Back in 2011, the World Bank identified the five “critical issues” facing Indian cities. They were: poor local governance; weak finances of cities and town; inappropriate planning leading to high costs of housing and office space, among the highest in the world in our big metros; critical infrastructure shortages of everything from water to power to transportation; and, above all, a rapidly deteriorating environment.

More than a decade later, nothing has changed, except for India’s urban population numbers, which are steadily increasing. Between 1960 and 2020, India’s share of urban population has nearly doubled, from 18 per cent to over 35 per cent. In Covid-hit 2020 alone, which witnessed the greatest human migration in the subcontinent since partition when millions of migrant workers abandoned cities and trudged hundreds, even thousands of kilometres to their rural homes, urban population still rose by 2.32 per cent over 2019.

‘Census cities’

But this “growth” is illusory. It is accompanied by few of the signs of growth as we know it. True, urban sprawls have increased. But these are largely that unique Indian phenomenon, “census cities” — where a majority of the population derives its primary income from sources other than agriculture, the Census of India classifies them as urban. These census towns do not, however, offer anything close to the standards of civic amenities and services one associates with a modern city.

Nothing exposed this lack of infrastructure more cruelly than the Covid pandemic. India’s cities bore the brunt of the virulent first and second waves of the Covid pandemic, with cities accounting for almost 60 per cent of the cases. And the result played out across prime-time news television screens and newspaper headlines for all to see — people desperately scrounging for ambulances, hospital beds, ventilators, oxygen cylinders and even the initial (and since discarded) medical treatments. And of course, of crematoria and burial grounds loaded beyond capacity.

“We simply cannot afford to continue with the ‘business as usual approach’, says Hitesh Vaidya, Director of the National Institute of Urban Affairs, India’s leading — and official — national think tank on urban planning and development. Adding, “we need to plan for the new normal”.

That, however, would take a paradigm shift in thinking and approach, from the apex policy level to how our cities are managed and run. So far, on the operations and development front, cities come at the bottom of the pile in India’s political/power pecking order. If the national government is at the top, followed by state government, then the urban local bodies. At every step, from finances to resources, patronage trumps practical requirements.

Where is that taking our cities? Everyone is aware of the grimmest statistic, of course — India’s cities are among the most polluted in the world, with 13 of the world’s top 15 most polluted cities in India (and one in neighbouring Pakistan, in the same geo-climatic zone). And the national capital of Delhi leads the world rankings.

Given India’s dependence on fossil fuels and the hectic pace of construction in our cities — private sector mortgage lender HDFC (not to be confused with the bank) alone lent ₹2 trillion towards home purchases last year, almost all of it in urban areas — massive particulate pollution is a given. So between emissions, very low availability of non-polluting mass transport, and millions of poorly maintained vehicles on the roads, the pollution problem isn’t going away anywhere soon.

But the situation is dire on other fronts as well. According to NIUA estimates, if the “old normal” continues the way it is, the demand-supply gap for clean water will increase 3.5 times the 2007 level to 94 billion litres per day by 2030. In the same period, the demand-supply gap in sewage treatment doubles to 109 billion litres per day. The demand-supply gap in solid waste management quadruples to 82 million tonnes per annum. The availability of rail-based mass transit in cities is estimated to increase from 990 directional route kilometres in 2007 to 1,990 directional route kilometres by 2030, by which time the demand would have risen to a whopping 8,400 directional RKMs. And the shortfall in affordable housing units will have risen to 38 million units by then.

Can this be changed? Vaidya feels it can. But that needs action on several fronts. “We need to develop a set of priorities,” he says. Foremost is fixing the funding issue for infrastructure development at the urban local body level, imaginatively bundling and unbundling different financial resources at the local level. At the moment, while there are several “missions” working on urban issues — water mission, housing mission, urban transformation, smart cities and so on — they are working largely in silos.

“It is important to align stakeholders across government and bring multiple silos with overlapping authorities like urban planning, financing and budgeting, and service delivery at one place,” he says.

Revenue crunch

Easier said than done. Take finances. Most urban local bodies continue to depend largely on revenue sources like property taxes, while banking on State and Central projects to fund specific infrastructure projects. The capacity to reimagine revenue and finance sources at the municipal body level is almost absent.

Take municipal bonds, for instance. Over the last three years, only three cities — Hyderabad, Lucknow and Ghaziabad — have managed to raise municipal bonds — a primary source of funding for civic infrastructure worldwide — and that too, for a grand total of ₹795 crore.

India’s uncontrolled urbanisation is a threat to our future as well as the planet’s. But it is also an opportunity. Cities can be engines of growth, transforming the economy and with it the lives of the people. But to make that happen requires massive effort and a radical change in approach. A NITI Aayog study (Urban Planning Capacity in India, September 2021) found that 65 per cent of the 7,933 urban settlements do not have any master plan at all! We cannot have a viable future without planning — and working — for it.

The writer is a senior journalist