Only safe cities are Smart Cities

The unprecedented floods in Chennai this winter, preceded by equally unprecedented cyclone in Visakhapatnam and flood in Srinagar last year are, apart from devastating tragedies, indications of the growing risks of urban disasters in India.

The death toll in these disasters may not have been very high, but the economic losses were staggering. According to Annual Global Climate and Catastrophe Report 2014, total economic loss of Srinagar flood was Rs 1 trillion, and Vizag cyclone Rs 704 billion, while insurance payouts for the two disasters were Rs 9 and Rs 6 billion respectively. While the total economic loss in Chennai flood in both public and private sectors is yet to be computed, initial estimates suggest that it could be higher than the Srinagar and Vizag disasters.

Such enormous economic losses are surely not sustainable for the economic growth of the country. According to a recently released report of the Global Commission on Climate and Economy, India is on the "brink of an urban revolution" with its population in towns and cities expected to swell to 600 million by 2031 (against 377 million recorded in 2011), nearly twice the population of the United States. McKinsey Global Institute has projected that in another decade and a half, 68 Indian cities will have a population of one million plus, up from 48 cities today.

In the entire history of human civilisation no other country, barring China, had seen such massive upsurge of urban population in such a short period.

China's urban growth coincided with its high-speed economic growth. China had addressed the issues of basic urban services like water, sanitation, health and education in fairly effective and equitable manner, which reduced the vulnerabilities of urban poor. China invested massive resources into building urban infrastructure like roads, transportation, housing, communication, etc., which provided further fillip to its growth.

Of course, China could regulate to some extent both natural and migration-induced growth of its cities by enforcing stringent measures like one child policy and permit systems for migration to cities, thus reducing both vulnerabilities and exposures to hazards. Despite major earthquakes and floods striking the country in recent years, China has been able to avert serious urban disasters.

India cannot replicate the Chinese model but it can surely draw many lessons for building resilience of its cities.

The homepage of the website of ministry of urban development boldly announces that the “growth story of India shall be written on the canvas of planned urban development”. In June this year the ministry launched its twin flagship programmes of Smart City and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) that propose to cover 100 plus another 500 cities respectively.

The programmes succeed the decade-long implementation of Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) in 63 cities across the country with overall investment of Rs 123,711 crore, half of which were provided as grants by Government of India. Smart City and AMRUT promise to quadruple this investment during the next five years, which would no doubt provide a big boost to city development.

This provides excellent opportunities for assessing the existing risks of urban disasters in the country, reduce the risks of such disasters through various structural and other measures, ensure that new development works do not create new risks of disasters and build the resilience of our cities.

JNNURM clearly failed to build the resilience of cities against disasters. There is clear and ample evidence that many city development projects taken up under JNNURM did not go through environmental and disaster impact analysis, resulting in precipitation of the risks of urban disasters instead of reducing such risks. This must not be repeated under the Smart City initiative.

The initial concept note of Smart City programme, issued in December 2014, included the preparation of environmental sustainable plan (ESP) for each city, which would encompass comprehensive city disaster management plans. This would have made it mandatory for the cities to assess their risks of natural and manmade disasters, make plans for mitigating the risks and ensure that new development plans do not create new risks. For reasons not explained, the environmental sustainable plan was not included in the final guidelines that were issued in June 2005.

In the contexts of recurrent urban disasters in the country in recent years, the ministry would do well to revisit the guidelines and include disaster risk management strategies as an important component for sustainable urban development. The recently announced 17 sustainable development goals of the United Nations that India has committed to achieve during the course of one and a half decade is a good starting point. Making cities and human settlements “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” and to significantly reduce, by 2030, “the number of deaths and the number of people affected, and substantially decrease the direct economic losses caused by disasters” are two of the 17 goals.

A complete review of our policies and programmes on urban development is necessary if we have to honour our commitment to these goals. Else the opportunities lost under the JNNURM will be lost again under the Smart City and AMRUT programmes