Five key priorities that can help urban India play its role in the country’s growth
At the Niti Aayog’s governing council meeting on June 15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented an ambitious target for India’s Gross Domestic Product — $5 trillion by 2024, and a doubling of farmers’ income. We can have debates about the if and how of realising this economic vision. But there should be one common factor in all the ideas:Urban India will have to be the fulcrum for this economic future. Not just for secondary or tertiary sector employment, but also for the demand to keep India’s agricultural sector thriving. And here, we have a unique spatial gift.
The Nasa night sky map is a composite image of the earth from space. It is a group photo of the world’s cities that provides revealing insights: for instance, the primarily coastal nature of America’s urbanisation, with large tracts of the central and midwest mostly rural. And the lopsided patterns of urbanisation along the coasts in both China and Brazil. India’s urbanisation — unlike any other nation — has an even spread of urban settlements across the country with very few blank spaces. This is a winning spatial horoscope for India, and holds the key to achieving Modi’s economic vision. However, this opportunity is not preordained destiny, it requires urgent and focused effort.
I list below five key priorities for the Modi 2.0 government at the Centre to enable our cities to play their role (there is enough space in our cooperative federal system that allows for the Central government to play a leadership role, because fixing urban India is a national imperative, key to India’s overall growth prospects). They take into account existing initiatives of the ministry of housing and urban affairs (MoHUA) such as AMRUT, Smart Cities etc, as well as those of other ministries.
1. City-highway transition zones: Road transport and highways minister, Nitin Gadkari, has accelerated NHAI’s highway construction over the past five years. But sadly, every city suffers from serious coronary conditions at its periphery, where the highways abruptly end. Transport corridors of national, state and city networks all collide with each other in an unplanned manner, and are lined with dhabas, shops, and services, adding to the chaos. A national approach to solving this would be for NHAI to create a new highways department — a Peri-urban Auxillary and Transition Highways (PATH) Department — to work with state and city governments, for the development of the interchanges, connector, and feeder highway networks around our cities.
2.Transport hubs and market infrastructure to link rural-urban India: The Nasa portrait clearly shows that every district in the country has one or more reasonably sized urban centre. Villagers need access to these towns — to sell their produce, to catch the buses and trains, to access higher education or tertiary healthcare facilities, etc. Our current produce markets and transport hubs in urban centres have come up in an ad hoc and unplanned manner, and often too far from each other. MoHUA could add special funding for such Markets and Transport Hubs (MATH) infrastructure into their current missions of AMRUT and Smart Cities, and ensure that these are strategically located at accessible transport corridors. These MATH infra hubs can be designed to offer cold-chain infrastructure. Such an initiative should ideally be developed in conjunction with at least two other ministries — agriculture and rural development, and food processing — but also with NHAI, so that there is a shared vision for key outcomes.
3. Affordable housing implementation: Government of India already has an initiative titled Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. While the plumbing is in place, little water is flowing through the pipes. Outcomes have been slow, substantially because state initiatives have been spotty and uncoordinated. MoHUA needs to do more to accelerate the pace of change. First, develop Model Affordable Housing Policies that reflect best practices, hold workshops for states to learn from each other and, crucially, include market participants. Second, have a special fund to fully support a handful of key affordable housing projects (say 10-15) across states, and drive implementation of these to completion before 2022.
4. Land title reforms: India has a regime of presumed ownership to land which can be challenged on multiple fronts: ownership, extent of boundaries, clauses, financial encumbrances, inheritance, subdivisions, etc. Title reforms have already seen much debate over the past several years, and is estimated to cost the country 2.5 % in lost GDP. Multiple pieces of legislation need modification. For example, the Indian Registration Act of 1908 doesn’t ask the registration authority to verify the history of the land or ownership from the seller, weakening the protection to the buyer. There are similar gaps in the Transfer of Property Act, 1882, the Indian Contract Act of 1872, etc. Guaranteed title certification has seen little traction because states are intimidated by the transition complexities. MoHUA needs to take the lead here, with a two-pronged approach: to use a Union territory (for example, Chandigarh), to pilot title certification, use this to establish model rules and processes for states, while simultaneously driving this reform agenda with progressive state governments.
5.Urban water: India’s cities are constantly beset with problems of water — either severe floods, or severe shortage of potable water. Flooding is a problem of the bigger cities of amalgamated concrete where there is no strategic planning or regulation for green infrastructure — such as wetlands, swales, trees, shrubs, grass — that can mitigate rain water flooding, filter pollution of air, water and soil, and replenish ground water. Sustainable access to potable water is a problem across urban settlements, including coastal towns and those along rivers. The principles of reduce, recycle, reuse in managing waste, can be applied equally to managing water. The thrust towards decentralisation of the newly formed jal shakti ministry, could be linked to funding water management at the neighbourhood level of cities and towns — to store, treat, and reuse. For example, interconnecting drainage systems to networks of surface water bodies that can store water. Or utilising open public spaces such as parks and playgrounds as catchments for rain water and grey water, with micro-treatment plants to then locally redistributed within the neighbourhood for non-potable use.
The above priorities are by no means a panacea for economic growth. But they can go a long way in enabling urban India to play its rightful role at the heart of our nation’s future.
Swati Ramanathan is the co-founder of Jana Group, and chairperson of Jana Urban Space Foundation
The views expressed are personal