Sustainable Cities Must Be Inclusive

Our current city planning processes are definitely not assessing the carrying capacity of a region, leading to tremendous pressure on existing resources

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Today, India’s megacities are grappling with several challenges. Delhi has been battling hazardous air quality and a dying Yamuna river. Mumbai suffers from severe traffic congestion and poor waste management. Bengaluru, India’s Electronic City, has failed to protect its water bodies and its lakes are catching fire. There is evidence of inefficient resource management too. Bengaluru uses enormous amount of energy and infrastructure to pump water from the Cauvery, covering a distance of more than 120 kms to reach the city. About 50 per cent of the water supplied is lost due to leakage and theft loss. The electricity cost for this three-tier pumping system is INR 70 million per month, which is 60% of the water utility’s budget. India’s new cities are facing similar issues.

Gurgaon, a satellite city of Delhi, with leading global MNC offices, is now referred to as an “example not to follow”. In all these cities, the poor and disadvantaged citizens are most affected. Another rising concern is the grave impact of extreme weather events due to climate change on Indian cities. Citizen confidence in infrastructure resilience and overall city planning is decreasing. The country cannot forget the 2015 man-made floods in Chennai. The wetlands, green areas, and river banks, which provide extremely important ecosystem services and enhance the overall resilience of the city have been exploited to an extent that their potential to render various economic and environmental services have reduced drastically. 

Our current city planning processes are definitely not assessing the carrying capacity of a region, leading to tremendous pressure on existing resources. Numerous initiatives are required to tackle existing city-level challenges, making it an overwhelming exercise, that leads to inaction. It is, therefore, important to break-down the problems and prioritise initiatives based on local requirements.

Making better decisions and optimising investments is crucial. Land use planning, especially protection of green areas and wetlands, can only be done if they are mapped and valued precisely. Better asset management such as identifying and rectifying water loss due to leakages can save huge volume of resources. Also, as climate risks increase, urban flooding is likely to become more common across the country. It is important to assess if our infrastructure can sustain such extreme events and plan accordingly.

Implementation is key to building sustainable cities. Our cities have several existing regulations to prevent pollution but stringent prevention measures are critical. Similarly, adoption of rain water harvesting or driving in lanes is hardly realised on ground.

Capacity building of local-level institutes:

City officials are regularly caught in fire-fighting mode and long-term vision is often found lacking with local institutions. Capacity building at the local-level should shift focus from supply side management towards demand side management. Given the limited resources a city has, resource use efficiency and adopting advanced technologies could significantly improve everyday operations.

Well framed subsidies and greater focus on ignored sectors is a must. For example, waste management, solid and liquid, has not been given enough weightage till date, leading to pollution of river bodies and the local environment. A circular economy approach which looks at waste as a resource has to be adopted to maximise productivity. Assuring that subsidies reach the poor would be a critical component of a wise funding strategy. It is important to ensure equity in providing services for all citizens. Many cities have no formal water provisions, inadequate sanitation facilities in low income group (LIG) areas, and no lanes for cyclists. Also, we are still reliant on centralised solutions. A shift towards bringing a balance between centralised and decentralised solutions could be the key. Stakeholder engagement via innovative communication could also help build sustainable cities.

The highly ambitious Smart Cities mission has missed in its definition and scoring parameter, one of the most significant stakeholders, the urban poor. Any LIG area in a city provides essential services to the city; varying from construction labour, furniture making, waste picking, cooking, and cleaning services. However, the living standard in the LIG colonies is abysmal. With competing priorities for access to resources, the majority of the poor in these cities continue to face obstacles from two sides, access and affordability. In 2012, more than half the slums in the country were non-notified, curbing the government funds to support the basic necessities of a dignified living; piped water, sanitation and electricity. This has aided the rise of the informal distributors and vendors, who in turn charge much higher prices for these basic necessities.

Furthermore, the transition to smart cities has led to increased evictions of residents of slums without adequate provision for resettlement or compensation.

The twenty smart cities have proposed spending about three-fourth of their budget on specific pockets in the city. These pockets will have the best amenities in the world but the overall budgets allocated for smart cities will fall short of the investment required to create and maintain sustainable infrastructure for all. If the ambition

of creating world class urban cities has to be realised, aspects of equity and sustainability cannot be ignored by policy makers.

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