Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

Asia’s epic urban sagas

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Courtesy UN-Habitat: Waterside shanties in the Philippines.

Courtesy UN-Habitat: Waterside shanties in the Philippines.

National governments and planning authorities in Dhaka, Islamabad and New Delhi are tending more and more to follow a single ideology – economic growth will drive down poverty – and a primary route to that misplaced objective, which is greater urbanisation. These governments are therefore commissioning a welter of studies and reports, from within and without, to show their citizens why more cities and towns are a good thing (jobs and citizen services, they say) and why mobilising a great deal of money to build infrastructure for these settlements is a good thing (more jobs, more ‘development’).

The cleverer authorities are linking South Asia’s rising urban trendline to a variety of socio-economic goods, such as product and monetary innovation, such as cities being the wellsprings of social entrepreneurship, such as greater tax receipts which will help accumulate funds for social sector spending on the poor and marginalised. For companies and banks that deal with the building of big infrastructure, its engineering, its operation and its financing, this is a persistent swell of good news, and this group is doing everything it can to sustain the urbanisation wave.

[You can find my full essay at Energy Bulletin]

The raw numbers are on the side of the powerful urban-centric cabal. Among the world’s cities ranked by average population growth rate per year (in per cent) for 2006-2020, there are 37 South Asian cities (Afghanistan 1, Bangladesh 3, India 25, Pakistan 8) and 8 in China in the top 100. In the next 100, there are 20 cities in China and 11 in India. Asia’s two biggest countries have between them 64 of the top 200 cities that are projected, by the global group of city mayors, to grow the fastest in the next decade. This extraordinary prognosis for the two most populous countries – both of which have become economic powers – has enormous implications for global energy, food and resource flows.

When China and India buy material (as they have been doing, with China’s headstart over the rest of the BRIC/BASIC group placing it in a league of resource acquisition by itself), entire populations of supplier countries will face the consequences. Moreover, much of the material the two countries will commandeer will be directed towards their cities. China’s urban population is already 45% of its total population, while India’s is 30% and set to grow faster than it has at any period until now. There are combined numbers so large in the cities of China and India that the implications of the consumption by this grouping alone have become too profound to internalise for planners and administrators. Amongst the 300 most populous cities in the world, 97 are in China and these 97 are home to 243.98 million people (2010 estimate); 26 are in India and these 26 are home to 90.38 million people (2010 estimate).

In the state of Goa, western India, new residential blocks loom over shrinking fields.

In the state of Goa, western India, new residential blocks loom over shrinking fields. The produce from such fields once fed the capital city of Panaji, which now imports food 130 kilometres from the neighbouring state of Karnataka

What do we know about India’s food consumption patterns? Let’s look at some numbers to illustrate this. India’s most admirable National Sample Survey Organisation has just begun releasing summary data from its 2007-08 survey of household consumption (the earlier such ’round’, as it is called, pertained to the 2004-05 period). In rural India, average monthly per capita cereal consumption was around 10.3 kg for the poorest 10% of the population. (The survey distributes both rural and urban populations by ten ‘deciles’ – bands of 10% – which correspond to level of consumption expenditure.) It was between 11 and 12 kg for each of the next six decile classes, and was above 12 kg for the top three decile groups.

This means that for rural India, there is a strong positive correlation between ability to spend on food and quantum of consumption of cereals – the greater the household income, they more it is able to spend on staple foodgrain. In urban India, per capita cereal consumption increased from under 9.5 kg to about 10 kg per month over the first four decile classes but then showed a tendency to fall slightly rather than to rise in parallel with further increases in total expenditure.

This indicates the fulfilment of staple foodgrain needs and that expenditure on food thereafter is on cereal substitutes, processed food or eating out (what the surveys call ‘purchased cooked meals’), and fruit. Average cereal consumption per person per month was 11.7 kg in rural India and 9.7 in urban India. From this it would appear that the average urban person’s monthly cereal intake was about 2 kg less (a difference of 67 gm per day) than that of the average rural person. But it needs to be factored in that in urban areas the cereal content of processed foods and eating out (‘purchased cooked meals’) gets left out in the estimation of cereal consumption, which is why the difference in cereal consumption between the two may be less than it appears.

The FAO food price index plotted from 2000 to early 2010

The FAO food price index plotted from 2000 to early 2010

India’s urban national average of per capita daily cereal consumption is 9.7 kg. At this average, we are able to gauge the cereal supply needs of cities with populations of over a million. Using population estimates for 2010 (from the City Mayors website database) we find:

Pimpri-Chinchwad (Maharashtra) with a metro population of 1.515 million consumes 483 tons of cereals a day
Nagpur (Maharashtra) with a metro population of 2.42 million consumes 772 tons of cereals a day
Varanasi (Bihar) with a metro population of 3.15 million consumes 1,005 tons of cereals a day
Ludhiana (Punjab) with a metro population of 4.40 million consumes 1,403 tons of cereals a day
Hyderabad (Andhra Pradesh) with a metro population of 6.29 million consumes 2,006 tons of cereals a day
Kolkata (West Bengal) with a metro population of 15.42 million consumes 4,918 tons of cereals a day
Mumbai (Maharashtra) with a metro population of 21.2 million consumes 6,761 tons of cereals a day

These daily consumption demands mean movement, by road and rail, of food produce citywards at prodigious scales. In Navi Mumbai, an urban satellite of Mumbai which is a fair-sized city by itself today, lies the food wholesale depot that marshals and redirects the daily procession of trucks, lorries, light commercial vehicles and pick-ups bringing food for Mumbai’s millions. The number of vehicular movements in this yard are reckoned to be over 2,000 every day which indicates the vast physical reach of the giant city’s food gathering subsystem, one that holds in its thrall a region that could comfortably encompass western Europe.

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