Maximum Cities being pushed to the limits

Radheshyam Jadhav | Updated on January 27, 2019

By 2050, some 416 million more Indians will have moved to cities and towns, according to the latest UN data   -

India’s cities lag behind in urban living standards due to years of underinvestment

An urban nightmare is unfolding in India. By 2050, some 416 million more Indians will have moved to cities and towns, according to the latest UN data. Where will they live? Where will they work? How will they commute?

Already, India’s cities are crumbling under the weight of the uncontrolled growth that has taken place over the last few decades. The figures tell the story of inexorable growth. According to the 2001 Census, 286.1 million people were living in urban India. That climbed steeply to 377.1 million in the 2011 Census — a growth of 2.76 per cent annually. A large number of new towns also emerged during the decade, contributing significantly to faster levels of urbanisation.

As the number of people moving to the cities climbed in leaps and bounds, so did the number of slum dwellings. The Pranab Sen Committee report projected India’s slum population to be 104 million in 2017 — about 9 per cent of the total projected national population. The committee’s previous projection of slum population in 2011 was 93 million, or 7 per cent of a total population of 1.21 billion.

“Policy-makers now realise that urbanisation is set to accelerate with India’s rapid growth, but there’s still inadequate understanding of the need to plan for urbanisation and translate these plans into action,” says renowned economist and eminent urbanisation expert Isher Ahluwalia.

Bish Sanyal, Ford International Professor of Urban Development and Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says India must answer fundamental questions if it is to achieve sustainable urbanisation. “How to provide good employment with decent income; decent housing and good mobility between housing, jobs and other urban facilities? How to create a good public administration at the local level to attract private investment, and also create transparency and accountability for urban residents which will ensure good performance, will all be crucial," says Sanyal.

The fact is India’s cities have grown in an unplanned fashion for the past few decades and are already stretched beyond breaking point. Says Ahluwalia: “Over the past 25 years, cities such as Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Delhi and Pune have been at the forefront of urbanisation and rapid growth, but this happened in a completely unplanned manner. As a result, there has been a massive deterioration in their public services.” She adds that transport systems in cities have not kept pace, rivers and lakes have been encroached upon and polluted, and the neglect of waste management (both solid waste and waste water) has created a massive public health hazard. Moreover, air pollution has reached alarming levels because of the absence of adequate regulatory systems and enforcement capacity to control automotive and other emissions.

The water crisis aggravated in the past 25 years, and urban local bodies and State governments are struggling to cater to the drinking water needs of citizens. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) had in 2008 identified 150 polluted river stretches, which increased to 302 in 2015. River stretches are polluted due to discharge of untreated and partially treated sewage and discharge of industrial wastewater.

The public transport system in cities is crumbling. According to an assessment by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the share of public transport is expected to decrease from 75.5 per cent in 2000-01, to 44.7 per cent in 2030-31, while the share of personal transport will be over 50 per cent, adding to the woes of congestion and air pollution.

Skewed land use patterns, including conversion of agriculture and forest land into residential and commercial areas, poses a major challenge to the survival of the green lungs of the cities.

Also, despite the 74th Constitutional Amendment, which gave urban local bodies the right of self-governance, the States still suck revenue from cities. No mechanism has been created to ensure that money taken from cities as taxes is given back.

According to Ahluwalia, the major challenges of urbanisation in India in the years ahead are the inability of cities to provide basic needs such as safe drinking water, clean air, good quality public transport, and roads and pavements for their residents and material to move from one place to another, while also providing both social infrastructure (schools, hospitals, public parks) and economic infrastructure (bridges, flyovers, markets).

“India needs to recognise cities as independent units of governance and economy. We need to urgently initiate systemic reforms to city governance,” says Srikanth Viswanathan, CEO of Bengaluru-based Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy.

He adds that India will face four challenges in the next 25 years because of rapid urbanisation. These are “economic productivity, growth and job creation, challenge of ensuring equitable access to opportunities and basic services, environmental sustainability and climate change, and lastly, participation of citizens in governance.”

The Ministry of Urban Development’s High Powered Expert Committee estimated that over a 20-year period ₹39.2 lakh crore at 2009-10 prices will need to be spent on urban infrastructure over a 20-year period. Of this, ₹17.3 lakh crore (or 44 per cent) will be on urban roads. “The backlog for this sector ranges from 50 per cent to 80 per cent across the cities of India,” the committee report stated.

Singapore-based urban planning expert Wong Tai-Chee insists that huge amounts of capital investment will be necessary in the future. “By world standards, Indian cities lag behind in basic standards of urban living due to years of chronic underinvestment. Both domestic and international investments are seen to be critical so that Indians can live in better comfort with a better quality of life” he says.

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Published on January 27, 2019
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