Millennium Post

Urbanisation lessons for the world

The United Nations has formally adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, along with a set of global goals that the Secretary-General has hailed as “a universal, integrated, and transformative vision for a better world”. Of the seventeen goals, the one listed at number eleven states: “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable”. It is truly, a stirring declaration. There are other goals as well, in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) list, for the nations to achieve which have an impact on the urban ecosystem. In fact, the global community has voted in favour of sustainable development as the course of growth for all human endeavors.

There can be no question of the sanctity of the stated goals. Indeed, the development community has argued for the sustainability models of growth for a long time and in particular since the science of climate change warned the world at large, that rising carbon emissions and pollution caused by energy consumption and use of chemicals and pesticides was damaging the earth’s ecosystem of the earth and will result in rising temperatures by 2050 or so. The global community has been conscious to devise measures to change development paradigms ever since. The larger and the tougher question is how are we going to achieve these goals by 2030. The sceptics are going by the failures in reaching the Millennium Development Goals, set out fifteen years earlier and the fact that agreements to cut carbon emissions are so hard to achieve, particularly amongst the developing nations. The optimists are hoping that, given the compulsions of survival, nations have to align their growth along sustainable models.

India’s story on urbanisation so far does not make for great telling. Our cities are poorly governed, poorly resourced, and poorly planned. None of the stated ideals - inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable can be considered as present in the growth matrix of our cities. At the very least, we have the institutional framework waiting for leadership to take charge and guide the growth pattern in a manner that facilitates the achievement of the sustainable development goals. What is needed is a capacitated resource and the collective will to chart the path and stay with it ethically. The size of the challenge is huge. As per a news report, over 60 percent of the houses in mid-size cities with less than one million population discharge waste water into the open drains. The report goes on to add, “nearly one-fourth of the 416 such non-metropolitan cities have less than 20 percent households that have waste water outlets connected to the closed drainage system”. Such is the finding of the National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA), a research organisation under the Ministry of Urban Development. So what do we tackle first, housing shortage, infrastructure deficit, or the sanitation disorders?

Choices are hard and competitive. Making one a priority achiever does not have desired consequence unless the other needs are fulfilled. Taking steps to meet the housing demands would only compound the sanitation problems because of the lack of proper drainage system. Working on the drainage system will not be enough unless the effluent treatment systems are installed and function effectively. These have to be addressed in tandem. The next question that everybody would need to have an answer to is: where is the money coming from?

At one level, the state has neglected its responsibilities by not having planned adequately for civic infrastructure. All the money that was allocated or should have been allocated on an annual basis should be estimated now and provided. Our budgets are not at all scientific and need a careful appraisal to cut heartlessly out the expenditure on non-essentials. Governments, both national and state, do not to create assets with revenue streams. Projects are branded on political colours, and not for the earning potential. We do not have to go far, look at the waste of assets like the sports stadia for the Asian Games or the Commonwealth Games. We need to cut, both, the administrative and financial waste and the waste from consumption. Furthermore, we need to monetise the land resource innovatively. It is easier said than done. Even the public-private model poses hurdles to success, because of the capacity of the two partners to trust and administer for the contract terms. But we need to learn to identify and work the available options. A theoretical prescription will not address all the questions.

In a famous episode, perhaps apocryphal or perhaps true, a consulting house made a presentation to the Prime Minister of India, listing out all the things that need to be done for India’s development. At the end of the presentation, the Prime Minister is reported to have remarked, “We know all these things, and the problem is how these will be done”. There we have it: the crux of our dilemma.

In a sense, the above episode is an expression of frustration with the available instruments of delivery and their inability to match up to volumes of needs that are being generated by a growing population. Is it the inadequacy of the bureaucracy or the lack of political purpose, or the country’s treasury is empty. Perhaps, a little bit of all the three deficits. The global community has agreed to the sustainable goals and India too is a signatory. So we have to devise solutions from the human experiences all over the world to address our challenges. The developed world was not always what we see  today. They put in the laws, the compliances and the governance systems to achieve what they have today. We, too have to make the steep climb to get there, provided we desperately want to. Only sustained desperation will drive us to sustainable goals.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)
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