It's a long road to sustainability

For the first time since Independence, the Census of India recorded a higher absolute increase in population in urban areas than in rural areas during the decade of 2001-11. The level of urbanisation stood at 31.16% in 2011. This means every third Indian is now a city dweller. It is expected that by the year 2051, out of an estimated population of about 1.6 billion, about 40% would reside in urban areas.

The urban share of the country's GDP is also on the rise, with an estimated 65% of the GDP coming from urban areas in 2009-10. With the new towns being proposed or developed as part of the industrial projects like special economic zones (SEZs), information technology (IT)/business process outsourcing (BPO) townships, and hi-tech cities, India will have another 25 new towns/cities along the fast growing urban/industrial corridors in the next ten years. These urban centres will also become growth magnets, for the employment and other economic opportunities offered by them.

With the high concentration of population and economic activities, cities are increasingly playing a key role in India's growth. Infrastructure, among other things, will contribute substantially to this growth and any approach for sustainable urban development has to inevitably take this into account. However, most of India's cities are grappling with issues related to housing, infrastructure and basic services. The recent past has also seen the emergence of climate related concerns.

Another important issue is that cities need to be livable for all, including the urban poor and vulnerable communities, with equitable access to opportunities and infrastructure, and efficiency in service delivery. At the same time, these should be energy efficient, and disaster and climate-resilient.

The recent past has seen large-scale programmes for the provision and upgradation of infrastructure and basic services in urban areas. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), Urban Infrastructure Development Scheme for Small and Medium Towns (UIDSSMT) and the Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY) are the key programmes being implemented across large and medium towns with central support. However, their focus is more project-driven and towards bridging the gaps, and they fail to address the element of sustainability.

The National Mission on Sustainable Habitat (NMSH), under the ambit of the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC), identifies some key strategies for dealing with environment and climate change related issues and development of sustainable habitats. These include promoting energy efficiency in residential and commercial buildings, water supply and waste management systems, environment-friendly transportation options, and better urban planning. To translate these strategies on ground, the Sustainable Habitat Parameters have been developed under the NMSH. However, the mission is yet to be implemented.

In the case of urban transport, the National Urban Transport Policy (2006) of the central government was launched for ensuring 'safe, affordable, quick, comfortable and sustainable access' to jobs, education, recreation and other mobility needs. In parallel, there have been some major investments for the provision and upgradation of public transport systems in large cities. However, what is visible has been limited to the development of Metro rail systems in the metros, and the city buses in the JNNURM cities.

Universal accessibility and any substantial modal shift from private vehicles to public transportation still remains a far-fetched dream with the lack of last-mile connectivity. Moreover, most city-level plans do not acknowledge the emerging environmental and social issues like climate change, safety and security, informal and non-motorised transport sections, including the cyclists and pedestrians. Extensive and long-term efforts are required by policymakers and planners to address these issues.

It is important to have a holistic approach to urban development. Concerns such as socially inclusive growth, environmental sustainability, climate resilient infrastructure and disaster responsiveness need to be addressed in urban planning. Mainstreaming these considerations in plans, regulations and bye-laws can go a long way in achieving sustainable urban development. Simultaneously, it is also important to reform and strengthen the existing governance structures and establish formal mechanisms for investment in developing sustainable infrastructure. NMSH and the upcoming second phase of the JNNURM can provide possible windows of opportunity here.