In the last few decades, the metro cities of India have grown at such a rapid pace that the population of some of the major cities in India like Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru are in crores surpassing the population of many countries in the world combined. Most of the Indian metros struggle to meet the basic sustainable infrastructure to cater to the needs of its ever-expanding population with issues ranging from congested roads, lack of potable water and poor air quality taking a heavy toll on its citizens. The majority of the inhabitants who are earning at a lesser rate than the rising inflation are being pushed into the peripheries of the city while millions of people working in the unorganised sectors are attributing to the formation of new slums.
When this government came up with the idea of creating 100 new smart cities by 2022 under the national smart cities mission, there was a lot of hope among the people that finally there was a government which is proactive enough to prevent the tier two Indian cities growing haphazardly and eventually self-destruct. Cities like Davanagere, Mangaluru, Belgaum, Shivamogga, and Tumakuru from Karnataka are in the scheme of things as far as building 100 smart cities is concerned. The Covid pandemic which arrived with no prior notification send all these plans for a toss and the castles built on the hope of a booming economy came tumbling down.
The sector which halted the tailspin of India’s economy is of course our IT sector which grew more than 51 per cent since the pandemic. Work from home which was more prevalent in the European countries was adopted by Indian IT giants with all the vigour during which the other manufacturing sectors had absolutely no show during the pandemic creating unemployment and loss of productivity. Lakhs of employees working in major IT hubs which are of course the Indian metros went back to their native destinations mainly the tier two cities and the small towns in rural India. This unexpected disruption caused by the pandemic had many desired effects which benefitted the country in correcting the imbalance that persisted between the metros and the small towns. All of the sudden the metros became less congested with better air quality and manageable traffic congestion. The maximum benefits were reaped in semi-urban and rural India which earlier looked like old age homes with only the elderly and the retired who were left behind with the majority of its youth trying to make a living in major cities. The educated youth were now earning well and were spending it in their hometowns which was also having a positive impact on the local economy. It created a better and progressive social atmosphere when these educated and empowered youth started putting pressure on local administration for better services as far as health, education and administration are concerned with more and more people providing these civil amenities being held accountable. A better work-life balance for the IT employees was also the byproduct of this process. Even if this Covid pandemic had put the project of a national smart cities scheme on a backfoot due to the economic slowdown, this redistribution of the youth from the cities made many small towns function smarter. With the spouses of the IT employees enrolling in local jobs like teaching and entrepreneurial ventures finally India as a country felt the balance has shifted away from the major cities for the better.
All the good work which happened as the byproduct of fighting the pandemic is on the verge of being undone with the Ministry of Commerce and Industry inducting a new rule 43 (A) in the Special Economic Zone policy last month. It has passed an instruction to the IT sector that only 50 per cent of the IT employees including contractual workers are allowed to work from home and has asked them to submit the list within 90 days. The result of this policy will make all employees return to the major cities and take their turns going to the offices and the cities will be crowded again and the rural parts of India will become like before, except for a few of the senior IT employees who have saved enough have already made up their mind to stay back in the rural areas and perceive alternate and more fulfilling options like farming.
Special economic zones are the land leased out by the government to the corporates to bring in more foreign investment and revenue. These special economic zones have made the cities grow faster with the real estate around special economic zones growing at a much faster pace than the IT sector itself. I will leave it to your wisdom to guess and speculate about people who had prior information about the SEZs and who might have invested around these SEZs. The real estate in the metros is beyond the reach of the common middle class with black money being invested by the rich and powerful through their Benami syndicates. The rules of the games changed rapidly due to the rapid progress of digital connectivity and mobile network in rural India opening up new options. Some IT companies may find it suitable to have 100 per cent of people working from home while some manufacturing industries may need more people working at the site. This government which had made promising statements like “Minimum government with maximum governance ” and also had proclaimed that Government has no business being in business has taken a regressive step by poking its nose in the sectors which have always excelled when left alone.
India with a vision to become Vishwaguru can learn a few lessons from the smaller countries of the Western World. The Dutch had 14 per cent of its companies implemented work from the home policy before the onset of the pandemic. Work from home is declared a legal right in the Netherlands with the legislation being approved by the lower house and awaiting a nod from the Senate.
75 years since the independence different sectors in this country have done well some are because of the government policies while some sectors have found innovative ways of delivering. All that the policymakers have to do is “do no harm” like the doctors who are supposed to do when they are in a diagnostic dilemma.
By Maj Dr. Kushvanth Kolibailu,
Veteran and Paediatrician, Kodagu