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 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 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…”
Posted in Urban India

Looming Water Crisis in Indian Cities

 

While the pollution of cities like New Delhi grabs world headlines, with the Supreme Court threatening to ban all private vehicles in the national capital, there is little public and media interest in another looming catastrophe for all Indian cities – the deteriorating water supply.

India’s water consumption is projected to touch 843 billion cubic meters (bcm) by 2025 against the current availability of 695 bcm. By 2050, the country will need 1,180 bcm of water, and at the same time groundwater is being depleted at unsustainable rates. These are the conclusions of a new report by the Niti Aayog (formerly the Planning Commission), and its author, Avinash Mishra, goes on: “We’re in dire straits and we need to change our approach to tackle the crisis, otherwise the situation will become so grim that the shortages will knock down our GDP by 6 percentage points in over a decade.”

The water situation has worsened gradually over the years and is rooted (as most of India’s problems are) in too much politics, and too little governance.

The problems begin with sourcing of water for big cities like Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi. At the institutional level, urban local bodies do not have control of the source which is either with the Irrigation Department or parastatals, whose first priority is, naturally, agriculture.

Secondly, the groundwater of a city remains largely in private hands and is tantamount to theft, as the aquifers supplying water to private wells are a common natural resource for everyone. The Groundwater Surveys and Development Agency (GSDA) of the State Government has identified 4,500 wells in a major city like Pune, but only 200 borewells are registered with the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC). The result of this discrepancy has been the growth of a tanker mafia, with the average citizen at its mercy for his/her daily water supply. Again, only 150 water tanker suppliers are registered with the Corporation, while hundreds more operate below the radar – often tapping the PMC’s own supplies illegally, to sell at a premium to the hapless citizen.

The ‘Dynamic Ground Water Resources of India’, a report published by the Central Ground Water Board, defines the stage of development of groundwater as the percentage of utilisation of groundwater with respect to recharge. The chart below shows the extreme overutilization of groundwater in major Indian cities:

Groundwater in Major Indian CitiesMeanwhile, unchecked extraction by urban farmers and wealthy residents has caused groundwater levels to plunge to record lows, and the 21 major cities shown above, are expected to run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting 100 million people.

To make matters worse, an estimated 70% of India’s water is contaminated with arsenic, fluoride, salinity, nitrates, industrial effluents, organic and inorganic solid waste. Further, only one-third of its wastewater is currently treated, meaning raw sewage flows into rivers, lakes and ponds – and eventually gets into the groundwater.

A municipal corporation’s woes though, are only just beginning – having made this low-quality water drinkable at great cost in terms of treating agents and electric power for purification, it must further spend millions to distribute the treated water through an antiquated distribution network, losing further through illegal tapping and leakages in the system – often as high as 40%. The heavy physical losses, low pressure and intermittent supplies, lead to back siphoning and further contamination of water in the distribution network.

Of course, the consumer at the other end is never happy with the result, curses the Corporation for not providing water 24×7, and will take to the street to protest even a paltry hike in his monthly bill. Water, it is argued, is a ‘gift of nature’ and should be free. In reality, the heavy subsidy on drinking water is the main reason for the impoverishment of municipal bodies the world over. The Pune Municipal Corporation, for instance, spends Rs 11 to provide 1000 litres of water, and recovers only Rs 5 – a subsidy of Rs 6 for every thousand litres, multiplied a thousand-fold, takes a heavy toll of its inadequate resources.

The financial situation of municipal bodies was not helped by replacing buoyant local taxes and levies (like Octroi) with grants from the Central kitty, routed and delayed by the State Government. It is estimated that although the Centre will compensate cites like Mumbai on par with their last receipts when Octroi was replaced by a consolidated Goods and Services Tax (GST), the loss to the Municipal Corporation in terms of the buoyancy and immediacy built into Octroi, could mean anywhere between 10-15% loss of revenue.

The problem arising from the complexity of the institutional arrangements, the machinations of the informal water sector, and the huge imbalance between revenue and expenditure, all make urban water supply a city manager’s worst nightmare.

However, all is not lost – municipal bodies themselves can do a lot to improve operational efficiency in the sourcing and supply of water to their citizens. An effective, professional and dedicated workforce will go a long way in preventing the massive losses through illegal connections and leakages. Most municipal bodies have water supply departments which are grossly understaffed, and this increases their dependence upon private contractors whom it can neither monitor, control nor regulate. This adds greatly to the inefficiency of the city’s water supply as a whole.

Municipal Corporations must also stem the leakage losses due to the corruption amid its own staff, whereby private contractors will fit a broad-gauge supply line to a particular building or locality, while it is shown at half that gauge in the municipal records.

Demand side management of costing and pricing of water also needs to be modernized, learning from good practices across the world. Currently, most Indian cities have only a fraction of their connections metered, but the bulk of their non-commercial users pay a lump sum as part of their annual Property Tax – and this has no relation whatsoever, to the actual quantity of water used in a year by that property owner. As the poor are limited in the amount of water they can store, the greatest beneficiaries of the subsidy are the middle class, who may indiscriminately use the expensively provided water for drinking, bathing, flushing their toilets, or washing their cars. While a more discriminatory pricing system like the Increasing Block Tariff or IBT will ensure that the available subsidies go to the deserving, the conservation of water through rainwater harvesting and recycling schemes could also be incentivized through a system of rebates on tariff.


Sadly, one thing is clear – just like climate change and air pollution, dwindling water supplies must be tackled by all countries on a war footing. There simply aren’t enough tomorrows left with the human race…

Posted in Urban India

Quality of Life in an Indian Context

Quality of Life is being increasingly discussed in India – the older generation laments its passing and TV Gurus propose that we use it to measure the Government’s performance before the next election. Then again, there are sporadic reports from foreign agencies ranking Indian cities globally at 116, or 126, or whatever. And we shake our heads in sorrow. But have you ever wondered how ‘quality’ of life can be measured with such accuracy in ‘quantities’? And who exactly is measuring it and why?

The whole QOL craze is a product of our increasingly interconnected global economy. Multinationals needed an easy base number to calculate the salaries of expatriate workers and an index was needed to work out the costs of children’s education, medical care, and ‘hardship’ allowances for conveniences unavailable in a foreign posting.

The best known of these indices is the Mercer Index for Quality of Life. It evaluates local living conditions in more than 450 cities according to 39 factors, grouped in 10 categories: political and social environment, economic environment, cultural environment, medical and health considerations, schools and education, public services and transportation, recreation, consumer goods availability, rental housing including household appliances, furniture and maintenance services, and lastly, natural environment/climate and record of natural disasters.

QOL Determinants

As expected, the prime cities of over-resourced and underpopulated Western Europe, Australia or Canada take the top spots. Interestingly, if we list the best 20 cities on the Mercer Index and compare them with the 20 most populous cities, we will find that not one city from the second list figures in the first. So, one can safely conclude that as a city grows in size, beyond its carrying capacity, the first casualty will always be the quality of life of its citizens.

Does this mean that the world’s largest urban agglomerations are doomed to linger in the nether regions of such scales year after year – with their citizens forever deprived of a decent quality of life? I don’t think so.

Instead of constantly validating our happiness by western criteria, why can’t Indian (and Asian) cities set their own standards for judging Quality of Life? These would be firmly anchored in each country’s social, cultural and political realities and would resonate well with the people, besides comparing one city with another on the true quality of life; not just the level of services available.


To work out an Indian QOL Index, the following questions need to be asked. These can be answered using our own urban experience and data locally available with various government agencies, parastatals, professional bodies and NGOs.

Political and Social Environment

  • Do women feel safe living by themselves and traveling at all hours across the city?
  • What is the city’s performance in Centrally-sponsored programmes for the poor – in terms of livelihoods, self-help groups and subsidized housing?
  • What is the Police record in tackling crime and maintaining Law and Order in the city?
  • Are there mohalla (community) committees to defuse a potential conflict before violence breaks out?
  • How active is the voluntary sector in the city?
  • How successful are public awareness and sensitization campaigns on various social issues?

Economic Environment

  • What is the city’s contribution to the Central and State exchequer in terms of various direct and indirect taxes?
  • What is the access and availability of banking and financial services in the city?
  • Are there Special Economic Zones, IT Parks and other facilities, earmarked for industries and services?
  • Does the city have a domestic/international airport, a railway junction/station?
  • How well is the city connected to national and international e-retail networks?
  • What are the rents per square foot for commercial premises in the city’s CBD?
  • How many businesses in the city are registered under the Shop and Establishments Act?
  • How efficient are the public utilities like power and broadband connectivity?
  • What is the standard of municipal services in the areas of public transport, water supply, sanitation, solid waste management, etc?

Housing and related issues

  • What percentage of the city’s economy and housing are in the informal sector?
  • How many notified slums does the city have?
  • What is the average monthly rent for a 1000 sq ft apartment?
  • What are the average monthly maintenance charges in a cooperative society?
  • What percentage of the city’s housing is owner-occupied?

Schools and Education

  • Is the number of schools adequate for 100% coverage of the school going population?
  • What is the average student to teacher ratio in the city schools?
  • Do municipal and ZP schools offer children the same learning opportunities as private schools?
  • What is the availability and affordability of institutions of higher learning? Are they equally accessible to locals as to outsiders?

Health and Sanitation

  • How does the Public Health machinery respond to a crisis, epidemic or disaster?
  • Is Primary Health Care (PHC) available and accessible in every corner of the city?
  • What is the city’s doctor to patient ratio?
  • What is the city’s hospital bed to patient ratio?
  • How many specialist medical and diagnostic services are available in the city’s hospitals?
  • How many 24-hour pharmacies does the city have?
  • What is the city’s record in mass immunization campaigns?
  • What percentage of the city’s housing is connected to the main sewage line?
  • How many public toilets does the city have per 1000 users?

Natural Environment

  • Is there a city policy on monitoring and limiting air, noise and water pollution?
  • What are the average annual pollution levels for the city as a whole?
  • Are the public spaces and green cover available in the city adequate for its population?
  • Is the water supply in the city adequate per WHO norms? How much is actually supplied per day per capita?

Cultural Environment

  • Does the city government finance, subsidize and encourage cultural activities?
  • Does the city organize annual festivals of Literature, Art, Music, Drama?
  • How many Libraries, Art Galleries, Drama theatres, Cinema theatres and multiplexes does the city have?
  • Are there local handicrafts and artisan groups? Does the city provide them subsidized business support?

And so on…

Such an Index will not only be meaningful to Indians, but will also facilitate policy formulation at the city level, and allow cities to compete with one another to offer a better quality of life to all their citizens.

Posted in Urban India

Rethinking India’s Urban Agenda

Very early on in my career, from the vantage point of an apex training Academy, I formulated Nasrin’s First Law: A cliché is the shortest distance between two bureaucrats. And the clichés abound in every government policy paper, programme, and proposal.

The latest example is from a newspaper report on “India’s concerns about HABITAT III” where the country paper on India is rife with the usual platitudes: inclusive, sustainable, decentralized urban governance with an appropriate devolution of powers and resources to the local level. Never mind that the informal-formal divide in Indian metros grows day by day; India has some of the world’s most polluted cities; and the 74th Amendment on decentralization and devolution has remained on paper since 1992. So much for inclusion, sustainability and decentralization…

One of the reasons for this myopia about India’s urban future, is the absolute monopoly of the urban discourse held by an inbred group of academics, retired bureaucrats, planners and NGOs. They never tire of hearing each other mouth the same clichés at seminars held in sylvan 5-star surroundings, away from the smell and noise of the urban reality, and are forever jetting around the world to ‘study’ innovations like Participatory Budgeting in Brazil, only to return and declare: this would never work in India…

The present Indian Government, like the last one, apparently believes in investing only in infrastructure in the metros, with scant regard for education, health, or the environment of Indian cities, hoping that they will one day become that beloved cliché the ‘generators of economic momentum’  – at last allowing the long emerging Indian economy, to well, emerge… But a couple of reality checks:

By 2030, it is estimated that there will be 1,350 cities > 5,00,000 population; with the world’s 7 largest cities in Asia and no European city among the 30 largest:

Urban Didtribution 2030

However, the Indian megacities highlighted above, will be nowhere on the global economic landscape, as estimated by the World Economic Forum:

Cities contributing most to global GDP

The HABITAT III to be held next year in Ecuador, will set the agenda for the world’s urban settlements for the next 20 years, and there is great excitement in development circles at the prospect of combining climate, sustainable development and urbanization in a unified time frame, with a lucky concatenation of the Kyoto Protocol, SDGs, and Habitat III.

Unlike its two predecessors, Habitat III is expected to project intermediary and small towns as the world’s urban future, as never before; and India  with almost 58% of its urban population living in such towns is well suited to make a paradigm shift in its approach to urbanization.

All that is needed is to get (wannabe-Chinese) Indians away from their obsession with infrastructure, metropolitanization, and crass industrialization, rescue the urban discourse from the Delhi ‘urban mafia’, and put our faith back in developing small towns as agriculture hubs to tertiarize the rural economy, reduce endemic poverty, stem migration to cities, and address the root causes of India’s growing agrarian crisis.

We need to rethink Indian urbanization from a purely Indian perspective, and leave the clichés to the bureaucrats…