The urbanisation conundrum: Is India ready?

  • About 31 percent of India’s population is urban, and by 2050 another 400 million are expected to become urban dwellers.
  • With the growing urban population, the problems of the urban areas associated with pollution, solid waste, congestion and water are also increasing.
  • Government missions focussing on urban transformation are yet to gain pace. Experts believe that stronger municipal level governance, better urban planning and reversing the trend of hardware-based urban planning is much needed.
  • The government is currently accepting inputs for its draft national urban policy framework which outlines an integrated and coherent approach towards the future of urban planning in India.

In the next 30 years, India is expected to add hundreds of millions of new urban residents and the world is watching for what this high urban population growth will mean, globally. Meanwhile, experts believe the Indian government’s preparation for this urban boom has been ill-planned and woefully short so far and predict that the problems plaguing the urban areas right now may in fact get intensified in the years to come.

As per the 2011 Census of the Indian government, India had about 377 million urban residents, which is about 31.16 percent of the country’s total population. Urban residents in the country are expected to nearly double in the next few decades.

In 2018, a United Nations report had noted that the major increases in the world’s urban population is expected to be highly concentrated in just a few countries with India, China and Nigeria accounting for 35 percent of the projected growth of the world’s urban population between 2018 and 2050. It is projected that by 2050 India would have added 416 million urban dwellers, which is more than the present population of the United States of America.

To address the issues arising from rapid urbanisation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, in June 2015, launched three mega urban schemes – the Smart Cities Mission for urban transformation of 100 ‘smart’ cities in India, Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) which focuses on water supply, sewage networks and sustainable urban transport facilities and the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, a housing for all scheme – to ensure “better living and drive economic growth”.

Is the smart city mission smart enough?

Issues like pollution, congestion, water scarcity, slums, traffic, overcrowding, public transport, and waste have made many of India’s megacities unliveable. For instance, a recent report stated that out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, 18 are in India. Thus, the schemes launched by the government were a perfect opportunity for the authorities to address the problems persisting in India’s burgeoning cities.

Under the smart cities mission, 100 cities across India were identified and selected, between January 2016 and June 2018, for developmental works

But, according to experts, the new schemes are proving to be as ineffective as the previous urban development schemes of the central government, as they continue to tread the path of poor planning.

“Urbanisation is a neglected issue in India by all political parties as our country is run by politicians who are either lawyers or economists. They have no clue about the planning required for urbanisation. They are architecturally illiterate. That is the main reason for our cities being in such a mess,” said Raj Rewal, a noted architect and former chairman of the Delhi Urban Arts Commission (DUAC).

“The smart city project of this government has not been effective, but the same was true with the previous government’s urbanisation programme, Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, which was also ineffective,” he told Mongabay-India.

According to official government data, so far, a total of 5,151 projects worth Rs. 2.05 trillion (Rs. 205,018 crores) have been included by the selected 100 cities in their smart city proposals (SCPs) and these are expected to be executed through resources from central/state government/local bodies as well as externally funded schemes.

Nearly one-third of India’s population lives in urban areas. Photo by Kounosu/Wikimedia Commons.

Till now, the central government has released Rs 155.36 billion (Rs. 15,536 crores) to the state governments and union territories (UTs) for implementing projects under the smart cities programme. According to the central government data, as on January 25, 2019, 2,748 projects worth Rs 1.04 trillion (Rs. 1,04,964 crore) have been tendered and of that “2,032 projects worth Rs. 622.95 billion (Rs. 62,295 crore) are under implementation/have been completed”.

“Under the (smart cities) mission, funds have been spent on projects/areas of integrated command and control centres, design and construction of complete streets, public bike sharing, urban transport, riverfront/lakefront development, placemaking, smart water and wastewater, smart solar, solid waste management, rejuvenation of public spaces etc. The timeline for completion of projects, as given in SCPs of Smart Cities is five years from the date of their selection,” said Indian government’s Minister of State (Independent Charge) of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs Hardeep Singh Puri while replying to a question in parliament in February 2019.

Chandra Bhushan, who is deputy director general of the Centre for Science and Environment, explained that the issue of urbanisation is the issue of governance at the third tier of the government.

“Smart city programme has picked from where the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM left). But the fundamental issue of urbanisation is the strength of governance at the municipal level. The weakest governance in India is at the municipal level,” said Bhushan.

Stating that he has been looking at the smart city projects of states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, he noted that the authorities in those states know that “they have been given money and thus they are investing that money to develop certain areas within existing cities.”

“They are beautifying the areas, installing street lights, purchasing buses … But the idea of having a holistic look at the city and investing in it has not happened through the smart city project or JNNURM. But both of them were actually hardware based programmes and the fate of all hardware programmes is that they end once the money allocated to them ends,” Bhushan told Mongabay-India.

Poor planning main culprit of urbanisation problems

One of the main urbanisation problems that experts point out is poor planning.

“The main thing is that the professionals like architects are sidelined when it comes to planning our cities. The entire political spectrum has a poor understanding of urbanism and solutions required to tackle problems associated with it,” said Raj Rewal.

Bhushan expressed similar views as he said that, “we are not realising that half of India that is going to be built with very poor planning and governance.”

“The first government after independence started with a focus on hardware-based planning, and since then the trend has continued. We have to reverse this trend otherwise urban problems would only become bigger. If we fail to do so, we won’t be able to solve the problems that Indian cities are facing from over 40 years like unplanned urbanisation, water and pollution. Smart cities would be smart if smart people govern them,” Bhushan said.

To plug holes in India’s urban planning, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs has been working on a national urban policy to decide how cities should be planned and managed to achieve sustainable urbanisation. The ministry had recently prepared a draft national urban policy framework (NUPF) “which outlines an integrated and coherent approach towards the future of urban planning in India.”

The NUPF stresses that it presents a “new way of thinking about Indian cities” and recognises that urban development is a state subject and hence the states need to develop their respective state urban policies. It also noted that NUPF is “not an attempt to provide a detailed, top-down guidebook to cities.”

The ministry had sought views and suggestions from all stakeholders on it by March 31, 2019. Once the ministry assesses the comments and feedback, the final framework document is expected to be finalised in the next few months.

Banner image: Pollution and water scarcity are among the main problems plaguing urbanisation in India. Photo by Aktron/Wikimedia Commons.

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