastructure since before the country won independence in 1947. As much as 70% of residents don’t have sewage service, leaving much of the waste to flow directly into the main river, the Gomti, which has become a stinking cesspool.
Traffic has overwhelmed downtown streets, and trash collection is inadequate. Much of Lucknow’s rubbish is left to rot in piles or strewn about in residential neighborhoods.
"I just see the city crumbling every year," says Mr. Joshi, the Mumbai economist. "It used to be a beautiful city."
The number of slums in Lucknow has quintupled since the early 1970s, according to the Vigyan Foundation, a social-advocacy group in Lucknow. As many as one million people are living without proper sanitation, water supplies or other services, according to social activists. Many of the slums are located along railway beds or in flood plains, exposing residents to floods and other dangers.
In one of the slums, a community called Azad Nagar, nearly 1,000 residents live in handmade thatch huts with packed mud floors and roofs held in place by trash and rag piles. Monsoon floods washed away much of the slum last year, but it was quickly rebuilt. Residents say cholera killed one child and snakes got another.
"At least it’s better than in the village," says Shanti Kashyap, a 32-year-old mother of four who moved there from a rural town about 70 miles away. "In the village, you work all day long in the field and don’t even get two meals." Now her husband works as a wall painter, earning about 100 rupees, or $2, a day.
Of course, slums have always existed in Indian cities, including in Lucknow. But many advocates hoped India’s modernization would reverse slums’ growth. Instead, the opposite appears to be happening.
Part of the problem: Lucknow, like many Indian cities, is managed by a bewildering array of government bodies that don’t always coordinate activities. In theory, Lucknow is led by an elected mayor and 110-member Municipal Corporation, similar to a U.S. city council. Together, they share oversight of basic services such as water, housing and roads. But in practice, the elected officials’ authority is sharply limited by the half-dozen or more other government bodies that wield power in town.
Chief among them is the Lucknow Development Authority, a group of unelected bureaucrats who have the authority to develop new housing projects and roads within them. But after a few years, when the developments are completed, the LDA hands over management of the projects to the Municipal Corporation, which doesn’t always have enough money to maintain basic services such as water, sewage and street lights.
The result is dysfunctional government, says U.B. Singh, an urban-studies professor at the University of Lucknow. The mayor has the power to authorize the building of new roads, but not new bridges — a big problem in a city that flanks a river and is crisscrossed by canals. Despite rapidly falling water tables, there is no single authority empowered to determine when and where residents can drill wells. Private citizens regularly take matters into their own hands and drill for water themselves, further depleting the resources.
"There is no concept of city planning, and what does exist only exists on paper," Mr. Singh says. "Planning has totally failed here."
The mayor and a senior official at the Lucknow Development Authority say they’re doing the best they can to follow sound planning guidelines and address residents’ concerns. But they say the city is growing so fast that it’s hard to keep up. Mukesh Kumar Meshram, vice chairman of the LDA, says the authority is adding thousands of housing units each year.
But, he says, "obviously the gap is always there. That’s why the slums are being created — whenever people find open space, they go."
Lucknow does have a master plan, drafted by a team of 30 government staffers and finished in 2005. But its primary architect, a state planner named Satyavir Singh Dalal, says that master plans are routinely ignored by developers and politicians who start new projects wherever they please.
"We have to make a lot of compromises," Mr. Dalal says. In some cases, he says, leaders follow planners’ recommendations but take years or decades to get the work done. An earlier master plan in 1992 called for a new ring road to ease the city’s traffic woes; it is only now nearing completion 17 years later.
Another big problem is lack of money. Mayor Dinesh Sharma, a university professor, says his annual budget is $139 million. Some similar-size cities in the U.S. have budgets in the billions. He says his administration is focusing on projects it can control, such as an $800,000 program that involves rounding up stray dogs, monkeys and other animals and depositing them at a ranch called "Krishna’s Garden."
The national Urban Renewal Mission project has helped by allocating roughly $150 million to Lucknow for sewage, wastewater treatment and other improvements. City and state officials say the sewage projects, which could be finished later this year, should cover most if not all of Lucknow’s wastewater treatment needs. Mr. Dalal, the state planner, says that’s unlikely. By his reckoning, about 30% of the city still won’t have service after the improvements.
Either way, the money is far short of the more than $960 million Lucknow needs to spend on roads, water and other projects, according to Feedback Ventures, a New Delhi-based infrastructure consulting firm that helped prepare a development plan for the city in 2006.
Some advocates for the poor argue that money is available; it’s just not being spent well. Urvashi Sharma, a local activist, says the Uttar Pradesh state government has allocated huge sums on projects of limited social value, including a $90 million monument being built to honor political leaders near the Gomti River. It involves a massive domed monolith and public meeting area stretching over several city blocks, with a statue of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Kumari Mayawati across the street and a gallery of giant stone elephants, her political party’s symbol. Navneet Sehgal, the state’s secretary of urban development, says the project is an economic stimulus and has created jobs.
Meanwhile, people continue coming. They include Ramesh Kumar, a man in his 40s who one recent morning was resting in the shade of 100-year-old Hindu temple where day laborers gather each day to wait for jobs.
Mr. Kumar had come to Lucknow from a small village eight days before, leaving his wife and four children behind. He hadn’t found work yet. He tried lowering his daily price from 100 rupees to 80 and then 60, without luck. Like many of the workers around him, he was sleeping on the ground by the temple.
Living in the city may not be working out well so far. But then again, says Mr. Kumar, "we don’t have anywhere else to go."
—Peter Wonacott contributed to this article.