Most capital cities have a concentration of government offices of various tiers and responsibilities crowded in as close as possible to the real and imagined corridors of power. In India, apart from the various ministries, departments and agencies, we also have a concentration of corporate offices of Public Sector Undertakings in New Delhi. Many of these actually need not be here.

Let’s take a few to illustrate this point. Why is the Indian Meteorological Department required to be in New Delhi? Why must the Director General of Civil Aviation be in the capital? This is just as true for ITBP, CISF, SSB, BSF, ICG, ICAR, ICMR, ICHR, SAIL, BHEL, COPES and so many others that make for a teeming alphabet soup in New Delhi. Of course, Delhi also has a Delhi government and several municipal corporations to add to the overcrowding. Give all this, we must ask why the New Delhi Municipal Corporation has to be on Sansad Marg, and the Delhi High Court almost next door to the Supreme Court? Apparently, there is a magnetism that draws almost every national organisation to be as close as possible to that small part of India where the national leadership lives and works.

Shifting many of these offices out of New Delhi will not in any way impair their abilities. The DGCA can operate just as well from Bhiwadi, Steel Authority of India from Ranchi, IMD from Pune, Bharat Heavy Electricals from Bhopal, Indo-Tibetan Border Police from Dehradun or Chandigarh, Sashastra Seema Bal from Lucknow and so on.

And why should the Western Air Command of the Indian Air Force be in the capital when it can do its job equally well from, say, Saharanpur? No other military command is located even in the National Capital Region, let alone New Delhi. In these days of near instant communication means, proximity is no longer a criterion for effectiveness. There are very few places in India from where one cannot communicate with a person in another part instantly either by cell phone, telephone, email, fax and Skype. So why should everybody live cheek by jowl?

Crowded and polluted

In fact, shifting their head offices out of New Delhi will only unfetter them from their administrative ministries and all those joint secretaries who lord over them. The further these departments and organisations get away from New Delhi, the more effective they will get. This will curb the temptation to pass the buck upwards or sideways to the next tier next door.

Delhi is now easily the most traffic-congested city in the world. Its stop-and-crawl traffic is responsible for its abysmal air quality and the wastage of millions of man-hours in traffic jams. The disastrous consequences of not doing anything about the ever-worsening traffic are now well known.

But all the solutions that are proposed centre on further modernising it with even bigger and faster mass transit systems, more civic amenities and efforts entailing more construction. These attempts to make the national capital better paradoxically attract more people to it, thereby adding to its problems rather than removing them. Then there are some things that are only possible by flattening the old. How can we ever modernise the overcrowded inner areas of many of our cities without reducing the number of people in them? Our inability to protect our rivers and air is testimony to this.

New areas of growth

Dispersing offices across the nation will not only decongest Delhi, but will also become economic drivers that will modernise smaller towns and result in far more dispersed urbanisation. Imagine what a SAIL head office in Ranchi will do to decongest Lodhi Road and to the economy of Jharkhand? Or the Western Air Command in Saharanpur will do to relieve traffic around Dhaula Kuan and towards modernising Saharanpur and the economy of western Uttar Pradesh? In fact one can make the same argument for all our major cities. The Western Naval Command can be shifted to a new location on the west coast and not only become a more effective fulcrum of India’s Indian Ocean Region domination, but also the fulcrum of economic growth in a virgin area, say Ratnagiri.

In fact one can make an argument for moving the state capitals out of hopelessly overcrowded cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Patna and Lucknow. This will give a much-needed impetus to the construction sector, which for the foreseeable future will be India’s main economic growth driver. Construction also has the potential to absorb tens of millions of the rural workforce and create demand for industrial goods. Construction will create huge demands for not just steel and cement, but also for construction equipment, transit systems, infrastructure essentials like power and water distribution, and sewage treatment and disposal systems among other things that will then drive the industrialisation of India.

And let us not for a moment forget that India needs to create one million new jobs every month to absorb the world’s fastest growing labour market and soon to be the world’s largest workforce. India will need to create meaningful employment for almost 800 million people by 2050. Not taking people away from agriculture will result in a rural labour oversupply and increased fragmentation of farm holdings. Already the average farm size is just 0.63 hectares. We see overcrowding of some economic sectors as well. Retail employs over 60 million now, and the modernisation of the retail sector is held back because it involves so many low productivity jobs.

Thinking big again

China has decided to tackle the over-congestion of Beijing, now second to New Delhi in terms of air and water pollution, by shifting out government offices to outside Beijing. Beijing’s municipal government, which employs tens of thousands, is now being relocated to a satellite town, Tongzhou. The Chinese plan is to create a gigantic urban cluster of 130 million people called Jing-Jin-Ji, with Jing standing for Beijing, Jin for the port city and convention center of Tianjin. Ji is the traditional name of Hebel province, where much of this growth will take place.

Some other countries have tried to decongest their capital cities by leaving behind the economic capital and taking out the political capital. Malaysia’s political capital is located at Putrajaya, a brand new city astraddle the highway to the international airport.

The BJP in its manifesto has spoken of creating a hundred new cities to propel India’s economic and social transformation. Since coming to power, it has been scaling down that vision and the government has now unveiled the “smart” cities programme, whereby selected towns and cities will be made “smart”, which means nothing more than providing high speed Wi-Fi networks there. That is if one goes by the money provided for urban development. The government clearly needs to think big again and also think of how to make dreams realities.

Many of the government departments and organisations can become anchors for new urbanisation and dispersing them will only enhance their independence and effectiveness. Our government suffers from too much micro-management of the routine and a severe under-management of the macro scenario. This is as much an opportunity to save our existing cities as a chance to build a new and better India.