New cities built around high-speed train corridors desirable

A near-perfect correlation between urbanisation and economic growth has been established by several studies done by World Bank and others. India has increasingly become more urbanised on the back of the economic development over the last 20 years.

As per census estimates, the urban population will cross the half-billion mark as early as 2025 from just 370 million in 2011. It is estimated that by 2030, less than 40% population would contribute to 70% of the country’s GDP. India has to continue rapid urbanisation if it wants to retain the momentum of economic growth. We can manage this surge in two ways: either develop efficient cities to power growth or convert existing cities and peri-urban areas into slums that put a drag on the economy.

With the mess that most Indian megacities are in, it is inevitable not only to drastically take steps to rehabilitate infrastructure in existing cities but build new cities to accommodate this burst in urban population. In many cases, if not all, retrofitting old cities with improved infrastructure and playing the ‘catching-up’ game is a more expensive and difficult-to-implement agenda. It is logical and quicker to build entire new smart cities from scratch instead.

These new cities need to take advantage of new transport infrastructure that is being planned, such as the high-speed rail (HSR). Railway Budget 2012 announced formation of High Speed Rail Authority to run these trains and that feasibility study of Pune-Mumbai-Ahmedabad corridor is now complete, with detailed surveys to be undertaken shortly. Studies have also been commissioned on six other corridors after which implementation of these projects would begin.

Once completed, HSR will reshape the urbanisation process in the country. The urban sprawl presently limited to 30-50 km from the city centre will change into a 300-500 km long conurbations linking central business districts of multiple cities, forming urban economies of global scale and size.

For instance, once complete, HSR will convert southern cities such as Thiruvananthapuram, Bangalore and Chennai into one urban agglomeration with combined economies comparable to state-level GSDPs. Similarly, Delhi will be linked right up to Amritsar via Chandigarh and Ludhiana. People will live in Pune or Ahmedabad and work in Mumbai with HSR making this daily commute possible within cities. This presents a huge opportunity for setting up new cities along the HSR route.

These cities can be developed as smart and intelligent, focused on becoming engines for innovation and research. Linked with HSR, they will get the momentum to survive and develop independently. For instance, state-of-the-art Masdar (near Abu Dhabi) and Songdo (near Seoul) are developed as aerotropolises, smart cities built around an airport.

The new cities in India would also be frontiers of modern technology and forward-looking urban planning techniques developed around HSR stations. These cities would typically house 5-10 lakh residents over the next 10-15 years, spread over around 100 sq km, similar to ones being developed along the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor. The real estate potential of HSR should be fully exploited by developing these new cities and, instead, be used as a tool to cross-subsidise the development costs for constructing and operating the HSR lines.

We are going through an inevitable historical transition and we have the option to either manage it well or manage it poorly. Setting up of HSR is a tremendous opportunity to anticipate and proactively influence this development process in India. Ensuring high-quality public services for all in our cities and towns will be decisive if we want full realisation of our economic potential.