Millennium Post

India’s urbanisation: Up The Garden Path

Our cities have been growing apace, their growth having been self–propelled largely owing to the absence of a navigation system that could have anticipated and guided the momentum in an orderly manner. For a long time, after our independence, the accent has been on making the rural segment sustainable and even profitable. Indeed, historically too, the political refrain was to frame and reach economic policy to the 75 per cent of the population that was dependent on agriculture as its sole means of livelihood. Right or wrong, is not the question, but the consequence has been  good and not so good. 

Sure, we are reaping the benefits of abundant wheat, paddy, sugarcane and pulses harvests over the years, but the neglect of our urban development over the years, is having adverse consequences. The cities expanded as they had to because of a growing population. With little or scant investments in the civic infrastructure and poorly enforced development protocols, people met their shelter needs almost at will. The municipal bodies functioning without financial and administrative support could only be willing spectators, as city after city lost its mojo to accommodate the constant influx.

A flagship research project of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate observes that,“Indian cities are expanding outward at a rate that outpaces their population, and they are doing so haphazardly, without heed to principles of urban planning, without adequate water, electrical, waste management or transportation infrastructure and services and without a regard for the environment”. According to this working paper,“the country stands to pay for this pattern of urbanisation, if it continues, an enormous $330 Billion to $1.8 Trillion every year by 2050. For our GDP, this translates into a loss of 1.2 to 6.3 per cent shaved off annually”.

Let us forget about the GDP and economics of urban centers and focus on human beings who are the inhabitants. What is happening to them in our cities? The cost of life is huge in terms of environmental impacts. The quality of water, lack of waste disposal, lack of drainage, contamination of ground water, proximity of animals and human dwellings, all combine to not only  shorten life spans but also seriously damage their quality. An epidemic a season, dengue, viral of all kinds, asthma prone lives and ‘name it and you have got it’ ailments and afflictions are common in our cities. 

In 2012–13, our public health expenditure was a mere 1.08 per cent of our GDP and the figure has not changed over the previous two years. The per capita public expenditure had gone up to Rs 890 in 2012–13. The bulk of the expense had to be borne by the individual and this is mounting, given the polluted conditions they live in. To remind, cities really are about human beings and real lives. It is somewhat of a mystery why our city administrators have not realized this simple reality. Once this home truth hits them, it will perhaps be the beginning of a clean and healthy environment.

Yes, for urbanisation to succeed, we have to start with making clean environment our first priority. Without this basic need being fulfilled, all real estate, civic infrastructure, life quality and vibrant economic activity, are non–real: not sustainable, period. Yes, clean environment is an expensive enterprise, but there is no choice but to do it. Neighboring Sri Lanka is a model for clean vehicle policies. Our own need to hasten compliance with Bharat VI norms is paramount and the target date for implementation by 2020 needs to be advanced to 2017. In fact some auto manufacturers in India are meeting these norms but only for export markets. It’s a bit of a shame that the older technology goes into the domestic market and we suffer the consequences. 

Simultaneously, we need effective waste management systems in all our cities and villages. This business of dumping waste in landfill sites outside the city limits has to stop. We only push the problem a few miles away from the municipal limits or nearby rivers spreading disease and pestilence. We have to make the investments into methods and disposal systems through recycling and an extensive education of our urban residents is needed. Coupled with these steps, the recycling of waste water through intensive purifications will give a huge impetus to a healthy environment for the citizen in the urban areas and a smart start to enduring urbanisation initiatives. The Solid Waste Management Rules, notified in 2016 have given the framework and now institutions have to manage their compliance. It is noteworthy that these rules cover urban agglomerations, census towns and all areas beyond municipal limits. If this aspect of urban life is effectively handled, our urban story will become truly vibrant. And there are success stories to show that it can be done. An area of utmost urgency, if there ever was one.

The laws are there, the implementing institutions are there too, yet the desired results are not happening on our urban landscape. We even have the empowerment framework, post the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments for the Panchayats and the municipal bodies to lead the development and regulatory paradigms. It is for the state governments to seriously step in and develop the governance capability of these institutions. Their failure has impacted city managerial systems and all development protocols. And this failure is not only within but the externalities have been stage managed by shortsighted vested interests to ensure continued debility of civic governance capacity. This has resulted in the degrading of both the pace and quality of urbanisation and neglect of village amenities. A ministry of local self–government can never run the management of the cities from the state capital. Neither policy nor its implementation is possible in this manner, one for lack of informed inputs and the other for lack of accountability. We have to realize that the city administration can only be run by the City Councils, and hence their capacity has to be matched with the demands of the performance. 

We have woefully inadequate town and country planning capacities across the states in the country. As a consequence, urban planning has been a major casualty and rural planning non–existent. The vacuum has been filled by the builder–politico–bureaucrat nexus which drives urban expansion. We have housing of indifferent designs and shortage of infrastructure. Even where private–public partnership was the way to go, the private player gained hugely. The sufferer was always the citizen. The EDCs (external development charges) where collected were never spent on the infrastructure, colony roads, drains and waste management systems, local transport etc. Invariably feeding on builder interests, residential and commercial real estate got created, being remunerative, even as the social and cultural infrastructure lagged behind, reducing the quality of life to a humdrum. The town and country planning is the principal navigator of planned urban development. The decision makers need to realize that and put the best and the most talented in these positions. These planners then, have to build a public consensus on future developments without which we will never get a buy–in of the people in the city. The ultimate reality is that cities are about people and not about fancy architecture. Aesthetics are important but not at the cost of comfort, convenience, safety and well being of the people. A large part of a beautiful city is about keeping it tidy. 

People who live in the cities must be able to feel the joy of their family, friends and happenings and only then will they share the ambitions of their city. It is also important to remember that cities are not only for the rich. They are also about who are not so rich, indeed, who are poor and have left the warmth of their rural dwellings to make a living for their next generation. They constitute an essential segment in every which way and play a vital role in the economic activity of the city. They have moved into the city to make their life better and that of their next generation, so city developments must focus on their needs of schooling, health care and business opportunity through a facilitative approach.

A smart urban development paradigm, therefore, has to begin with a simple, compact set of bye–laws and rules. Planners must be clear on the basics like optimum floor area ratios, vertical development, compulsory underground parking facilities in public spaces and a well–run public transport facility must be an absolute imperative. We have built housing without connectivity and many times even without the fundamentals like water and electricity access. This kind of development should really entail a criminal liability.

Access and affordability are two vital considerations in building the momentum for urban growth. Either we have a constant supply of serviceable land or we should be able to make the best use of available land. We do neither and keep making facile noises to make shelter and access to services affordable. There is no magic stick to make affordability happen. It has to be through a set of practical development controls and intelligent pricing. Imagine, our inadequacy of the fire services will not allow us to go for high–rise development. And our outdated laws will not allow us to go underground except for storage. A capable fire service is a needed insurance and it should not become a barrier to efficient land use. All the cities of the world which we envy and want to be like them, have done it through one simple formula, ‘the law is same for everybody’ and no exceptions.

In the ultimate analysis, political belief in urbanisation is paramount. It is not a sin if people want to migrate to cities for their future, the cardinal sin is in not anticipating these aspirations and not being ready to manage this scale of migration. Why don’t we do it, though we know the deficits? Indeed, the inertia to do things right is mystifying most times. We have almost 350 million human beings in our cities, with another 300 plus million to come to the cities in the next decade. Growth and employment are powerful magnets to the cities and we cannot undermine individual aspirations. The problem actually is bigger because we never count the hidden urban dwellers on the fringes of the cities, called peri–urban residents. 

Their existence is even more appalling as they use resources as per their needs without any municipal regulation and with no civic service of any kind. By setting illusory urbanisation goals, we are only leading ourselves up the garden path. Housing for all is a great ideal. Sure, wi–fi of public areas is good, sure app assisted access to services is good, and sure electronic lighting is good, but only after we address the fundamentals of clean water, power supply and waste management.This will happen through diligence and doable smart and sustained strategic plans which have to be city specific and include the rural dimension.  Delhi or the state capitals can, at best, only facilitate their success but the city administration has to implement them. The big towns may be bursting at the seams, but there is still a lot of possibilities in the mid–size and small towns. Let us retrieve them. We desire to live in paradise, we have to create it here and now and not in the next life.
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