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Reading street lights

, May 25, 2017, 0 Comments

india-development-street-lights-marketexpress-inHas India’s economic development led to convergence or divergence? One answer can be obtained from inequality. The Gini coefficient of per capita expenditure was 0.35 in 1951 and 0.34 in 2010 – hardly any change in inequality. We have no personal income statistics, so we have to make do with these figures. Atkinson and Morelli give the share of the richest 1 per cent in income – presumably, taxed income, which is a fraction of total personal income. From 12.7 per cent in 1922, it rose to 17.8 per cent in 1938. High taxes in the War led it to fall to 10.3 per cent in 1942; then it rose to reach 14.4 per cent in 1955. It fell to 4.4 per cent in 1981; then it rose again till it reached 8.9 per cent in 1999. Distribution of wealth is more unequal in India than in, say, US, Brazil and China.

Recently, however, I came across a novel attempt to assess inequality, from the intensity of lighting of cities at night, in a paper published by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. If one looks at the earth at night from a satellite, most of it appears dark; but there are patches of light where there are cities. A satellite picture taken in 1992 showed most of India dark except for faint patches of light on the southern tip, in Gujarat and western Maharashtra, Andhra, Punjab, Haryana and West Bengal. A 2013 map shows the same lighted locations, but the lighted areas are much larger, and the degree of lighting more intense.

Meenu Tiwari and her colleagues did something more. They identified four types of districts: initially better lighted districts that regressed, poorly lighted districts that got lighted up, well lighted districts that continued to improve lighting, and poorly lighted districts that stayed behind. They called them slowdowns, catchups, leaders and laggards respectively. Only 13.5 per cent of the districts were leaders; they were mostly in or next to the old metros of Delhi, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Bangalore and Hyderabad. Laggards were even fewer – 11.6 per cent. Slowdowns were 38 per cent, and catchups were 37 per cent. In other words, three quarters of the cities were either doing better or worse than average. There was considerable redistribution of lights. Catchups were mostly in two corridors: one ran from Karnataka through Andhra, Jharkhand, Orissa, Bihar and Bengal to Assam and the Northeast; the other covered most of Rajasthan, Himachal, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir. Laggards were strung in the middle between these two corridors.

The predominance of catchups and slowdowns implies more even distribution of lights as time passes. This pattern is common across countries. But the pace of equalization is slower in India than in the US or China.

Growth in lights could be in previously lighted areas, in areas newly added to cities, or in new cities; 48 per cent of the growth was in old areas, 44 per cent in newly added ones, and 8 per cent in areas unconnected to old cities. Thus, most of the electrification was through better lighting or geographical expansion of existing cities. This is not surprising, for new cities emerge only exceptionally. A city is essentially a piece of land served by infrastructure services such as power, water and transport; and in a densely populated country like India, it is unusual for a large rural piece of land to urbanize. The prominent examples are New Delhi, Chandigarh, Gandhinagar and Amaravati. All four are capitals; all were created by governments by requisitioning land. This is a common pattern across the world. It goes back millennia to the Greeks at least; the Romans were experts were planning cities with straight roads and round-the-clock water supply. Many modern European cities have an inner city that was planned by a king many centuries ago. The coming of the motor vehicle and the metro changed the scale of ambition; lately created cities like Brasilia are much larger in area. But few of them have succeeded in the sense of having a vibrant social and economic life; Islamabad is a good instance of failure.
Meenu Tiwari and her colleagues also estimated the time it took in 1996 and 2011 to travel between major cities, and found that it had come down by 20-30 per cent. Beginning with Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s east-west and north-south corridors, many roads were built; they reduced travel time, and implicitly, the fuel cost of inter-city travel. Better road connections must also reduce the time and cost of goods travelling to markets. Tiwari and associates calculated an index of market access – of distances between cities weighted by their size. Then they regressed this index on the growth of those cities; they found that a 10 per cent improvement in market access was associated with a 2-5 per cent increase in a city’s growth.

The correlation between the intensity of nocturnal electric lights and prosperity is only approximate; and as time goes, it will weaken. It would be zero in richer countries where everyone has electricity. So Meenu Tiwari’s method must cease to be relevant at some point in the future. The government claims to have delivered electricity to all villages bar a handful; so her method may no longer apply even to villages except insofar as power supply is erratic. But in the meanwhile, it has dealt with the geography of economic development, a largely neglected subject in India. It shows that development, which a quarter century ago was confined to areas around the ports (except Punjab and Haryana, homes of the green revolution), has now spread all along the periphery, leaving only the northern peninsula and the Gangetic plain relatively less developed. It also shows the close correlation between development and the road network. Vajpayee’s initiative on major cross-country highways has worked.

But more can be done. The next step should be to upgrade the quality of roads – improve the surface, standardize width, and create paved parking space along them so that there is no obstruction from vehicles parked on the road. Accommodation along the roads should be improved, so that drivers get adequate sleep and rest and are fitter to drive. It may not be possible to build highways in India like those in North America; there may not be enough land. But we can certainly aspire to European standards.

Driving today is such a lowly profession; that is because long-distance driving is a terrible drudge. It was a lot better even in my youth; the long-distance highways were well surfaced, traffic was light, and there were dak bungalows where one could eat and stay overnight. We should think in terms of a new generation of facilities on highways that would make driving a pleasure. That is when the millions of middle-class drivers who are confined today to the cities will begin to travel across the country and get to know its architectural and cultural riches. I have no regrets that the new government abolished the planning commission; it was just a venue for interminable meetings. But it cannot abolish the need for planning; the transport network is one instance. And it should plan it intelligently.