Engines without Drivers: Cities in India’s Growth Story

8 March 2018

It is now almost axiomatic that cities are the engines of growth. Historically, federal support programmes have focused on rural areas, but over the past fifteen years, the need to devise such  programmes for urban local bodies has come to be recognised, with JNNURM in its various forms, being the most visible early manifestation. This trend has continued, even strengthened, in this government and among the menu of urban support programmes on offer from the Government of India, the vision of the city as the engine of growth is most clearly evident in the Smart City Mission, with its focus on area based development – like an engine within the city. Yet, even in the mainstream economics literature, while there is evidence for cities as places of higher productivity, there is less evidence for cities as drivers of growth – with learning being the primary driver and urban primacy being an important obstacle. The primary questions are whether cities are places of learning, whether there are identifiable mechanisms of such learning and the kind of city institutions – economic, social and political – that facilitate such learning. This paper will interrogate the empirical characteristics of such urban institutions in India in the context of the theoretical literature and learning mechanisms that emerge from international evidence. In particular, it will argue that the nature of the labour market, which is largely contractual, the transfer of rural fragmentation in social relations to cities and the absence of city-level political agency, all reduce the potential of the city as a location of learning economies. For cities to even have the possibility of being engines of growth, we need to ensure that drivers of these engines are in place and we have a mechanism to think about paths to follow.