Author : Ramanath Jha

Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on Jun 20, 2023
The unending densification of cities rob all the initiatives from making a visible positive impact
Sustainable Development Goal 11 and India The Sustainable Development Report 2022 ranks India 121 out of 163 nations and gives an SDG Index score of 60.3. Out of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), two goals (responsible consumption and production and climate action) are shown to be on track to achieving the SDG target. Six of the goals are categorised as moderately improving. These comprise goals on poverty removal, affordable and clean energy, decent work and economic growth, good health and well-being, industry, innovation and infrastructure, and clean water and sanitation. Seven others are stagnating. These include zero hunger, quality education, gender equality, life below water, life on land, peace, justice and strong institutions, and partnerships for the goals. The reduced inequality goal had no information provided and hence has not been assessed. Further, the report finds one goal where challenges remain; two having significant issues and eleven goals confronting major challenges.
The reduced inequality goal had no information provided and hence has not been assessed.
However, it is the SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities) where the situation is worsening. This goal is to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable with 10 targets: i) Safe and affordable housing; ii) Affordable and sustainable transport systems; iii) Inclusive and sustainable urbanisation; iv) Protect the world’s cultural and natural heritage; v) Reduce the adverse effects of natural disasters; vi) Reduce the environmental impact of cities; vii) Provide access to safe and inclusive green spaces; viii) Strong national and regional development planning; ix) Implement policies for inclusion, resource efficiency and disaster risk reduction; and x) Support least developed countries in sustainable and resilience building. The report assesses the performance of countries on four indicators: i) proportion of urban population living in slums; ii) annual mean concentration of particulate matter of less than 2.5 microns in diameter (PM2.5); iii) Access to improved water resource; and iv). satisfaction with public transport. This article deals with some of the more significant areas of concern of SDG 11 in the context of Indian cities. To improve India’s performance on SDG 11, one of the first things Indian cities must do is to move in the direction of reducing and ultimately eliminating slums. Since a large part of city economies get supported by labour provided by the not so well-off citizens, they must be integrated in the city by providing them inexpensive rental shelter and affordable housing. However, this is not happening at the scale required. As a consequence, 828 million people (17 percent of India’s urban population) live in slums as of now and the number keeps rising. In 2015, government of India (GoI) launched the Prime Minister Awas Yojana (PMAY Urban) for providing housing of 30 m2 each to the urban homeless in 4,318 cities and towns. Till date, 11.2 million houses have been grounded. However, as more migrants desert their villages and land in cities in search of employment, the backlog continues to grow. Finding affordable land in good quantity itself is an issue in the mega and metropolitan cities. These challenges get reflected in the overall performance on SDG 11. While states have appointed real estate regulators, their role has been limited to injecting fairness and equity between builders and buyers. However, they scarcely touch the affordable housing sector that could have an impact on slums. The national model of free housing has been long recognised as an unsound model in a country as large as India. To make matters worse, India is for long going to witness migration into cities, making the demand for free housing an unsustainable model. A better solution would be to plan affordable housing on public land and offer soft long-term debt for the constructed shelter. Even more pressing is the need for states to adopt housing reforms suggested by GoI both in the affordable housing and rental housing sectors and make it worthwhile for private businesses to venture into these areas. Unfortunately, there is very little evidence to show that this is happening.
Finding affordable land in good quantity itself is an issue in the mega and metropolitan cities.
The environmental story of Indian cities has been largely negative. In terms of the average concentration of PM2.5 in India, the country ranked the eighth most polluted among nations, exceeding 10.7 times the World Health Organization (WHO)’s annual air quality guideline value. The urban rankings were also unflattering, as 12 of the 15 most polluted cities in central and south Asia were Indian. A lot of work, therefore, has to be done in Indian cities in this area. GoI, cognisant of this challenge, began a nation-wide programme named the National Clean Air Mission (CAM-INDIA). It is a cross-sectoral initiative for air pollution mitigation involving Ministries of Transport, Power, Construction, Agriculture, Rural Development, Environment and the states. It also has a specific urban component that has shortlisted 102 polluted Indian cities with the target to reduce PM2.5 by about one-third in five years. While it is recognised that the nature of air pollution transcends geographical boundaries, cities, as major polluters, must take their own initiatives. The thrust being given to public transportation and e mobility are steps in the right direction, since vehicular emission is one of the major contributors to air pollution. However, the network of e-buses needs to be expanded across all large cities in the country. Today, only about 63 cities have some form of bus service. To begin with, cities above half million population could be targeted. Their number today is around 100. It could then be expanded to all cities that are municipal corporations. The other areas that require attention are better waste management and improved construction practices that include dust reduction and better construction waste management—all of which contribute to air pollution. Adoption of green building technologies would be a great help. Cities also need to have an eye on greening whatever space that can be greened—on ground, on podiums and on rooftops.
The urban rankings were also unflattering, as 12 of the 15 most polluted cities in central and south Asia were Indian.
In regard to the goal of improved water supply in Indian cities, the government of India has rolled out the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation. This programme seeks to provide tap water connection to every urban household in all statutory towns of the country. This is assisted by the Jal Shakti Abhiyan aimed at rain water conservation. It is evident that this may face challenges in the informal part of cities that have grown haphazardly outside city plans. However, reaching water to these areas through innovative methods would be absolutely imperative for achieving the Mission target. At the same time, regulatory bye-laws that prevent illegal ground water extraction, rejuvenation of local water bodies, better control on unaccounted-for water and addressing the issue of sewage treatment and recycling would have to play a significant role. Several of the other SDG 11 goals feed into the most critical goal of sustainable urbanisation that revolves heavily around the issue of balancing the built and non-built environment in cities. This, in part, would contribute in plentiful measure to openness and greenery, better overall city management, better disaster reduction and mitigation and greater inclusiveness. It would lead cities to adopt manageable human and built densities and overall better city well-being. Sadly, the decadal figures revealed by past censuses are clear evidence that mega and metropolitan cities are densifying heavily. Very high human densities rob all the other initiatives from making a visible positive impact as more people inevitably lead to more construction, larger volumes of pollution and reduction of space to deal with the SDG challenges. Quite clearly, unending densification of cities cannot be an option.
Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation
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Ramanath Jha

Ramanath Jha

Dr. Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. He works on urbanisation — urban sustainability, urban governance and urban planning. Dr. Jha belongs ...

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