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
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Posted in Urban Issues

National Urban Policy – Part II

Today is Guru Poornima in India – a day to honour and respect our teachers, and to be fondly remembered by one’s students. Also an occasion to lament the disappearance of teachers who believed every subject should convey to its learners a sense of history, a continuity with the past, an understanding of the context for the present, and an envisioning of alternatives for the future.

Instead we have economists lamenting the lack of an institutional memory in the institutions of governance in India; a POTUS who has so muddied the waters that it is well-nigh impossible to tell real news from fake news; surveys of American law-makers who have no clue about the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam… and the dumbing down of generation after generation across the world, fed as they are on sound bites, instant images and 140 characters of wisdom. These phenomena are a direct consequence of the waves of globalization, privatization and liberalization which hit the world c.1990, and were reinforced by the simultaneous growth of Information Technology and the Internet.

It is against this background that we realize how difficult it is to formulate and articulate any national policy – let alone something as complex as a National Urban Policy for a very diverse, highly rural and conservative society like India.

Time was, India was ruled by learned scholars, philosophers and historians who produced volume after volume of crystalized wisdom, even if it was replete with the Fabian idealism learnt in the groves of academe in England – Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru, Dr Ambedkar, and so many more. Even as recently as 1988, the National Commission on Urbanization, chaired by an eminent architect, produced a report fit to be turned into perhaps the only important urban law passed in independent India – the 74 CAA. There have been other excellent pieces of conceptualization like the Rakesh Sharma Report on Infrastructure, or the Ishar Judge Ahluwalia report on urban governance and infrastructure. However, however, however… for reasons of party political advantage, all work carried out by the previous government has been chucked in the bin and been replaced by ‘copy and paste’ flyers and websites on subjects like Smart Cities and Urban Renewal and left to a handful of self-styled urban ‘consultants’ and bottom feeders with virtually NO concept of the evolution of orthogenetic (pre-colonial) and heterogenetic (post-colonial) cities across the Indian sub-continent; its largely agrarian society and values; its distress and economic migrations; its dwindling manufacturing sector and growing services sector; and, most of all, the worsening situation in urban housing and land management.

Therefore, given these immense challenges, India (and other developing countries) need to develop a National Urban Policy out of necessity, as a means of retrofitting, to direct and control the inevitable urbanization of their countries, before the urban situation is beyond redemption and the lives and livelihoods of millions of their citizens are put at high risk.

As I had mentioned in my last post, the UN-Habitat’s Guiding Framework on National Urban Policy had mentioned the 5 step process of:

Feasibility: Understanding…
– What a NUP can and cannot achieve
– What constitutes urbanization in a particular country
– Role of national, regional and local governments and consensus building about these roles
– History, facts and figures

Diagnosis: Identifying …
– The key actors and stakeholders
– The problems that the policy is expected to address
– The opportunities provided by the NUP
– The goals and objectives of the Policy

Formulation: Assess…
– The various policy options available
– The capacity of the institutions and mechanisms of urban governance
– The efficacy of the means for constant monitoring and evaluation

Implementation: putting in place…
– An implementation plan
– A timeline
– An institutional and legislative framework
– Structure for proper delegation, decentralization and devolution

Monitoring and Evaluation: continuous process to…
– Assess the efficiency, effectiveness and dynamics of policy implementation
– Loop back evaluation results as learning and capacity building


All this is fine as theoretical frameworks go, but applying the UN-Habitat framework on a ‘one-size-fits-all’ basis in India and elsewhere will flounder on the very first issue of what constitutes urbanization.

The Census of India in 1961, defined an urban area as:

– Firstly, those settlements that were given urban civic status, like corporation, municipality and cantonment by the State Governments, and were recognised as ‘statutory’ towns.
– Secondly, ‘census town’, applied to areas which met the following criteria: (1) population size of 5000 or more; (2) density of at least 400 persons per square kilometre; (3) at least 75% of the male workers to be engaged outside agriculture.

As urban development is a State subject in the Constitution of India, there is quite a bit of variation in identifying Statutory Towns across States, making comparisons difficult. State Governments have been declaring overgrown villages as municipalities with great alacrity, often in the neighbourhood of existing metros. As these metros expand, land-owners on the periphery acquire overnight wealth and in order to match their new economic clout with political power, displace the traditional landed elite by the simple expedient of having their home village declared an urban area.

According to the Government of India Census 2011 there are 7,935 urban centres or townships that house the 377 million urban citizens of the country. Of these, the 53 million-plus urban agglomerations account for 160.7 million persons (or 42.6%), and the remaining 217 million – or more than half of the total urban population of India – live in small and medium sized towns.

So the question arises: should there be two parts to India’s National Urban Policy

  • One for the million-plus cities with emphasis on telecommunication, connectivity, quality public utilities, tertiary education and health care and infrastructure – to encourage the growing services sector and consolidate and centralize manufacturing
  • Another for the small and medium towns acting as the traditional agricultural hubs for their immediate hinterland, with good roads, telecommunication, infrastructure, primary and secondary health care and education to develop agro-industries which will be the acupressure points to relieve rural distress

Worth a thought, wouldn’t you say..?

 

Posted in Urban Issues

National Urban Policy – Part I

In a book published in 2000, one had lamented the fact that even after 50 years of independence, India had no National Urban Policy. It was a very naive conclusion: One cannot forget that at the time of Independence, the tragedy of Partition and the havoc of colonial rule required the Indian government to concentrate solely on the famine stalking the Indian countryside, and cities had to be left to fend for themselves.

However, this neglect of urban areas also meant that outdated and retrograde laws inherited from the British colonial masters continue to rule the way Indian cities are governed to this day. For example the Bombay Municipal Corporation Act of 1888 spawned all the municipal legislation not just in India, but also surrounding areas like Pakistan, Sri Lanka and eventually Bangladesh. There was also no effort to update the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, and the new Act proposed in 2013 and drastically amended since, is mired in party politics and yet to become law. Finally, the eminently ‘British’ Town Planning laws and procedures were imported wholesale to India without any modification to make them relevant to the Indian urban scenario.

The problem with retaining these colonial laws is that they were premised on a deep distrust of the ‘natives’ and gave too many powers to the permanent civil servant at the helm of municipal affairs, and this bifurcation of powers between a permanent bureaucracy and representatives elected for 5 years continues to hamstring local governments, and breeds corruption, clientelism and capture in the local economy.

These issues are not exclusive to India and continue to dog former colonies in Asia, Africa and Latin America as well, and this widespread malaise prompted UN-Habitat, the urban organization of the UN, to draw up guidelines for formulation of national urban policies.

The basic premise of the NUP: A Guiding Framework is that given the increasing clout of cities in national economies in a globalized world, federal governments have the opportunity and responsibility to establish the “rules of the game”. The Report emphasizes that in addition to setting a vision for their cities, countries must establish a financing and implementation framework to realize that vision.

The structure of this framework will determine:

  • The responsibility for implementation
  • The powers delegated
  • The resources allocated
  • The monitoring and evaluation process, and
  • The enforcement mechanisms to ensure follow-through

The guide makes it very clear that without strong, effective “rules” within the national urban policy, neither cities nor countries can achieve the goals set out within the foundational vision.

A well-constructed national urban policy can establish a clear, cohesive vision for sustainable urban growth and development. At the same time, it can create systems that empower cities with the freedom to make the right choices on sustainable solutions for their unique contexts — and to ensure the financial resources to invest in them.

Interestingly, while debate on the NUP Framework in the developing countries is focused on greater privatization, liberalization, infrastructure and business; in the advanced economies the focus is clearly on putting people at the centre of national urban policies, emphasizing the environmental aspects of sustainable urban development and highlighting the role of cities in decelerating climate change.

A National Urban Policy should enable national governments to control and direct urbanization and capitalize on the opportunities it offers, for the sustainable and equitable development of the country as a whole, without negatively impacting global well-being. Further, as the Guide rightly points out, working within a national policy framework will promote good practices, innovative management, stakeholder consultation, capacity development and evaluation of country policy processes. Integrating these lessons into future policy practice can promote systems change and institutional learning.

This Guiding Framework outlines five NUP phases: feasibility, diagnosis, formulation, implementation and monitoring, and evaluation. In addition, the Framework considers the inclusion of the three NUP pillars: participation, capacity development, acupuncture projects resulting in iterative policy design. (Incidentally, ‘acupuncture projects’ is a phrase originally coined by Barcelonan architect and urbanist, Manuel de Sola Morales and developed by Finnish architect and social theorist Marco Casagrande, applying the tenets of acupuncture to urban renewal: just as you treat the points of blockage and let relief ripple throughout the body, so also localized initiatives can release pressure at strategic points, and thus release pressure for the whole city.)

These five elements are simultaneous and overlapping in most cases and the Guide represents them in the following diagram:

National Urban Policy Process.png

It is expected that the National Urban Policy, once formulated and accepted by a national government, will manifest itself in transformations in Urban Legislation, Urban Economy and Urban Planning.

How this framework can work for an emerging economy like India, I shall discuss in Part II of this post. Until then….

Posted in Urban Issues

Inclusive Cities – But who pays?

The world today is becoming increasingly difficult to classify along old ideological strands of left and right, or liberal and conservative. Essentially, it is divided between those who have benefited greatly from globalization, and those who have qualms about its impact on the environment and the vulnerable.

While the new right believes in a free market, wealth accumulation, exclusivity, exceptionalism and stronger state protection; the new left today is defined less by working class solidarity (virtually destroyed in any case, by 25 years of globalization) and more by its concern for the environment, renewable energy, climate change, gender discrimination and universally acceptable and ‘politically correct’ causes like child labour, slavery, LGBT rights and extreme poverty. The new left mantras are: Inclusion, Sustainability and Equity. And they are spattered all across the latest draft (18 July 2016) of the UN-Habitat’s New Urban Agenda, expected to be discussed, modified and accepted at the Habitat III in Quito, come October.

A look at the Agenda’s principles and commitments makes this point very clear:

Leave no one behind, by ending poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including the eradication of extreme poverty, by ensuring equal rights and opportunities, socio-economic and cultural diversity, integration in the urban space, enhancing livability, health and well-being; promoting safety and eliminate all forms of discrimination and violence; ensuring public participation; and providing equal access for all to physical and social infrastructure and basic services.

Sustainable and inclusive urban economies, by leveraging the agglomeration benefits of well-planned urbanization, high productivity, competitiveness and innovation; ensuring full and productive employment creation and equitable access for all to economic and productive resources and opportunities; preventing land speculation; and promoting secure land tenure.

Environmental sustainability, by promoting clean energy, resource and land use efficiency in urban development, as well as protecting ecosystems and biodiversity, including adopting healthy lifestyles in harmony with nature; ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns; building urban resilience; reducing disaster risks; and mitigating and adapting to climate change.

The draft agenda then moves on to transformative commitments for sustainable urban development, covering everything like: growing inequality and discrimination in cities; growth of internal, international and crisis migration; inadequate housing and social infrastructure; and paucity of safe public spaces. On institutions of urban governance, the agenda commits to facilitate grassroots democracy and also look beyond city-specific governments, to larger regional mechanisms.

Please bear in mind that this is an agenda for a fast changing world, where the face of urbanization will be definitively Asian:

Urbanization by 2030

And that is why, when it comes to the commitments to the urban economy, I find it too rose-tinted, idealistic and impractical. For instance point #51 reads:

We commit to recognize the working poor in the informal economy, particularly women, as contributors and legitimate actors of the urban economies, including the unpaid and domestic workers. We further commit to develop a gradual approach to formalization with a view to facilitating the transition from the informal to the formal economy, extending access to legal and social protections to informal livelihoods, as well as support services to the informal workforce.

If the new urban age is going to be essentially Asian, then there are two fallacies in the above point: The urban informal sector is no more the exclusive realm of the urban poor; and the assumption that efforts to formalize the informal will be welcomed by the practitioners of informality is also false – at least in the prevailing Asian context.

In India, for example, if you are redecorating your house, it is possible to procure the services of a decorator, builder, plumber, electrician, AC man without paying a penny tax, and you may even buy the materials in cash (without receipt) and save some more on tax! It is the middle class, and not the poor, who keep the urban informal sector going. Secondly, although everybody likes the idea of ‘inclusive’ municipal services, nobody likes the idea of ‘inclusive’ taxes, rates and user charges to pay for them. As a result, every hike proposed by municipal officers tends to get shot down by our elected representatives as being ‘anti-people’, thus ensuring their victory in the next election… And the infrastructure and services continue to deteriorate because of inadequate funding.

So if Habitat III is to be more than a talking shop for the international ‘urban mafia’, the New Urban Agenda needs to be more grounded in reality (and increasingly, the Asian reality) and propose more practical ways of making both income and expenditure truly ‘inclusive’ at the local level.

 

Posted in Urban Issues

Cities without Shelter…

The maiden edition of UN Habitat’s World Cities Report (WCR 2016) reviews the changing face of urbanization in the last 20 years, covering the period when the global urban population hit the critical 50% mark, and our world was forever changed.

It identifies and discusses the following key issues or challenges before our cities, citizens and local and federal governments:

Emerging Issues in World City Report 2016

Of particular interest to countries like India is the section on Slums and Informal Settlements. UN-Habitat defines slums as “… a contiguous settlement that lacks one or more of the following five conditions: access to clean water, access to improved sanitation, sufficient living area that is not overcrowded, durable housing and secure tenure.” The WCR 2016 clearly avers that “…slums are the products of failed policies, poor governance, corruption, inappropriate regulation, dysfunctional land markets, unresponsive financial systems, and a lack of political will.”

And what is apparently true of the world, is true of India as well. In spades.

The WCR 2016 draws a dismal picture of government efforts to address the problem of informal settlements, across the world:

  • Over the last 20 years, housing has not been central to national and international development agendas, and urban land management and administration have suffered as a result
  • The housing policies put in place through the enabling approach have failed to promote adequate and affordable housing
  • Inequality, focus on homeownership, speculation and neglect of rental housing have gone on unchecked
  • Most involvement by governments has focused on helping the middle class to achieve home-ownership in a formal sector that only they can afford
  • The dependence on the private sector to provide housing has steadily increased across the world

The Report suggests the following policy initiatives at all tiers of government, to address the issue of adequate and affordable housing:

  • If the emerging future of cities is to be sustainable, a new approach that places housing at the centre of urban policies is required, to re-establish the important role of housing in achieving sustainable urbanization
  • At the national level, the goal is to integrate housing into national urban policies
  • At the local level, the importance of housing must be reinforced within appropriate regulatory frameworks, urban planning and finance, and as part of the development of cities and people.

Nobody in India is paying the least attention, as housing subsidies for the poor are rapidly replaced by ‘subsidized housing loans’ and initiatives like Smart Cities run into local resistance, because they are seen as a means of further enrichment of multinational IT firms, by raising local tariffs and taxes. RIP!

And as the Government of India jettisons all rights-based approaches in the social sector, the situation in the country’s slums will only get worse. Urban land transactions have bred land and construction mafias, which have totally penetrated and undermined local governments; engendered corruption on an unimaginable scale in State and Central Governments; and transferred huge tracts of public lands into private hands through the back door – in the name of the poor. Where else but in Mumbai can a rich man buy a 5 bedroom penthouse, signing 4 different contracts with the developer for 4 ‘lower income’ flats ‘merged’ into one while the government authorities conveniently looked the other way? And even the beleaguered and heavily indebted middle class must turn its hard earned ‘white’ money into ‘black’ to appease the property developer who demands part of the price of a house in this form, to avoid paying taxes. None of the successive governments of various ideological hues has done anything to address these woes, and none will, because the builders’ lobby is simply too strong and influential.

So it goes in various guises across the world, as the global housing shortage is expected to hit a billion by 2025…

 

Posted in Urban Issues

Cities of Asia and the Pacific

UN Habitat and UN-ESCAP together released the report The State of Asian and Pacific Cities 2015, and its key finding is that the speed and scope of urbanisation in the region is unprecedented. Between 1980 and 2010, cities here grew by around one billion people, and another one billion will be added by 2040. The urban population at mid-year per region as defined in World Urbanisation Prospects (2014) illustrates this most dramatically:

Urban Population mid-year Region-wise

All Asia and Pacific sub-regions are experiencing urban growth at higher rates than overall population growth. While the region as a whole does not yet have the high urbanisation levels of North America (81.5%), Latin America and the Caribbean (79.5%) or Europe (73.4%), by 2018 half of the Asia and Pacific population will be living in the region’s towns and cities. By 2050, urban areas will account for nearly two out of three people. By 2050, cities in China and India alone will have grown by an additional 696 million – India by 404 million and China by 292 million.

Paradoxically, while the region is home to 17 megacities (which are starting to give way to huge mega-urban regions that encompass cities, towns, villages and rural areas), they only accommodate a little over 10% of the region’s urban dwellers and 7% of its total population. The bulk of urban dwellers live in small and medium-size cities, “… where much of the region’s urban transition is actually unfolding. Yet, despite their increasing significance, most small cities face their future with limited human, financial, and organisational resources.”

The Report is subtitled Urban Transformations: Shifting from quantity to quality and therein lies the rub.

If cities in Asia and the Pacific are to continue as the engines of growth for their national economies, they have to reinvent urban planning to make cities more sustainable and inclusive – and the fact that the world’s most polluted and disparate cities are all to be found in this region, underlines the urgency for a new planning model.

First of all, there is a need for new paradigms of urban governance, especially in the growing megaregions, which are extremely difficult to manage holistically. Perhaps the experiment in Tamil Nadu under the previous State Government of decentralising urban governance while centralising urban infrastructure may provide both greater efficiency in the delivery of services, and economies of scale in upgrading infrastructure.

Secondly, as advocated on this site time and again, perhaps the small and medium towns of countries like India (where the bulk of the urban population lives) could be reinvented as agricultural hubs, bringing both sustainability and prosperity to the agricultural sector, and creating new avenues of employment in the towns and cities by tertiarising the rural economy.

Finally, the biggest challenge for governments in Asia and the Pacific remains the growing urban poverty and vulnerability, often grossly underestimated, and therefore unaddressed. The Report estimates that a third of the region’s urban residents lack access to adequate shelter, clean energy, safe drinking water and sanitation while the urban informal sector continues to grow rapidly. Unless some attempts are made to formalize the informal sectors in both economic activity and housing, poverty and the omnipresent slum will continue to mar the Asian urban story in the foreseeable future.

Next time round we could perhaps take a look at the emerging challenges for cities around the world.

 

 

Posted in Urban Issues

Will the New Urban Agenda work?

“Habitat III” is shorthand for a major global summit, formally known as the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, to be held in Quito, Ecuador, from 17 to 20 October 2016. The United Nations has called the conference, the third in a series that began in 1976, to “reinvigorate” the global political commitment to the sustainable development of towns, cities and other human settlements, both rural and urban. The product of that reinvigoration, along with pledges and new obligations, is being referred to as the New Urban Agenda. That agenda will set a new global strategy around urbanization for the next two decades. Habitat III offers Member States an opportunity to discuss a New Urban Agenda that will focus on policies and strategies that can result in effectively harnessing the power and forces behind urbanization.

What will be the key elements to consider at Habitat III for creating a pattern of sustainable urban growth?

Firstly, it is expected that member states will realize that the future of this planet is inescapably urban, and a National Urban Policy is therefore necessary to establish a connection between the dynamics of urbanization and the overall process of national development.

Secondly, it is expected that a National Urbanization Policy will in turn result in the modernization and upgradation of the laws, institutions and systems of urban governance, creating the normative basis of action, the operational principles, organizational structures and institutional and societal relationships underlying the process of urbanization.

Finally, while there is a strong positive correlation between economic growth and urbanization, this potential relationship is not spontaneous and self-generating. Habitat III could be the means to place the central pillars for robust urban economic development, such as:

  • Urban Planning: The vision of the city, its physical configuration, the definition of technical solutions, and environmental considerations are all determined through urban/regional planning. A reinvigorated urban planning will optimize economies of agglomeration, promote sustainable density, encourage social diversity and mixed-land uses, foster inclusiveness, maximize heterogeneity, promote livable public spaces and vibrant streets, and thus make the city more functional, maintaining environmental balances.
  • Local fiscal systems: To change from being instruments of revenue generation and budget management, to vectors of change which generate real development outcomes.
  • Investment in urban basic services: Proper 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.

In short, the sponsors of Habitat III firmly believe that by embracing urbanization as a positive force and weaving equity into all development equations, sustainable urbanization may become a reality in our lifetimes, or at least by 2050, when two-thirds of humanity is expected to be urban.

But how realistic are these hopes of sustainable urban growth in a country like India? Along with China and Nigeria, India will account for 37% of the projected growth of the urban population between 2014 and 2050, and contribute the highest number of additional urban dwellers by 2050 – a whopping 404 million!

Let us examine the above UN aspirations in light of Indian reality.

Firstly, one of Gandhiji’s most quoted slogans that ‘India lives in its villages’ has had such a negative impact on India’s psyche and cities, that it still lacks a National Urban Policy – 68 years after Independence. In fact the hero of many a Bollywood epic often begins life as a virtuous villager and through trials and tribulations ends up as a hardened criminal, only because of the ‘evil’ influence of a city. The reality is rather different as the rural communities still reek of superstition, casteism, family feuds, vendetta, summary justice and social oppression; while cities may be the only place an individual can experience freedom. That aside, the fact remains that while only 60% of India’s land is under cultivation, it supports 67% of its population leading to smaller and smaller land-holdings, no alternative employment, declining agricultural production, distress, despair, migration and eventually, farmers’ suicides. So India needs to develop its urban mindset before investing blindly in infrastructure and smart cities.

Secondly, almost all the most crucial laws relevant to cities are a legacy of the British Raj with the Bombay Municipal Corporation Act dating as far back as 1888, which was to spawn offspring as far afield as Aden, Sri Lanka, Pakistan… The Land Acquisition Act too dates back to 1894. Therefore not only do the municipal laws need to be brought in line with the rest of the world, but power to manage cities must pass from a lethargic, permanent bureaucracy, to dynamic people’s representatives, as most successfully demonstrated by South American cities.

Lastly, streamlining and modernizing land laws is crucial to any urban planning that Indian cities may indulge in. Otherwise they will continue in the present mode, where the people go and settle where they may, and the local body follows years later to charge tax, and perforce provide some basic services. The costs of retrofitting municipal infrastructure can be prohibitive, and entire ‘neighbourhoods’ may be born, live and decay, without even the solace of drinking water in their taps. So much for Indian urban planning…