Experts say intelligent actions by the current leadership would be needed to achieve the vision of a sustainable and inclusive urban India as envisaged under the newly launched Smart Cities Mission.
This issue was flagged by experts participating in a two-day international conference on ‘Future Scenarios for an Urbanising India’, organised in New Delhi by Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) from February 8, 2016.
The event was an important concluding exercise of a three-year collaborative research project undertaken by ORF and PRIO, exploring a fundamental question: Given the challenges of urban expansion and sprawl, social and economic exclusion, and deteriorating environmental conditions at the regional level, how do we manage and govern an urbanising India?
Over 30 leading scholars and experts representing prominent institutions like CURE, IIHS, IIPA, NFI, NIUA, NIC, OPML, SPA, TERI, TCPO, University of Maryland, Uppsala University, etc. and private agencies participated in the conference and shared valuable experiences. This was further enriched by probing questions from a sizeable audience which was present to hear the expert opinions, contributing to the deliberations. Some important points discussed during the conference are presented below.
India is experiencing slow urbanisation, and it is only by the year 2045 or 2050 that the proportion of urban population in the country will cross the 50 per cent mark. While the scale (number) is large, the pace of change (growth rate) is slow. When compared with 22 largest countries, India has an urbanisation deficit of at least 8.7 per cent.
The real cause of urban population growth is not rural to urban migration, as is generally understood, but fertility (i.e., births/natural increase). At many places, the growth is occurring outside municipal limits (or in census towns). District level data show that urban footprints are not spreading the way they should have spread. Twenty per cent of districts in India have less than 10 per cent of the urban population.
Though it is true that cities produce high GDP, the linkages between urbanisation and economic growth are not as dominant as had been expected.
It is well recognised that urbanisation in India is not being managed properly and this situation could lead to the occurrence of numerous problems in future. Most prevalent concerns include poverty, an unmanaged informal sector, shortage of infrastructure, weak institutional arrangements, low financial base, lack of disaster preparedness, failure of urban planning and infrastructure.
The impact of previous efforts such as JNNURM has been marginal, with only some projects seeing the light of the day. The governance aspect which is the key driver for improving urban development and management was not sufficiently strengthened, despite government commitment.
The current smart cities mission is seen as a consultant–driven approach, with smart city plans being prepared by consultants. Some challenges that would be encountered during this journey include removing encroachments, slum improvement, and green field development.
It is observed that democratic allocation of public infrastructure, services and support mechanisms has not taken place, and this has led to severe inequalities of various kinds.
In view of the multiple concerns highlighted by the gathering, it is felt that wise actions on the part of the government and other stakeholders would help in overcoming the problems caused by urbanisation. Some recommendations are enumerated below.
- A better urban planning approach is urgently needed, which is sustainable and inclusive wherein there is sufficient scope for public participation. The approach has to take into account the prevailing market forces, and aspects of public health, climate change and disaster management.
- Urban planning has to be made more participatory. In the preparatory phase of the smart cities mission, for instance, as many as 2.5 million people participated. With growth of mobile phone usage in Indian cities, many more people could be enabled to participate in the city planning and project implementation processes.
- Provision of infrastructure and services to the needy must be given greater priority so that they are not relegated to the margins. This would help address equity concerns.
- The current state of urban planning education needs to be relooked. The objective should be to produce more urban planners and urban managers who possess sound knowledge of multiple disciplines; are equipped with appropriate skills; can work with ULBs; and who can focus on State, market and civil society.
- If population growth outside municipal limits is the new norm in India’s urbanisation, then appropriate governance structures need to be put in place to deal with this kind of urbanisation.
- The strategy for dealing with the huge informal urbanisation witnessed in India has to be different from the kind of responses adopted by the government in the past.
- Previous efforts aimed at empowering municipalities, reforming the municipal cadres, building their capacities through effective training programmes so that the functionaries operate in a professional manner, improving their financial condition, and making them accountable must continue. This would be absolutely necessary for city transformation.
- Under e-Governance reforms, municipal websites have been created, payment gateways have been built, but the back-end part, i.e., information base of many of the systems is still archaic. For example, electricity bills can be paid on line, but the concerned person in the municipality (or concerned department) still maintains record in the register. Thus, all data must be maintained in digital form.
- Private (individual) costs of inadequately provided public services and infrastructure are increasing at a very rapid rate. Individuals have to make alternative arrangements for electricity, drinking water, security, etc. These are really the costs that should have been borne by the public sector. Such individual costs need to be brought down.
- Under the new smart city initiative, some allocations should have been made for improving the capacity of existing urban planning education institutions; building new urban planning education institutions that can train the aspiring younger generation in urban planning and management.
This report is prepared by Dr. Rumi Aijaz, Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.