It’s time to revisit, rethink, reshape Indian cities - Hindustan Times
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It’s time to revisit, rethink, reshape Indian cities

ByAmitabh Kant
Dec 09, 2021 09:45 PM IST

The next decade is an “urban decade”. To enable this, the current decade should be dedicated to robust planning and action

India has been among the fastest growing economies in the world for close to two decades, and aspires to be among the top three largest economies in the world by 2047 — the 100th year of its Independence.

Cities constitute only about 3% of the country’s land, but contribute to over 70% of the Gross Domestic Product (Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO) PREMIUM
Cities constitute only about 3% of the country’s land, but contribute to over 70% of the Gross Domestic Product (Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)

In 2019, the National Commission on Population estimated that India’s population is expected to increase from 1,211 million to 1,518 million during 2011-2036. Urban growth is expected to contribute to over 73% of the rise in the population. The United Nations has projected that, by 2050, India will be 50% urbanised.

Cities constitute only about 3% of the country’s land, but contribute to over 70% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This indicates the level of economic productivity that they offer. However, before 2015, they did not receive adequate attention towards their functionality and liveability.

It is only now that the government has begun various initiatives — from Swachh Bharat to AMRUT — to provide basic amenities to every household and also enable technology to solve urban issues. But this will require a grassroots-level push from the State.

A robust urban governance system is needed in India’s cities to tackle city-centric issues such as air pollution, urban flooding, and droughts — all of which point to infrastructural shortcomings and inadequate planning. Land-use decisions are often made without an adequate empirical assessment of the consequences which disrupt the local ecology, and in turn, the economy.

A foundational challenge is the way we define what is “urban” and what is “rural” in India. Out of 7,933 towns that are counted as urban, almost half have the status of Census towns and continue to be governed as rural entities. This adds to the vulnerability of unplanned urbanisation.

Another complexity is that even those “urban” settlements that have the status of “statutory towns” do not necessarily grow in a planned manner. About 52% of statutory towns in India lack any kind of masterplan. Most of the focus of planned development leans towards metropolitan cities or Class 1 towns. The small- and medium-sized towns, which need equal, if not more, attention remain untapped. The Class 2, 3 and 4 towns together house 26% of the total population in the country and contribute a share of over 44.2% to the total urban areas.

Interestingly, the population of Class 5 and 6 towns soared by 90% and 151% respectively during 2001-2011, while the Class 1 towns had a modest growth rate of 35% in the same period. Such towns serve as intermediaries in the rural-urban continuum. Owing to capacity deficits, they do not receive adequate attention. However, if they continue to develop unguided, they will need higher expenditure later for corrective measures and infrastructural redevelopment.

Yet another problem is that urban local bodies (ULBs) do not have a thorough know-how of the value of their assets. A pervasive issue is the lack of adequate capacity of ULBs in taking innovative measures to overcome their financial limitations. They also fall short in collecting sufficient property taxes in terms of rates and coverage.

However, there are ways. Cities experience constant evolution. They are not just drivers of economic growth, but are magnets of global knowledge exchanges, and are playgrounds for innovation. But this requires breaking away from the orthodox, old-fashioned ways of city planning through restrictive land-use plans.

For India to accomplish its Sustainable Development Goals and the United Nations’ New Urban Agenda, we have to revisit, rethink, and reshape the way we plan and manage our settlements and the connecting networks among them. We need to think of cities as markets, places of several cultures, and generators of employment opportunities. The natural environments within and surrounding them need to be protected. And critically, these structures should be built on the back of cost-efficient public transport infrastructure that ensures last-mile connectivity.

Going forward, there is a need to build capacities in the country so that cities reap the fruit of urbanisation and generate the economic momentum needed to build a $5-trillion economy. In this spirit, many cycles must be broken and plugged with reforms in urban planning, management, and finance.

In the short- to medium-term, domestic private sector companies need to be nourished and built so that we start generating solutions for India from Indian minds that are well aware of the organic growth and culture of urban India. Startups need to be mentored and encouraged to cautiously bridge the gap between innovations and urban concerns. Technology needs to be made a mainstay in urban planning education to ensure integrated planning. By 2030, India should build its soft power in urban planning. Citizens must be made stakeholders in city-making through awareness programmes about urban planning processes being made available to them and their elected leaders. City leadership must also be enlightened and aware of how to make cities both liveable and inclusive.

State governments must gear up to open a new chapter in their history of development. A “state urbanisation strategy” is the first step in that direction. Such a policy should stitch together the imperatives of all sectoral policies — from industry and tourism to agriculture and the environment. Unless this integration happens, coherence between spatial and economic policy will remain unconquered.

The next decade is an “urban decade”. To enable this, the current decade should be dedicated to robust planning and action.

Amitabh Kant is CEO, NITI Aayog

The views expressed are personal

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