Posted in Urban India

Rethinking India’s Urbanization

With no apologies for a little diversion into the history of colonialism: because we cannot plan the future if we forget the power plays of the past…

It is well documented that while the European colonizers chiefly plundered Africa for its gold, diamonds and equally precious human resources, their interest in India was mainly for what its broken and bleeding peasantry produced – cotton, indigo, jute, tea to enrich imperial businesses, and food grains to feed the British army through the two World Wars.

And given the differences between Africa and India, this was a very shrewd business decision. While even today Africa holds only 15% of the global population and has a population density of just 87 per sq km, Asia with 60% of the world behind its borders, is densely packed with 246 persons per sq km. So naturally, Africans were historically widely dispersed over vast spaces and preferred small village communities to urbanization, while the Indus Valley Civilization dates back 5000 years. Over the centuries, different rulers have left their mark on the Indian urban landscape in the shape of pilgrim centres, temple towns, handicraft towns, military forts, princely capitals, maritime ports and agricultural hubs. However, these towns were essentially orthogenetic i.e. born from the soil and culture of India. But colonialism was to change all that …

The colonizers in Africa basically needed exit points to carry out their nefarious human trafficking, and these cities soon grew and became primate for an entire region and most are still the capitals of modern African States. In India, the same need for developing exit points for colonial trade led to the creation of the port cities of Chennai (Madras), Mumbai (Bombay) and Kolkata (Calcutta) in the 1600s. However, although these ports were the chief cities in their respective regions, they could not develop into primate cities because of the highly developed pre-colonial cities spread across the sub-continent, which remained a repository of Indian culture and values throughout the days of British Rule – which also explains why the western proselytization of Africa could not be replicated in the Indian subcontinent.

Many Indian cities were ‘repurposed’ by the British: as ‘hill stations’, railway towns, mining towns, tea estates or military cantonments and those that couldn’t, served their purpose as conduits of agricultural produce to the exit points. Therefore, it is no surprise that modern facilities like schools, universities and hospitals were concentrated only in these ports where the colonizers did business – the Indian hinterland was left to rot, and that neglect made rural poverty endemic in India, and is the chief cause of farmer distress even today.

Now, 70 years after Independence, we find that India still lives in its villages (as Mahatma Gandhi famously said) with only 31% urbanization reported in Census 2011. As the figures below indicate, even this low urbanization is greatly skewed towards the larger metros with smaller towns only fit as launching pads for new migrants to the big bad city, because their local economies are virtually non-existent and can create no jobs, nor build careers. This skewness is largely a result of the Indian penchant for top-down, low-form urban planning, learnt from the British, who hankered after their own ‘green and pleasant land’, and rather unrealistically, tried to recreate it in the teeming tropics!

It is indeed ironic that India’s colonial hang-over has been replaced now by a very American neo-colonialism, where cities are supposed to be run like businesses, with maximum corporatization and zero inclusion. This was the undoing of both the JNNURM of the last Government, and the Smart City Initiative of the present one. (See: Why our cities cannot be run as businesses)

Instead of developing rural areas under a separate ministry, sector by sector (rural roads, rural housing, rural sanitation, rural health, etc), why not take a more holistic approach which recognizes the rural-urban continuum at the heart of Indian society, economy and polity? After all, China built its entire fast rail network on the basis of urban migrants going home to their native villages for the Chinese New Year!

This is where Regional Planning comes in.

It is not something new, but unfortunately, Indian Regional Planning has traditionally been left to urban planners and they have never been able to rise beyond the standard British formula of land use, transport and communication routes, water supply and drainage, preservation of areas, and reservations of sites for new towns. It’s almost as if the big city is endowing its poor rural sisters with that ultimate gift of modernity – more urbanization. Like creating 5-star Industrial Townships in the heart of good agricultural territory! In fact, with the worldwide decline in heavy manufacturing, the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) of yesteryear have quietly fizzled out, with the only beneficiaries being the business houses who promoted them, who are now the owners of vast swathes of rural and tribal lands, generously ‘acquired’ for them by Government agencies themselves.

As currently understood, a major aspect of the Regional Plan is metropolitan decentralization and the redistribution of the population, city functions and activities of the Mother City. In other words, it is a classic case of ‘top-down’ planning doomed to failure in a rapidly changing globalized world.

However, as the title suggests, maybe it is time to rethink India’s urbanization…

So, let’s begin with the villages. India, because of its density of population has always had market towns at the hub of a circle of villages – going back to Vedic times. These market towns have in most cases been reduced to overgrown villages or small municipalities or census towns. So why not concentrate on their revival first? Let us rebuild the spokes of the wheel of which each market town is a hub through good all-weather roads, telecommunication links, broadband connectivity, adequate water and electricity.

The next layer can be developing the social infrastructure like schools, polytechnics, colleges, hospitals, mother and child care centres, and financial infrastructure like banks and business centres in each of these hub towns, which are likely to have a population of 20,000-50,000. The only industry to be allowed in these towns would be agro-industries and food processing, and modern polluting industries like tanneries would be strictly kept out.

To enable these hubs to function properly, the full allocation of education, health, irrigation and forestry funds should be devolved to the local authority, as has been done successfully in Kerala. The local economic development and environmental and water management will also be the responsibility of the local body. As the area becomes more productive, there should be financial incentives for the local body like higher allocation from the Goods and Services Tax (GST) collected.

In this way, we will be tertiarizing the rural economy, creating non-agricultural jobs in small towns, using local resources in a sustainable manner, and reducing migration to cities in search of higher education and good health care. So, if we adopt this approach, we end up with multi-nodal development and these nodes or hubs can all be networked through transport and communication links.

As we approach the medium range towns, the Regional Plan must concentrate on upgrading basic municipal services and infrastructure, which will make these towns more liveable and discourage migration to the big city. These medium towns must also provide the tertiary level of services like Universities and multispeciality hospitals. Such towns should focus on developing local entrepreneurs by providing affordable industrial sheds, shopping malls, and reliable power, water, transport and communication. These towns can also become cargo hubs for produce from the market towns, with the emphasis being on developing rail and water transport rather than 6-lane highways which play havoc with the environment.

Coming to the Mother City, the emphasis must be on efficient public transport, power, water supply and environmental management with good connectivity to outlying areas, the rest of the country and abroad. With these facilities in place, the productivity of a city is bound to go up and this growth must be encouraged through higher allocations from taxes earned, more autonomy and less interference by State Governments in local matters. This will make local governments more responsive and accountable to their citizens.

Finally, the already existing forest and conservation laws need to be stringently adhered to, so that the rights of forest dwellers and the legacy of future generations are preserved.

In the present bleak scenario of polluted cities, urban sprawl, dwindling water sources, depleted forests and land hoarding, governments need to think outside the box, and plan for India’s future.

 

 

 

 

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Posted in Poverty

Multidimensional and Societal Poverty

The World Bank’s Report on Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2018 is titled: Piecing together the Poverty Puzzle.

In his Foreword, the outgoing WB President Jim Yong Kim points out that the world had impressively got its act together in implementing the Millennium Development Goals to bring down extreme poverty from 33% in 1990 to 10% in 2015. He is sure that global efforts will continue under the new Sustainable Development Goals, to reduce extreme poverty to less than 3% percent by 2030.

He goes on to point out that most of the world’s poor now live in middle-income countries, and research indicates that those countries tend to have a more demanding view of poverty. Drawing on national poverty lines, the World Bank now also report poverty rates at two higher thresholds—$3.20 per day and $5.50 per day—which are typical of standards in lower-middle-income countries, like India, and upper-middle-income countries, like China.  

These higher-valued poverty lines reflect social assessments of what defines minimum basic needs in countries at these income levels. As may be expected, these two standards for measuring poverty portray a less encouraging picture of the level of well-being in the world relative to the measure of extreme poverty, which is forecast now to be in single digits. Nearly half the world (46 percent) lives on less than US$5.50 per day, a standard that defines poverty in a typical upper-middle income country, while a quarter of the world lives on less than US$3.20 per day.

The Societal Poverty Line (SPL) to measure poverty relative to the standard of that society is a combination of the absolute income-based poverty line (IPL), and a poverty line that is relative to the median consumption (or income) level of each country. Specifically, it is equal in value to either the IPL or US$1.00, plus half of daily median consumption in the country, whichever is greater. This means that, for the poorest of countries, the value of the SPL will never be less than the IPL, although after a certain point, as countries get richer, the value of the SPL will increase as the consumption level of the median individual in that country increases.

This increasing value of the SPL corresponds with the fact that the value of national poverty lines typically increases as countries grow richer. In fact, the SPL is constructed in such a way that it directly corresponds to the average value of national poverty lines at different levels of (median) consumption for each country of the world. In this sense, societal poverty provides a global measure of poverty that corresponds on average with how all countries of the world define being poor.

When poverty is defined this way, the number of people who are poor stood at 2.1 billion as of 2015, almost three times more than those living under the US$1.90 level.

This Report also presents the World Bank’s first exercise in multidimensional global poverty measurement to account for multiple and overlapping components of poverty. The multidimensional approach highlights how the ways deprivations interact vary widely from country to country, and can be extended to include, in addition to education and access to basic infrastructure services, two other dimensions: health and nutrition, and security from crime and natural disaster. (See: Dimensions of Urban Poverty).

Including additional dimensions of deprivation in measures of poverty can provide valuable insight into how policies can be directed to have the most effect on poverty. The profile of the poor can change as we take a multidimensional view of poverty – as becomes starkly evident in the South Asian Region.

In this regard, the World Bank was anticipated by pioneers of the Sustainable Livelihoods approach, which looks at 5 types of capital available to an individual or a community, and it is the sufficiency or insufficiency of these ‘capitals’ which determine the extent and expanse of one’s livelihood polygon. This can be a great tool to decide the relative focus on various aspects of a poverty alleviation programme. In slum rehabilitation for instance, emphasis seems to be on providing basic physical infrastructure (water, roads, drains) while totally neglecting human development aspects of health and education. As a result, the livelihood polygon of the slum-dweller remains narrowly restricted, and the poverty becomes endemic as it passes from generation to generation (See Sustainable Livelihoods).

Posted in Urban India

Urbanization Trends in India

India is one of the many countries which has never got around to formulating a National Urban Policy, even seventy years after Independence, and successive governments have just thrown money at the myriad problems of unplanned and undirected urban growth, with scant results and a perpetually deteriorating quality of life. India has the dubious distinction of hosting 9 of the 10 most polluted cities in the world. Therefore, it is incumbent on any incoming Indian Government that its policy makers take a step back and look at the urbanization trends in the country, before more of its precious resources (including scarce urban land) are handed over to the private sector, in the name of smart cities, or housing for the poor, or some other gimmick.


The report of Census 2001 surprised urban experts by showing a downward trend in urbanization, first noticed in the 1991 Census, which had not been reversed, despite India’s notable successes on the economic front. Scholars of such phenomena had pinpointed four main reasons for this downturn :

  • As a result of the economic reforms of 1991, there had been a noticeable reduction in rural poverty, improvement in infrastructure and services, and a steady tertiarization of rural economies, reducing the flow of distress migration to cities
  • Secondly, with increasing global connectivity, the economic migration of people from small towns in search of education, skill building, and white-collar jobs, had reduced
  • Thirdly, villages on the periphery of big towns and/or with sizeable populations had resisted municipalization, chiefly because the local, landed power elite did not wish to relinquish control. The fear of higher taxation in an urban regime may also have dissuaded the rural citizenry, or perhaps, the host city (in a proposed merger) may have baulked at having its services and resources stretched over a wider area
  • Finally, it was believed that globalization itself was a cause for this downturn. As India transformed itself into a knowledge society, those on the wrong side of the digital and technological divide were put at a disadvantage. The knowledge sector tended to be capital intensive rather than labour intensive, and this discouraged unskilled labour from migrating.

In the following decade of 2001-2010, the changes wrought by globalization on Indian society were well entrenched and urbanization picked up once again because:

Liberalization brought foreign direct investment and MNCs demanded the dilution of India’s stringent, albeit humanitarian labour laws. Rightsizing and downsizing became the goal and social security (like pension schemes and medical aid) went out the door. This pushed more and more people into the informal sector, where they didn’t need to pay either direct or indirect taxes, and this in turn led to the further impoverishment of local bodies who had traditionally relied heavily on local business taxes like octroi.

In the long term, informalization has a very insidious and deleterious effect on local economies. Anybody and everybody can aspire to ‘learn on the job’ and work as a plumber or electrician on a construction project without any qualifications, using shoddy materials from any fly by night ‘factory’ with no safety standards, and get paid for it in cash with no tax paid at any stage. Is it any wonder then, that buildings and bridges collapsing in Indian cities are a regular occurrence? And nobody is held accountable. Informalization also leads to extremely exploitative trade and labour practices, encourages forced labour and child labour, higher school dropout rates, and generally weakens a country’s human capital, so that one generation down the line, we have clearly lost our demographic dividend.

Privatisation has led to a whole culture of unprecedented corruption and crony capitalism, especially in urban infrastructure. Even Government Schemes are now outsourced to private consultants, who have little or no local knowledge to make them effective and sustainable in the long run. The corporatization of basic municipal services, such as water supply and transport, further eats into the earnings of the local body and diminishes, rather than builds the capacity of municipal personnel. Further, unlike elected representatives, the bosses of these private and public corporates are not accountable to the people.

The boost given to construction once again made cities attractive and pull migration brought in both semi-skilled and unskilled labour, who stayed on to boost the urban population, eking out a living in the informal sector and living in increasingly squalid settlements.

It is noteworthy that although globalization and all its concomitants have dramatically raised the standards of living of the Indian urban middle class, and greatly reduced absolute poverty in the countryside, it has unfortunately skewed our priorities in favour of prestige projects like bullet trains instead of grassroots rail infrastructure; airports instead of bus stations; medical tourism instead of primary health care; business schools instead of primary schools; and so on.

The increased urbanization of India becomes quite clear in the Census 2011 report.

Urbanization in India

We see that by the time of the 2011 Census:

  • It was suddenly desirable to be urban’. The old landed elites had given way to the new rich, who had become wealthy beyond their wildest dreams by selling farmland on the peripheries of expanding metros, and now aspired for political power to match their financial clout – which could only happen in a new municipal/urban setting. This explains why although there were 7,935 towns in the country, only 468 or 6% had a population exceeding 100,000 (one lakh), that were home to around 265 million persons, constituting 70% of the total urban population! Which begs the question: what sort of towns (!) were the remaining 94%?
  • The 53 million-plus cities, where 42.6% of the urban population live, continued as the real ‘urban’ India. They were the hub of the old industrial sector and the new services sector. They continue to grow far beyond their carrying capacity and the impact on their environment has been devastating – whether through air pollution, toxicity in the food chain, dwindling groundwater, or recurring monsoon floods. These are the ‘generators of economic momentum’ for their regions and the country – pathetically inadequate, as their municipal governments are permanently impoverished, their tax bases are stagnant and non-viable, and informalization of both housing and the local economy is well over 40%.
  • The decline of the great urban symbols of British India, like Mumbai and Kolkata, foreshadowed in Census 2011, tell a sadder story: the abdication of power and responsibility by both, State and local governments, have given speculators a field day in these megacities, making real estate unaffordable to all but the super-rich. As the middle class gets pushed to the peripheries of these cities, the transport system reaches breaking point, and it makes more sense to opt for a relatively stress-free life in a smaller city. The archaic Rent Control Laws coupled with the absence of a clear title system prevents the growth of rental housing, further making these megacities unaffordable. With the exodus of formal sector economic activity to smaller metros/ towns, the vacuum is filled by the informal sector – reaching 68% in Mumbai, 62% in New Delhi, and 60% in Chennai.

The United Nations estimates that 40% of India’s population will be urban by 2030, but if our cities continue into the next decade on their present trajectory, life would be a living hell in some dystopian concrete jungle. So, before that scenario unfolds, let us urge the next government to seriously formulate a National Urban Policy to revitalize India’s cities through a four-pronged approach:

  • Firstly, the decentralization of local Government to manageable ward level, which will ensure greater stakeholder participation in governance and will be a check on the arbitrary decisions of huge Municipal Corporations and parastatals, some of which have budgets larger than that of several smaller State governments
  • Secondly, a neighbourhood approach to city planning which is more organic and more Indian
  • Thirdly, a commitment to heavy investment in education and health to provide sustainable livelihoods beginning in our million-plus cities
  • Finally, hand-holding support to poor communities to enable them to formalize large informal sub-economies, so that they are gradually integrated into the city’s formal economy and eventually into the national economy.

Posted in India

Republic Day 2019: Pivotal for India’s Constitution

Every year at this time, I share my deepest personal views about that most revered of documents – the Constitution of India. To my understanding, the Constitution is the equivalent of the ‘niyat’ of a devout Muslim before prayer – the purest ‘intention’ from the heart. It articulates the purest intentions of ‘We, the People’ to build a nation which cherishes the values of liberty, equality and fraternity, and endeavours to establish the basic principles of good governance – efficiency, effectiveness, subsidiarity, participation, equity, inclusion, accountability, transparency, responsiveness, consensus orientation and most importantly, the rule of law.

That is why the Constitution has created the following institutions/bodies to enable the delivery of good governance:

We should bear in mind that every successive parliament, assembly and government in India has taken an oath to abide by this Constitution, and consequently, every new statutory body since Independence has been created by these law-makers under the appropriate enactment, and within the spirit and framework of the Constitution of India, with necessary checks and balances from the judiciary.

The major non-constitutional bodies in India are:

So why do I say that Republic Day 2019 is pivotal for India’s Constitution? Because it is the first time since the formulation of the Constitution in 1949-50 that there are questions being raised about its relevance, coverage, ideals and mechanisms. The credibility of all the institutions either created within the Constitution or within its framework, is being systematically undermined by the Central and State Governments who seem to have forgotten their own oaths of office.

The ball is now in the court of the people of India. Who will they empower in the next election? Will they rise as one to protect this cherished aspiration of a billion people? Or will they drop all pretence of being true to its ideals and lead the country into an amoral vacuum?

Posted in Urban Issues

What a Waste

What a Waste 2.0 – A global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050, is one of those comprehensive and well-researched reports which only an organization with the expertise and global reach of the World Bank could produce.

Taking an overview of every aspect of waste management first globally, then region by region, this report can inform many a local SWM policy paper or augment a scholarly thesis.

I shall simply repeat some of its key observations, so that a hitherto neglected aspect of urban governance viz. solid waste management, is adequately covered on this blog.

Waste Composition

Composition of waste changes with time and technology and naturally, the waste of our times reflects the wants of our times:

Waste Generation

The world generates 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste annually, with at least a third of that not managed in an environmentally safe manner. Worldwide, waste generated per person per day averages 0.74 kilogram but ranges widely, from 0.11 to 4.54 kilograms. Though they only account for 16% of the world’s population, high-income countries generate about 34% of the world’s waste. When looking forward, global waste is expected to grow to 3.40  billion tonnes by 2050.

Waste Collection

The most common form of waste collection is door-to-door. In this model, trucks or small vehicles are used to pick up garbage outside of households at a predetermined frequency. In certain localities, communities may dispose of waste in a central container or collection point where it is picked up by the municipality and transported to final disposal sites. In lower-middle-income countries like India, collection rates are about 51%. Improvement of waste collection services is a critical step to reduce pollution and thereby to improve human health and longevity.

Waste Disposal

Around the world, almost 40% of waste is disposed of in landfills. About 19% undergoes materials recovery through recycling and composting, and 11% is treated through modern incineration, while the remaining is openly dumped. Waste disposal practices vary significantly by income level and region, and as nations prosper economically, waste is managed using more sustainable methods. Construction and use of landfills is commonly the first step toward sustainable waste management.

The darker side of waste disposal is that richer countries often export their electronic waste to poorer countries and this e-waste contains toxic substances such as lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic and flame retardants. Once in a landfill, these toxic materials seep out into the environment, contaminating land, water and the air, and harming the local community . In addition, devices are often dismantled in primitive conditions, and those who work at these sites suffer frequent bouts of illness, and long-term diseases.

Key Insights about South Asia

The South Asia region, where India is the largest country, generated 334 million tonnes of waste in 2016, at an average of 0 .52 kilogram per capita daily, with 57% characterized as food and green waste. About 44% of waste is collected in South Asia, mainly through door-to-door systems, and three-fourths of waste is currently openly dumped, although improvements to collection systems and construction of sanitary final disposal sites are underway.

Financing and Cost Recovery across the World

  • According to the Report, basic solid waste management systems covering collection, transport, and sanitary disposal in low-income countries cost $35 per tonne at a minimum and often much more.
  • Solid waste management is a large expenditure item for cities and typically comprises nearly 20 percent of municipal budgets in low-income countries, more than 10 percent in middle-income countries, and 4 percent in high-income  countries. Budgets can be much higher in certain  cases.
  • Systems that include more advanced approaches for waste treatment and recycling cost more, from $50 to $100 per tonne or  more. The choice of waste management methodology and technology depends highly on the local context and capacity for investments and ongoing management.
  • User fees range from an average of $35 per year in low-income countries to $170 per year in high-income countries. Full cost recovery from user fees is largely limited to high-income countries. Almost all low-income countries, and a limited number of high-income countries, such as the Republic of Korea and Japan, subsidize domestic waste management from national or local budgets.
  • Although public-private partnerships could potentially reduce the burden on local government budgets, they could result in compromises in service quality when not structured and managed properly.
  • Local governments provide about 50 percent of investments for waste services, and the remainder is typically provided through national government subsidies and the private sector.
  • When political support for increasing user fees for households to cost recovery levels is limited, cross-subsidizing from payments by waste generators (for  example, the commercial sector) can help reduce the burden on local government  budgets. Commercial fees range from about $150 per year in low-income countries to $300 in high-income  countries.
  • Volume-based waste fees have been successful in countries like Austria, Korea, and the Netherlands but are still uncommon because they require coordinated planning and strong  enforcement. Households and commercial institutions in low-income countries are typically charged a flat fee that is collected on a door-to-door basis.

Results based financing

The Report makes the following recommendations:

  • Increase fee collection, such as by matching a portion of the fees collected by the managing institution
  • Promote source separation, waste reduction, and recycling, such as by providing a stipend to neighborhoods that sort and separate an adequate quantity of clean recyclables
  • Strengthen waste collection and transportation, such as by paying waste collectors upon successful and timely delivery of waste to the final disposal site
  • Design efficient infrastructure projects, such as by making loans or grants for a new landfill project contingent on successful construction of various phases
  • Defray risk for investors and increase investments, such as by delaying payments until proof of service success or completion of infrastructure
Posted in Urban India

Deteriorating Services and Infrastructure in India

Although in 1947, India had at its helm a modern, forward-looking visionary like Nehru – we were forced to choose country over town. The brutal aftermath of colonization, the two World Wars and Partition meant that Indian cities had to take a back seat, as the nation’s priority had to be the famine stalking the Indian countryside, and our meagre resources had to be diverted to agriculture and rural development – with cities left to fend for themselves. However, as the demographic pressures built up in our cities, their resources fell short and by the 1970s, the majority of India’s once thriving municipalities were pushed into a vicious cycle of impoverishment, from which they were never to emerge – despite recent injections of funds under the JNNURM, AMRUT and SMART city programmes.

As we can see in the above figure, deteriorating infrastructure and services result not only in greater informalization and therefore lower tax income, but also reduce the Willingness to Pay (WTP) among tax-payers in the formal sector – and municipalities begin their descent down the spiral of impoverishment.

Local governments in India are responsible for providing and maintaining the civic infrastructure which will allow them to deliver the basic services to citizens mandated under law. The primary service – that of water supply – has already been covered in an earlier post, so let us look at the urban realities concerning urban transport, sanitation, waste management and public housing.

Urban Transport

With a British-inspired emphasis on decongestion and low urban form, town planning in India has not been able to meet the housing and livelihood needs of a rapidly growing population. The resulting urban sprawl to the fringes of the city has put tremendous pressure on urban transport. The absence of affordable, efficient and well-connected public transport networks has led to a sharp rise in the private ownership of motor vehicles, which has in turn led to greater pollution – and the multiple modes of private transport have made traffic management a nightmare, leading to an unacceptably high rate of serious and fatal road accidents. The upgradation of roads and networks is extremely expensive if done retrospectively and therefore the only way out is to integrate transport planning into urban planning at all levels – locality, city or region.

Just look at the facts:

  • There are over 210 million vehicles on Indian roads and > 90% are privately owned
  • Percentage of land under road for Class I Indian cities is 16% compared to 29% in USA, with 1.6 million km of non-rural roads
  • Inadequate road length leads to congestion, pollution, higher fuel consumption, with peak hour speeds limited to 5 – 10 km/h
  • Suspended Particulate Matter in India’s 3 largest cities > 3 – 4 times WHO maximum acceptable level

A part of the reason for the growing crisis has been that urban transport management in India is a case of all responsibility and no authority for local governments. For instance, it is the State Government which formulates Development Plans which lead to urban sprawl, but it is the local body which must provide subsidised public transport. Yet again, registration of new vehicles being a very lucrative source of income for State Governments, there is no incentive to limit their number, and it is left to local bodies to provide parking and road space for them.

At the ground level we find that manufacturers use the same truck engine and chassis for all buses, and therefore, no Indian city has buses especially designed for intra-city travel, further adding to the inefficiency of the system.

Lastly, any city considering a rail-based transport system must depend totally for expertise and execution on the Indian Railways and its subsidiaries, which are under the Central Government, and seldom geared to handle local issues.

Sanitation

Inadequate water supply makes a bad situation worse in the case of urban sanitation. It is estimated that across the world, over 5,000 children die every day from diarrhoeal diseases. In developing countries, the cost of not investing in sanitation and water are immeasurable, resulting in higher infant mortality, more school dropouts and lost work days.

Although around 84% of urban India has sanitation coverage, the 16% that don’t, offer a formidable challenge in terms of absolute numbers, especially as the population of urban India now exceeds the entire population of the USA !

Despite the grandiose Swachha Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign), the persistent issues remain: little public awareness about the link between sanitation and health; investments in urban sanitation planned in a piece-meal manner, ignoring the full cycle of safe confinement, treatment and disposal; continuation of manual scavenging, and little or no attention paid to health and occupational hazards faced by sanitation workers. Meanwhile, huge amounts have been expended on advertising the SBA for political mileage.

Sanitation in Indian cities is not merely a question of finding the land and resources for creating public facilities. It is also an area fraught with cultural practices, customs and personal habits. Therefore, in order to make an appreciable mark it would be necessary to raise public awareness of the hazards of poor sanitation, and provide incentives to achieve certain basic benchmarks. It is also recommended by experts that the design of private, public and community sanitation should be done in active consultation with the end-users, with some contribution (either monetary or voluntary labour) which will give them a sense of responsibility for its maintenance. It has been seen in South Asia, that household connections are more welcome than community facilities and it is strongly recommended that private sanitation be an integral part of all new housing projects for the poor. The major expense would be in providing sewerage lines and treatment plants, and private sector participation may be sought, with the capital costs being borne by the local government and donor agencies.

Waste Management

Estimates put the generation of solid waste in Indian metros at approximately half a kilogram, per capita per day. The characteristics of waste have also changed over the last decade, with the organic, ash and earth component reducing, and the non-biodegradable plastics and hazardous waste components increasing steadily to dangerous levels.

The commonest means of waste disposal remains landfills, and with land becoming increasingly hard to find, garbage has to be ferried further and further away from its source, thereby increasing transport costs. At the receiving end, the residents of selected sites are none too happy, and their resentment often explodes in violent protests and civil unrest. Thus, landfills are becoming an inefficient and unsustainable option for waste disposal and other means must be found soon.

That urban planning and governance in India has been reactive rather than pro-active, is most obvious in the way that Indian cities handle garbage. Development Plans have singularly failed to provide for the needs of growing populations within city boundaries, and solid waste management remains peripheral to the city in both spatial and functional terms. It also tends to be labour-intensive, with a disproportionately high ratio of 2-3 workers per 1000 residents. This adds greatly to the municipal wage bill, and a city with a population of a million could end up spending Rs 100 million annually, without visible improvement in services. Moreover, the vested interests among the labour prevent the adoption of practices like separation at source, and modern technology like mechanical composting.

For the environment friendly disposal of waste, what is needed is strategic planning, public participation and the political and administrative will to make a city cleaner and healthier. Good practices like the separation of garbage at the household level, community participation in keeping city neighbourhoods clean, and workers’ cooperatives for recycling waste can have a tremendous beneficial effect and need to become more widespread. Local governments can also provide incentives for reusing of bio-degradable waste through vermicomposting, and non-biodegradable waste through recycling.

Housing

Affordable housing in urban India is yet another casualty of the country’s planning process. The 5-year plans spent pitiful amounts on urban development and housing through the years, and the Development Plans simply failed to make adequate provisions for the shelter needs of the poor. Secondly, the absence of mechanisms to incorporate the urban informal sector into the legitimate economy has resulted in a lot of dead capital, especially with the poor, which could otherwise have given them greater access to credit for housing.

In the context of urban housing, no fixed asset is more relevant than land. Sadly, even after 70 years of Independence, India is yet to evolve a representational system of land title, which irrevocably fixes ownership of a particular land with a particular owner. The ‘7/12 extracts’ (this is merely the number of a form and has no numerical significance) currently in use are no more than a ‘buyer beware’ or ‘caveat emptor’ type of advisory. For instance, they do not tell you whether a property has been mortgaged or not. As it is not guaranteed or underwritten by a government agency, the 7/12 extract does not constitute land ‘title’ as understood in the rest of the world.

This lack of irrevocable title means that a poor migrant to a big city cannot capitalise on his land holdings back home to finance a house in the city, for instance, or claim secure title on any land he may ‘buy’ in the city slum, from a local slum-lord.

Besides the obscurities of fixing land title, the debt market for housing in India is not sufficiently developed to make affordable housing a reality; and the absence of laws for closure and seizure, further complicates the situation.

Then again, there have been few efforts to stimulate the growth of rental housing stock. While Central and State laws – like the rent control acts – discourage investors from adding to rental housing, many local governments levy prohibitively high property taxes on a house which has been rented out. As rental housing remains the most affordable option for the poor to move into formal housing, these disincentives simply spell bad policy and lack of vision.

Local bodies are also guilty of enforcing very strict development control rules with regard to open spaces, clearances, documentation and building specifications, which the poor simply cannot adhere to, because they build their homes in incremental stages, whenever money becomes available.

And Housing Boards aren’t helping either, as they fail to effectively transfer low cost building technology to the end users.


We may talk of building 100 smart cities, but no amount of IT applied to an Indian city can make the citizens’ life easier if the resources being ‘smartly’ managed are grossly inadequate to begin with.

Ever since the economic reforms of 1991, India has been dragged screaming and resisting, into the new millennium and a globalized world. While the well-connected tech savvy 10% want India to become China overnight, the majority (70%) couldn’t give a damn about globalization and our image on the internet, while the undecided 20% are labelled (rather patronisingly) as the ‘aspiring class’.

One consequence of this post-global polarisation has been the undue emphasis on big-ticket infrastructure projects in the Vajpayee era with the private sector eager to get involved, and banks ready to finance. But they reckoned without the inevitable delays caused by the 3 curses of India which China is relatively free from: lack of adequate planning, land acquisition problems, and a low capacity implementing workforce in both the public and private sectors.

As a result, private companies got deeper and deeper into debt, (in fact most of the non-performing assets plaguing Indian Banks today date back to this era), banks became more and more reluctant to lend, and delayed projects did not yield the cash flow at the expected time, to keep the profits humming.

The UPA Government had the right idea when it announced the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) – they reasoned that as cities are the generators of economic momentum, it makes sense to upgrade city infrastructure, and as its cities grow more productive and prosperous, India will grow more productive and prosperous. Period.

But the JNNURM floundered precisely because the private sector was let in too early, before addressing any of the 3 issues mentioned above viz: lack of adequate planning; land acquisition problems; low capacity implementing workforce.

And the present Government has repeated all the JNNURM mistakes with spades: this time round, the blatant crony capitalism and capture of the Indian Infrastructure economy by select business houses, does not even have the fig leaf of PPP to hide behind…

Posted in Urban India

Indian Urban Planning in limbo

Clichés about Indian cities abound – the skyscrapers of the rich surrounded by the squalor of slums, the overcrowded public transport, the stray cows at the crossroads, the piles of garbage, the algae infested waterways, the polluted and unbreathable air… and successive governments have simply not had the time (because rural poverty required attention immediately after Independence) nor the inclination (because urban India has just 31% of the vote) to do anything about India’s dead and dying cities.

To make matters worse, Indian urban planning has always been trapped in something of a time warp, still true to its British parentage, while countries like South Korea, Singapore and China have surged ahead and shown the world how millions of urban dwellers can live in cities that work, and are still people-friendly.

Like all the laws governing Indian cities today, the planning laws too originated under British rule in the Bombay Town Planning Act of 1915, and it is quite understandable that the provisions of this law all hark back to ‘the green and pleasant land’ the law makers had left behind, and wished to recreate in India. Never mind that Britain had solved its population problems through forced and unforced emigrations to North America and the antipodes, while India’s population was still burgeoning!

As a result, India was left tied to an outdated ‘low urban form’, strict zoning laws which militated against the poor, and development control rules (DCR) redolent of a past where the colonials lived in splendid bungalows, and the ‘natives’ lived in congested squalor. Remnants of this colonial past are still visible in the cantonment areas of cities like Pune, with crumbling bungalows (with empty stables!), huge tracts of vacant defence land, clubs (and even a racecourse!) occupying prime land in what could be the city’s Central Business District (CBD) if developed with an eye to the future instead of the past…

Streamlining and modernizing land laws is crucial to any urban planning that Indian cities may indulge in, and integrated, culturally relevant, flexible and people-friendly urban planning allows for less costly provision of basic services such as water and sanitation, higher resilience, climate change mitigation and adaptation, poverty reduction and pro-poor policies.


The cornerstone of current Indian urban planning is the Development Plan (DP), often described as the vision of the city, its physical configuration and growth in the foreseeable future, and the environmental considerations and technical solutions unique to the geography, history and social make-up of every city. It sets the agenda of what the city wants to do with itself in the next two to three decades. To make this vision a reality, the urban planner takes into account the various public requirements of the city and reserves lands, whether public or private, for those purposes. The plan also proposes conservation and preservation of areas that have natural, historical or architectural importance. The Development Plan also makes provisions for the city’s transportation and communication system such as roads, railways, airways and waterways, and parking facilities.

The two instruments of a Development Plan are zoning, and reservation:

  • Zoning is the means whereby compatible land uses are grouped together, and incompatible uses segregated – such as manufacturing industry and residential areas.
  • Reservations for public purposes include schools, colleges and educational institutions, medical and public health facilities, markets, social welfare and cultural institutions, theatres and places of public entertainment, religious buildings, burial grounds and crematoria, government buildings, open spaces and playgrounds, natural reserves and sanctuaries, dairies, sites for public utilities such as water supply and sewerage, fire stations, other community sites, service industries and industrial estates.

In order to successfully implement the Development Plan, the municipal body needs to be empowered and this is done through Development Control Rules (DCR). These rules deal with the manner in which building permission can be obtained, the general building requirements, and aspects of structural safety and services. Access, layouts, open spaces, area and height limitations, lifts, fire protection, exits and parking requirements are all stipulated in the DCR. Similarly, structural design, quality of material and workmanship, and inspections during construction are spelt out. The control of floor space use, tenement densities, and the Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) are some of the most crucial issues dealt with by these rules.

Although Development Planning is the path to city development all across the world, the sad fact is that in most Indian cities, not even 10% of a DP gets actually implemented. In fact, while all the tedious processes of approval, amendment and land acquisition are going on, the citizens have built their houses and moved in, without waiting for the infrastructure promised in the DP. Once an area becomes inhabited, the best a municipal body can do is retrofitting the essentials like water supply and sewerage, at huge cost. In this way are our ‘planned’ cities unplanned.

Urban Planning because of its control of that most precious commodity in an overcrowded country (land) is also susceptible to major subversion and scams. A well-documented case is that of the prime land tied up in Mumbai’s dead and dying textile mills, until the Supreme Court of India intervened to permit their brownfield redevelopment by the mill owners, with due reservations for public amenities and housing. The problem here arose from a little sleight of hand by vested interests. The Government of Maharashtra had introduced the Development Control Rules (DCR) in 1991, under which a mill owner was permitted to sell or redevelop his land, provided one-third was surrendered to the municipal corporation for public amenities and another third to the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) for low-cost housing. The remaining third was the owner’s. Ten years later, it surreptitiously amended this clause to make it apply only to vacant land – as distinct from the entire footprint of the mill. As a result, the first mill which would have surrendered 5,641 sq m for open space and 4,616 sq m to MHADA, got away with forfeiting just 474 sq m and 388 sq m respectively. In the case of Modern Mills, the corresponding figures are 8,626 versus 1,163 sq m as open space, and 7,058 sq m versus nothing for housing. Even this open space is often subsumed within the redeveloped complexes (mill to mall) and is not public space, strictly speaking.

This tendency to play fast and loose with planning laws and development control rules when it comes to big land owners in urban areas is deliberate, as it gives a lot of discretion to public officials and is the biggest source of corruption in local government. The ultimate losers, as always, are the unfortunate citizens of these cities, who keep getting pushed to the outer peripheries, as homes in the central areas have become simply unaffordable even for top earning professionals.

Lastly, when the very raison d’être of great cities has been manufacturing, how can they survive de-industrialization? They don’t. While de-industrialization may hollow out a western city, in India, de-industrialization ‘leaves the world to darkness and to me…’ The stalwart of the informal sector, living a life of quiet misery and departing life unmourned and unlamented. How and when will India reinvent its Bombays and Madrases? Perhaps by renaming them yet again?


According to UN Habitat, “…the city of the 21st century is one that transcends the form and functionality of previous models, balancing lower energy costs with a smaller ecological footprint, more compact form, and greater heterogeneity and functionality. This city safeguards against new risks and creates conditions for a higher provision of public goods, together with more creative spaces for imagination and social interaction.

The city of the 21st century is one that:

  • Reduces disaster risks and vulnerabilities for all, including the poor, and builds resilience to any adverse forces of nature
  • Stimulates local job creation, promotes social diversity, maintains a sustainable environment and recognizes the importance of public spaces
  • Creates harmony between the five dimensions of prosperity and enhances the prospects for a better future
  • Comes with a change of pace, profile and urban functions and provides the social, political and economic conditions of prosperity…”