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Meeting urban India’s growing environment challenge

Rapid urbanisation has stretched scarce resources, if cities are to grow in a sustainable manner, urban governance systems need to be strengthened. EAS Sarma writes.

india Updated: Dec 02, 2013 00:34 IST
EAS Sarma

The urban share in India’s population has steadily increased from 17% in 1951 to 31% in 2011. In 1951, there were only five cities with more than a million people. Today, there are 56 such cities, three among them with more than 10 million residents each.

Transition from a rural-agrarian to an urban-industrial/services led economy is an inevitable outcome of economic growth.

In theory, urban settlements with high population density appropriate less land, facilitate a more efficient use of water, energy and other resources, ensure greater sustainability and enhance the quality of life of people by offering better healthcare, education and other amenities.

In turn, this yields greater productivity. Increased literacy and political awareness are expected to weaken the caste and other social barriers and deepen democracy.

No wonder, the top 100 Indian cities with 16% of the country’s population occupy only 0.26% of its geographic area but contribute 43% of its economic output. The urban centres have no doubt offered diverse employment opportunities and provided better education and healthcare facilities.

In reality, however, the way urban growth is planned and regulated in India has raised serious questions on its sustainability and its adverse impacts on environment and the quality of life of the people.

Indian cities are literally exploding with massive building construction activity, drawing thousands of migrant workers from adjacent villages. The affluent city dwellers critically depend on domestic workers, small vendors, carpenters, electricians and so on.

Ironically, the cities’ Master Plans have no place for this auxiliary workforce, leading to the mushrooming of slums. Today, one in every six urban residents in India lives in slums, having no shelter worth its name, no food security, no access to potable water, no sanitation and toilets and often no place in the country’s electoral process.

There is poverty in both the rural and the urban areas. However, urban poverty is uglier; it is more dehumanising. Often, it is the urban poor who bear the brunt of environmental degradation.

Instead of dealing with it, the government seems to fight shy of urban poverty. During the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the government tried its best to shift thousands of beggars residing on the pavements lining Delhi’s shining malls, in order to present a glorious picture to the foreign delegates!

Rapid urbanisation has imposed a severe stress on scarce resources. Today, no city in the country can boast of uninterrupted 24-hour water availability. In most cities, the citizens’ daily access to water ranges from 1-6 hours. As the water needs are increasing, one would expect a greater emphasis on efficiency in water use and rehabilitation of local water bodies including ground water aquifers. To the contrary, the fast expanding urban sprawl is obliterating local water bodies, polluting water sources and exerting an enormous pressure on scarce water resources in the surrounding rural areas.

For example, there were 932 water bodies in Hyderabad in 1973. More than a hundred have since disappeared. The catchments of the city’s two primary water reservoirs, Osmansagar and Himayatsagar have shrunk by more than 25% due to construction activity.

The third one, Hussainsagar, has turned toxic due to industrial pollution. The city’s future growth will critically depend on expensive water from far off Krishna and Godavari rivers.

Most cities in India will face a serious water crisis in the coming decade. On an average, only 30% of the used water and most of the solid wastes in the cities are treated and the rest allowed to spread on to ground and surface water sources.

According to a recent sample study, one-fourth of Delhi residents who depend on ground water, are exposed to nitrate poisoning responsible for blood disorders, attributed to “contamination from domestic sewage, livestock rearing, landfills and run off from fertilised fields, unlined drains and cattle sheds.”

If potable water has become scarce, so is clean air in most cities.

In November last year, despite the court-ordered use of CNG as a transport fuel, a thick envelop of smog, described by an expert as a “toxic cocktail of poisonous gases”, descended on Delhi, throwing the city into chaos. It reminded one of Beijing which has also become notorious for smog and pollution. Referring to it, Xie Zhenhua, vice-chairman of China’s National Development and Reform Commission admitted that smoggy conditions had become the norm which “severely affected the mental and physical health of the Chinese people”. These words apply equally to Delhi and the other cities similarly placed.

In fact, most cities in India have become toxic pollution hubs. Bengaluru is one among them. Scientists at Tel Aviv University in Israel recently used data collected by NASA to track pollution trends in 189 two-million-plus cities and found that Bengaluru was among the cities leading in pollution increase, with its aerosol concentration increasing by 34% during 2002-10.

If India’s urban centres are to grow in an environmentally benign and sustainable manner, the urban governance systems need to be strengthened. Short-term decision making should yield place to a long-term vision.

Urban waste disposal methods need to be upgraded. The urban residents need to be motivated to participate in governance through well empowered Ward Committees. The needs of the poor should be accorded a high priority.

The laws we have are more than adequate but we need to respect them.

(Sarma is a former secretary in the ministry of finance)