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Saving India’s Cities

Indian cities are bursting - what can be done to save them?

We speak with a sustainability expert to understand the challenges facing Indian cities and what can be done to save them.

In the debate on India’s path to economic development, there is one fact that goes virtually unchallenged – that cities are the engine of our economic growth. Even though only 31% of India’s 1.2 billion population lives in cities, they contribute nearly two thirds to India’s GDP of $1.8 Trillion*. No wonder that as per the 2011 census, the number of million-plus cities has doubled in a decade – there are over 50 cities with a population of over 1 million in India today.

The numbers may sound impressive, but the reality is not so attractive. Pot holed roads, mountains of rubbish in public spaces, limited affordable housing & public transportation, grid-locked traffic, severe outages of water and power, growing crime, intolerance & inequality – all of these are common to our cities. Forget London, Singapore or New York; our best cities would show up poorly against an Amman, Sao Paolo or Manila.

To discuss the challenges facing our cities and what can be done to stem the rot, My Big Red Bag caught up with Dr. Anjali Mahendra, Strategy Head, Research and Practice at EMBARQ India (WRI Center for Sustainable Transport). Excerpts from our telephonic discussion:

1. Anjali, Thanks a lot for chatting with My Big Red Bag! There is a lot of talk about sustainable development of cities in India. What are the key issues underlying sustainable growth in urban spaces?

There are three key issues here, which we commonly refer to as the 3 E’s:

The first is about economic development, which is obviously a key goal for cities. Migration to cities takes place because there is an expectation of better access to jobs and an improved quality of life; so the issue is to ensure that cities can manage the growth while remaining economically competitive and continuing to provide these economic opportunities to all citizens.

The second is environmental preservation, which is about ensuring that growth does not lead to higher pollution, shrinking water bodies & open spaces, or the destruction of our heritage – obviously there are several underlying issues here such as transportation, management of precious resources like water & power, sanitation, building norms, etc.

The third and most often overlooked issue is that of equity, of ensuring that the benefits are equitably distributed amongst the citizens of the city, and again this is not just about economic opportunities & benefits but also about access to health facilities, resources, urban services like transportation, power, clean water, etc.

So the challenge for sustainable development is to balance the economic benefits deriving from development with the price it extracts on the environment and equality, because it’s the absence of this balance that leads to crime, congestion, pollution, poverty and other ills that plague our cities.

 2. It seems there is a lot at stake here. What role can the three key stakeholders – public agencies, the private sector, and individual citizens – play in this?

Public agencies here is a broad term that encapsulates policy makers, decision makers, planning and implementation agencies and the judiciary. Clearly their key role is to foresee and fulfill the demand for public goods in a transparent and accountable manner (i.e., without corruption!), As part of this they need to formulate and implement policies and laws that set the right incentives – for instance ensuring that introduction of a metro or monorail does not lead to misuse of land markets by vested interests; or drawing up a viable city Master Plan and then ensuring it is executed in letter and spirit. For this to happen, it is vital that public agencies acknowledge that they are providers of public goods and expected to act in the public interest. They should also monitor performance and make use of technology and social media to ensure consistent enforcement of laws in all realms such as traffic management, environmental quality, safety and security of citizens, etc.

When it comes to the private sector, they can bring immense capability in the form of technology, ideas, processes, efficiency and financing through the PPP (Public Private Partnership) mode. The key imperative for the private sector is to recognize that it is futile to constantly pursue returns at the cost of equity and environment. There are several instances of private organizations demanding and sometimes helping to deliver public goods, but sometimes these come with a vested interest – for example demands for heavy public investment in a toll expressway that serves a corporate hub may be of great benefit to the minority population who travel by cars, but it may not help the much larger proportion of the public that uses public transport and non-motorized travel modes like walking and cycling (80 – 90% in most cities)! So I think the private sector can make a tremendous contribution to development if they can look beyond the lens of short term profits and interests.

And finally citizens need to demand more accountability from public agencies, and that will come with a change in mindset. We need to realize that consuming more is not a symbol of status or wealth, and that there is an environmental cost to the growing consumption accompanying a rapidly growing urban middle class – for example, when we give over a majority of our public spaces to cars, or even when we demand exclusivity in our homes and over-consume water and power. In many Western countries where basic services are largely taken care of, there has been a growing shift towards collaborative consumption, where there is focus on car and bike sharing, of building more multifamily (apartment style) denser housing with community public parks instead of sprawling homes with private gardens. It is very important that we start teaching our children about the environment and about equity when we talk of development.

3. What is the single biggest obstacle to making sustainable development a reality in India?

Managing our cities’ growth and development is not easy to plan for or to implement – it requires the right policies, good planning and excellent execution. There are so many aspects to be considered and so many actors involved – physical infrastructure, transport, distribution of resources, health, hospitals, education, social well being, and so on. This presents a huge challenge to the traditionally silo-ed mode of operations in our country. So the toughest part about making sustainable development a reality is the coordination across all the myriad agencies and organizations and getting them to march in step to a common tune – a common vision arrived at through citizen input.

4. Are there instances when all of the moving parts have come together, can you share an example of good urban planning in India?

There are some good examples, but they are few and far between and really need to be scaled up for greater impact in our cities. Three that come to mind:

The first is an old one but still very relevant, and that’s the Delhi Metro. Right from the way it was set up (as a private corporation in the public realm) to the planning, the implementation, the functioning of Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) as a meritocracy – I think it’s a very good example of urban planning and execution, though it still needs to be better integrated with other transport modes in the city to be more effective.

The second example is the city of Ahmedabad, where the local government agencies have involved urban planners and architects in the process of development. Several good things have come out of this – plans are afoot to make the walled street area vehicle free, the water front of the Sabarmati river has been developed as a public space, the city has a successful Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor and they have also ensured affordable housing along this corridor, they have a robust Town Planning Act which protects the interests of all citizens and not just a minority. So it’s a great example of a city that has displayed foresight when it comes to managing urban growth.

The third example is a recent initiative called Raahgiri Day in Gurgaon, where every Sunday for a few hours some roads are closed to traffic and handed back to the citizens for their enjoyment – they can walk. cycle, jog, play, dance or do whatever they like. Several other cities are now trying to replicate this (Editor’s note: My Big Red Bag also met up with the team behind Raahgiri Day, you can read about it here)

5. Any examples of cities abroad that are ‘developing’ in a more sustainable manner?

In Latin America, Bogota is a great example of a city that has embraced sustainable transport. They have implemented the BRT, their Ciclovia inspired Raahgiri Day and improved accessibility for all citizens by providing a range of transportation options, including investments in an extensive system of bikepaths, pedestrian and public spaces. (Editor’s note: The Ciclovia in Bogota has inspired a similar revolution in numerous other countries, from Australia & New Zealand to US, Canada & several Latin American countries!)

New York City set up PlanNYC2030 a vision to ensure sustainable growth in the city. It brings together all the departments involved in delivering services to the city under the Mayor’s control, and this leads to better coordination and accountability. They are also using technology in a great way – for example they use crowd sourced data to identify accident hotspots and then try to fix it. It’s a great example of visionary leadership and integrated planning and delivery.

6. In your view which city in the world is the best example of planned sustainable development?

Although there are several aspects to sustainability, the one that I work most closely with is transportation, so I will give two great examples here.

One is the city of Singapore which is an outstanding example of integrated planning. Prior to 1970, Singapore suffered from traffic congestion, air pollution, high accident rates like any Indian city, but look what a transformation it has undergone in just a few decades! There are MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) & LRT (Light Rail Transit) stations at almost every corner, making public transportation accessible to all. They have judiciously controlled ownership of cars by placing a quota on the annual number of cars sold and having an auction system which demands a significant premium for purchasing a car, as well as congestion charges paid by drivers for driving in congested locations. The best part is that the revenues from this are ploughed back into public transportation used by the majority of people in the city.

London is another example of great foresight and execution when it comes to transportation. All public transport responsibilities – buses, the tube (as the underground metro is called), parking, traffic and street management – are under the supervision of a single body called Transport For London (TFL) which ensures coordinated delivery of services. Like Singapore, they have also implemented congestion pricing for using cars, which is a great way of setting the right incentives by making people pay for the congestion and pollution they cause and then using this money for public good.

To my mind both these cities are excellent illustrations of providing choices and alternatives to citizens and setting the right economic incentives for more equitable development.

7. Your favourite city in India, and why?

I haven’t lived in many different ones, but I really like the heterogeneity and weather in Bangalore (traffic notwithstanding) and the cultural richness of Ahmedabad. The other thing common to both cities is that they have a relatively large cohort of people and organizations actively involved in improving conditions in the city in terms of infrastructure, planning, and governance. That ecosystem of progressive entities working collaboratively makes a real difference.

 8. A city you would never live in India, and why?

Since I’m only closely familiar with four cities, I think it is unfair to pass this judgement. I also think all places have their positive and negative aspects. For example, I think the heritage, public parks, opportunities to engage in the literary and theatre arts, and overall amenities in Delhi are outstanding but women’s safety, urban governance, air quality, and the indiscriminate growth in private vehicles taking over open public spaces are serious issues of concern.

End Note:  Anjali, I confess I am guilty of  indiscriminately using my car while scowling at cyclists who come in the way, of thinking of toll expressways as a boon to development and of dreaming of owning a house with a private garden!  Thank you for the timely reminder that pursuing economic growth at the cost of the environment and equity is vain and wasteful. Here’s hoping for more cities like Ahmedabad and more Raahgiri Days all over the country.

* 2012 GDP as per World Bank data

Views expressed by the expert are personal. Image courtesy:  verseguru via Compfight cc


3 Comments on Saving India’s Cities

  1. Very salient points were highlighted by Anjali, all of which together is the holistic way how the urban development should be addressed for Indian Cities. However, in order to get to the desired state of urban sustainability, cities in India have to have certain key development management tools and framework in place. Anjali refers to these as the need to integrate the decision making processes across the myriad of agencies. That is easier said than done. A while ago the central govt. passed legislation 73rd/74th amendments that was intended to grant greater authority to urban local bodies in making decisions and taking action. The implementation of this however, was given to the states, which in turn has resulted in very uneven implementation. Where you have Cities like Ahmadabad where they have got their act together as the state implemented the amendments, other cities such as Kolkotta or Delhi don’t control much of the agencies responsible providing urban services as states(and central govt) refuse to fully implement these amendments. It would behoove citizens and social groups to push for a complete implementation of these amendments if they truly want to see effective city and urban governance.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Bharat. I agree that it is easier said than done and it has been said many times before, which is why we’d better start soon! You rightly point out the problem that national laws like the 74th Amendment passed in the early 1990s have not been evenly implemented at the local/city level. But it is not all dependent on the state’s implementation. Karnataka has implemented the amendment, yet it’s cities do not have full authority to raise their own revenue and make budget decisions about important investments. A lot of this has to do with the incentive structures that are created. If state Chief Ministers primarily represent constituencies that are non-urban (as they do in many states), city-level issues will not take priority for them. I think national level laws are necessary but not sufficient, and conditions for sustainable urban development must be created locally, at the city level, through leadership, collaborative planning and engaging all stakeholders. Then a state’s acceptance of the amendment will actually show impact in our cities on the ground.

  3. Good interview !!It is high time that we all focus on this, as this will be a major factor that determines quality of life. ( It already is :) ). I feel somewhere there is a lack of coordination, or balance between various stakeholders. To give you an example, Last year in Elphinstone road in Mumbai, I saw a 60 floor residential complex coming up. Being very conservative, I estimate each floor will have two apartments and each apartment will have one car. That means it is adding 120 Cars. But as you must be aware the traffic in Elphinstone Road is too heavy and without having any systems or processes or awareness of the public( either to widen the Road or to restrict car usage) where will it lead to? I think we should begin with our self. Also one more thing, in many malls in Chennai , bi-cycles are not allowed !!!

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