Reports emanating from China indicate that the Chinese Government has moved to apply ‘urban bariatrics’ to its largest cities – Beijing and Shanghai. It seems to have accepted the concept that untrammeled demographic growth of its largest cities is undesirable beyond a point. This, in their opinion, is a disease, termed by the Chinese as ‘Chengshi Bing’, literally translated as ‘big city disease’.  This unsustainable ‘city obesity’, China believes, needs to be treated by the application of ‘urban bariatric surgery’.

It appears to have been driven to this conclusion following a tragic fire in central Beijing in which many lives were lost. Directives accordingly seem to have gone to the two city administrations asking “Beijing to cap its population at 23 million by 2020 while Shanghai will have to cap its population at 25 million by 2035”. Both cities, as a consequence of these directives, have embarked on a massive demolition drive, pulling down residential units as well as commercial structures. This has essentially meant evicting certain populations from the city and ‘redistributing’ them over other locations beyond the city limits of Beijing and Shanghai. While we may debate the human aspect of such an action, the Chinese appear to be convinced that some bold measures towards certain populations are essential to ensure livability and indeed, survival of cities.

Exploding urban population of India poses significant political, social, economic and moral dilemmas for city administrations. India’s urban population is only second to China’s and is still growing. We are, therefore, likely to face somewhat similar urban challenges that would require resolution. However, India’s democratic polity may impose constraints that would disallow the use of such instruments that non-democratic systems may choose to apply. This would obviously mean that India may require to employ approaches that are far more nuanced and inclusive.

Just as in the case of China, the propensity of very large cities to keep on multiplying demographically without let or hindrance is also being played out in India’s largest cities. The table below shows the massive growth India’s eight largest cities have clocked over eleven decades. They may display comparatively dissimilar growth trajectories resulting in gain or slippage in inter se demographic ranking, but none of them have stopped rising in numbers decade after decade. Delhi, at the beginning of the last century, ranked as the seventh most populous Indian city with a population just above two lakhs. It is now on way to becoming the largest Indian city. Delhi has grown 76 times its 1901 population. Bengaluru, which did not figure in the first 12 cities in 1901, has grown 52 times its 1901 population. It is now the fifth largest Indian city and is destined to overtake Chennai in 2021.