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With the Centre putting its weight behind the flagship Smart Cities programme for comprehensive and inclusive urban planning, several quarters within the government, including the Niti Aayog, have pointed out the urgent need to prescribe standards for design and implementation of various tenets involved with two key determinants of urban development — housing and transport.
“Over the longer term, India needs to introduce more fundamental changes to turn our cities into 21st century spaces. We need to introduce spatial planning that simultaneously addresses developmental needs of metropolitan, municipal and ward-level areas,” said the Niti Aayog in its draft three-year action plan.
For standardising the process of building houses – both affordable and high-value ones, former housing secretary Arun Kumar Misra said that not only should standards be put into place as early as possible but should also be updated to be relevant with the latest available technologies.
“For high-value houses, newer standards need to be put in place such as internet connectivity, or making them applicable for the climate and environmental technologies, water conservation, rainwater harvesting, etc. All these things need to be incorporated, and it can be done. Unfortunately, India is a bit weak in adopting newer technologies. However, private sector has the freedom to adopt them. But that requires changes in various norms for CPWD, state PWDs, etc. At both the state and the central levels, introduction of modern, fast house-building technologies, which is applicable for both affordable and high-value housing, is necessary,” Misra said.
He noted that while availability of technology was not a problem, the cost of adopting the latest applications was one.
“It’s not that all this cannot be done, but the question is what are the limiting factors. Technology is not a limiting factor, but cost is. There are some technologies, which have become quite reasonably priced now, and can be adopted, for example security systems,” Misra said, adding that the government needs to focus on having standards that are not passed as one-offs but can be replicated on a larger scale in the immediate future.
A senior government official earlier involved with the smart cities project said that standardising would also ensure vendor redundancy for the authority commissioning a particular project. “If there are no prescribed standards, it would be difficult for Smart Cities programme to maintain its momentum. There could be a certain vendor putting in its systems after winning a tender, but the project does not stop there,” the official said, adding that there was a need for standards for the smallest of things, such as street-lighting.
Notwithstanding the importance of standardising the housing aspect of urban planning, Niti Aayog has pegged that urban transportation should also have common practices considering the ‘intimate connection’ between housing and transportation.
“If a city is planned to provide housing next to workplace, it minimises the time spent on daily commute. Symmetrically, if suburbs and city centre are connected by well-functioning rapid transit system and the central business district has a dense in-city transportation system, residents have the choice to locate in the suburbs where they can afford larger spaces. Housing and transportation are thus intimately connected,” the think-tank noted in the action plan.
The Niti Aayog has pointed out that the design and maintenance of city roads being a major challenge across Indian cities. “The design and maintenance of city roads is a major challenge in Indian cities. The roads are notorious for being pedestrian-unfriendly, poorly surfaced, congested, and constantly dug-up. An important and urgent transformational reform is to draw up national design standards and contracting standards for city roads to address these challenges,” it said.
“Enforceable design standards can ensure that urban utilities are provided ducts under footpaths with inspection chambers, utility networks are mapped, and uniform lane width can be maintained,” it added. The Aayog has also proposed pilot of a public-private partnership model wherein a private contractor builds city roads, and in turn, charges utilities operators for using underground ducts over the concession period. “Such a project has the advantage that it eliminates the need for state utilities to raise capital for building their underground ducts,” it noted.
These apart, the Niti Aayog also recommended running pilots to see if stricter enforcement of traffic rules. “The flow of traffic also needs special attention in Indian cities. Unlike western (countries’) cities, motorised vehicles in India change lanes with high frequency and in unpredictable ways. This creates unnecessary traffic jams and delays,” the draft said. Additionally, it has also recommended incentivising vehicle-sharing services such as Ola and Uber with an aim to reduce the vehicles on roads, which would reduce both congestion and pollution.