Cities are drivers of economic growth. As India urbanises, it must ensure that its cities offer a decent quality of life and facilitate job creation. These imperatives are fundamental to India’s ambitions of becoming a five trillion-dollar economy by 2025 and a 10 trillion-dollar economy by 2030.
From a population of 377 million in 2011, Indian cities are projected to house 870 million people by 2050, according to the UN’s projections — by far the highest among all nations. Delhi is likely to become the world’s most populous urban agglomeration by 2030, surpassing Tokyo. Clearly, a major demographic transformation is taking place.
Notwithstanding their criticality, cities face several challenges today. Inadequate affordable housing has meant that almost one-sixth of the urban population lives in slums. Water supply is unreliable. Mountains of solid waste sit on the fringes of our cities. Poor drainage, congested roads and deteriorating air quality are other challenges. For our growth ambitions to succeed, not only do these gaps have to be filled, but even greater needs, necessitated by the growing population, have to be accommodated. Estimates by a high-powered expert committee and by the McKinsey Global Institute indicated in 2011-12 that nearly Rs 39-60 lakh crore are to be invested in urban infrastructure in the next 30 years. These amounts are outside the range of what the public budget can support.
The need is for a well-thought-out urbanisation policy to guide the planning and management of cities towards accommodating and enabling India’s growth ambitions and also assuring its residents a good quality of life, in a sustainable manner. In this piece, we highlight some of the key issues that such a policy should address.
First, how large and dense should our cities be? Should they house 35-40 million people or limit themselves to 2-3 million? Large cities offer agglomeration economies but are complex to manage. Dense cities are harbingers of infrastructure-related economies but are vulnerable to the spread of disease, as evident from the Covid-19 pandemic. A proper balance between agglomeration economies and manageability as well as density and distance will hold the key in determining the right size for our cities. A way around this is a kind of decentralised urbanisation where multiple cities are clustered into growth regions. These would facilitate agglomeration economies and yet be of a manageable size. The Paris region offers an excellent example, with several townships within its ambit. Services like metro rail are provided at the regional level but local roads and primary schools are the responsibility of local governments.
The second issue concerns finances. Resources other than the public budget need to be tapped. Capital markets are an obvious choice but involving them would require pricing basic services in a manner that allows a reasonable return on investments. High prices will make services unaffordable. How does one resolve this conflict? Monetising land assets is an option. More efficient service delivery through the private sector is another. Should cities continue to depend on grants from the state or central governments or should they raise a larger share of its needs, for example by improving property tax collections? Should central finances support specific types of investments or should there be more flexible support that allows cities to prioritise their needs?
Third, urban dwellers should be able to live, work and play safely and happily. India has boasted of well-planned cities from time immemorial. Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa have been role models for the rest of the world. The country must focus on good urban planning, instead of prioritising construction. Decisions on what to build need to emerge from a good plan, not in isolation. Planning must be dynamic enough to adjust to a city’s growth.
Fourth, should the planning boundary be limited to a city’s political and administrative boundary or should it encompass regional linkages? There are strong economic linkages between cities and their rural hinterland. There are linkages between multiple cities in a region as well as between cities and peri-urban areas. Should these interdependencies not be leveraged? Should the land-use plan for a city be divorced from a regional economic plan or be guided by it?
Fifth, we cannot afford to lose sight of sustainability. Despite having 18 per cent of the world population, India has only 2.5 per cent of the world’s landmass and 4 per cent of the world’s freshwater. Hence, global standards of land and water use may be too generous for us. Resource efficiency should be integral to urban planning.
Sixth, the challenge of climate change is upon us. A large share of our future carbon emissions will be in cities. Fortunately, our cities are still growing, and we are well placed to guide them into a low-carbon growth path. Energy-efficient buildings, sustainable building materials, clean energy, water harvesting, segregation of waste, electric mobility, public transport, walking and cycling are sustainable practices that need to be mainstreamed into urban planning. Building resilience to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change will also be critical.
Seventh, developments in technology that make it easier to work remotely will test older paradigms of office-based work. This work culture could change travel patterns and the need for transport infrastructure. An urbanisation policy should take cognisance of future mobility patterns. Increasingly, travel patterns are getting limited to shorter distances, requiring more non-motorised transport infrastructure rather than high-speed systems better suited to longer trips.
A sound urbanisation policy will guide how the growing urban population lives, works, and plays in India’s cities of the future. Such a policy is the need of the hour and cannot be delayed.
This column first appeared in the print edition on October 7, 2021 under the title ‘Designing the post-Covid city’. Mishra is secretary, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, and Agarwal is CEO, World Resources Institute India. The views expressed are personal
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