Time to re-imagine the urbanscape

Sanjaya Das | Updated on June 11, 2020

New ecosystem There is need for a paradigm shift in the way we think about cities   -  ISTOCK.COM

With IT and IoT, cities can be both smart and inclusive. Improved delivery of welfare services can arrest reverse migration

Migration and migrants will remain an integral part of India’s urban landscape. The UN’s ‘World Urbanization Report’ shows that the proportion of urban population in India to total population is rising at an accelerating pace: from 17 per cent in 1950, it rose in sixty years’ time to 30.9 per cent in 2010 and is expected to reach 50.3 per cent by 2046. Studies also show that over 50 per cent of the increase in urban population between 2001 and 2011 was attributed to the rural-urban migration and re-classification of rural settlements into urban.

Over the years, the government has brought in schemes for urban development and modernisation. The Seventy-Fourth Constitutional Amendment in 1992, the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission scheme launched in 2005 by the UPA (for a period up to 2012), Smart City mission (2015), and Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY)-Housing for all (2015), are some of the notable initiatives.

Although these initiatives have shown progress, they have not been able to transform the liveability of Indian cities in a significant manner. Important reforms visualised under JNURRM like the enactment of community participation law, transfer of water supply, city planning functions, reform in rent control, etc., have been implemented only patchily by the States.

Even if the target of building 20 million houses under PMAY-HFA by 2022 is achieved, that would only eliminate the previous backlog. Media reports indicate that only 10 per cent of the projects targeted for completion under the Smart Cities mission between 2019 and 2023 are likely to be completed.

The slow pace of progress is clearly unacceptable and the current reverse migration shows the consequences. Once the employment/wage benefit of migration became uncertain due to lockdown, the migrants found the urban environment so hostile that some even opted to walk back home. The absence of any form of a social security net created such deep insecurity in their minds that despite the assurances of governments to provide food and shelter they chose to take the most arduous route to their home towns/villages.

Focus areas

Clearly, if there is need for a paradigm shift in the way we think about cities/urban areas, it is now. They should be thought of as Smart Hubs for Rural Urban Transformation and Integration (SHRUTIs) designed to benefit both rural and urban areas focussing primarily on the following:

provision of public housing either through the construction of smart buildings and the rapid expansion of the rental market;

public health (through preventative measures and tele-medicine) and improved sanitation through treatment of waste;

solid waste management with emphasis on waste to energy/compost and recycling;

public transportation with focus on shared mobility and removal of congestion; conservation of water and electricity through smart grids and metering and smart building design and encouragement to renewables;

pollution control through expansion of electric vehicle infrastructure;

intensive use of tele-education for massive skilling programmes according to requirements in local areas; and

a system of unemployment insurance.

The thrust areas should have a high component of information technology including internet of things (IT/IoT) to reduce the costs of roll out. For the urban local bodies (ULBs) to effectively harness these technologies they require proper organisational and technological support. For each of these thrust areas, the State governments should appoint state level authorities to fund, technically support and monitor the progress against clear outcome targets. The State missions should have support from corresponding Central missions in these areas.

To provide an IT/IOT platform on cloud to the ULBs, a National Information Utility (NIU) should be set up as proposed by the Technology Advisory Group of the Finance Ministry. The technical standards for this platform could be laid down by Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY). In a democratic society, this would have to be done in a manner in which the privacy and security of the data of the citizens is protected and it is here that the role of the publicly accountable NIU would be pivotal.

In the case of public housing, technologies like drones, geographical information systems and robotic process automation can help the ULBs play a facilitating role for affordable housing construction through the speedy preparation of master-plans (with zones for affordable housing), digitalisation of land records, streamlining the approvals. In the package announced by the Finance Minister, rental housing was mentioned as one of the means to alleviate the housing shortage in urban areas.

ULB developed e-platforms where rental companies could pool accommodation from individual lessors, re-purpose and offer it for rental to lessees on standard terms and conditions would reduce the risks to parties, thereby stimulating the supply of locked properties on to the rental market and construction of more units on the promise of better returns.

Public health

One can similarly visualise a similar role for IT/IOT in delivery of preventative public health to the doorstep of the citizens. Mobile units equipped with automated testing and high quality tele-medicine facilities to backup public or public-private partnership hospitals could help in early detection of diseases, both communicable and non-communicable, and screening of patients. Further tracing and referrals can also be done through apps. Artificial intelligence-based systems could be used for early detection of epidemics giving ULBs time to prepare well in advance, thereby saving both lives and costs.

In other thrust areas too, technology could play the backbone role. Tele-education for geography-specific skill development is an obvious choice as would a blockchain-based unemployment insurance system. If government expenditure on urban development is purposefully stepped up, the employment impact could be felt in not only construction but further afield, in industries such as electronics, sensors, telecommunications, new construction materials, health equipment, robotics, start-ups, etc.

A rainbow revolution, similar to the earlier green, by which people of different strata and backgrounds live and work harmoniously and productively together, bound ultimately by a common destiny, is the need of the hour. The SHRUTI approach can create the necessary eco-system to make that happen. In a future pandemic, the migrants may still want to go home; but given the long term security in urban areas, they will want to return early to a home away from home.

The writer is Professor, IMT Ghaziabad and former Additional Member, Railway Board

Published on June 12, 2020

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