Are Indian Cities Liveable?

Cities are not mere engines of growth. They are inhabited by people and people develop emotional attachment towards cities.Individuals love or hate a place, feel comfortable or settled in some spaces but not in others. In simple terms, the cities where people long to stay or visit often can be called liveable cities. There is no single clear definition of a liveable city. However, there are many agencies like the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) that have created a set of parameters which enable evaluate and rank a city for liveability. Some of the parameters being considered while rating cities include aesthetic appeal of a city, environment, citizen safety, influence of a city, hub of activities, cultural significance, state of civic amenities and economic conditions.

 Asian scenario

The rapid economic growth in Asian cities is attracting more than 120,000 new urbanites daily. According to an Asian Development Bank (ADB) report, around 65% of all Asians will reside in cities by 2050. This fast- paced urbanisation demands better amenities in cities for increasing urban populations. Cities need to provide them a conducive environment in the form of a liveable city where they can live, work, and undertake leisure time activity with ease. The prosperity, stability and long-term productivity of cities will depend on how they respond to the aspirations and requirements of new urbanites. It is a global urban challenge to make cities liveable while maintaining the urban economic growth.

A new World Bank report ‘Leveraging Urbanization in South Asia: Managing Spatial Transformation for Prosperity and Livability’ states that South Asian countries have struggled to make the most of the opportunity urbanization provides them to transform their economies to join the ranks of richer nations in both prosperity and liveability. It further says that difficulty in dealing with the pressures urban populations put on infrastructure, basic services, land, housing and the environment lie at the heart of the relative lack of liveability of the region’s cities.

Most of India’s cities have become congested, polluted and sprawling with unfair distribution of civic amenities. The rate of growth of population in cities is rapidly increasing. As per the Census 2011, for the first time since independence, the absolute increase in population over the 2001 figure in urban areas (9.1 million) is greater than the increase in the rural areas (9 million). While the growth rate of urban population was 31.8% over 2001, the growth in the rural population was just 12.2%. Further the growth rate of urban population has gathered more pace compared to the previous decade (31.5%), while the growth rate of rural population has slowed down (18.1% in the previous decade).

Such fast-paced urbanisation is resulting in more slums, environmental degradation, and poor civic amenities lowering living standards in urban areas. There is a crying need for local governments to plan cities in a way that accommodates growing population and provides them with required amenities without having a negative impact on the urban ecosystem. In these conditions, building liveable cities is quite a challenge. The government has taken a slew of measures to strengthen cities to become liveable and handle the increasing burden on their infrastructure and services. At the local level, the focus of cities needs to be shifted from implementing centralised policy decisions for urban development towards reflecting local aspirations into the planning process.

Community aspirations

With growing economic prosperity in Indian cities, the expectations of the urban dweller from city governments have gone up. The aspirations of people and the operational mechanism of cities have changed over a period of time. What citizens need is not only a good road or a functional building anymore; it’s also about communication infra- structure and state-of-the-art service delivery systems. Their demands are not limited to adequate water supply, electricity, cleanliness, and health care. Urban dwellers are demanding more. They want instant information on civic services, quick grievance redressal systems, fast internet connectivity, open spaces, pedestrian paths, parking facilities, comfortable public transport, and pollution free environment. All these requirements of new age urbanites, if fulfilled, will develop a sense of ownership of cities among citizens.

Most of these areas need immediate attention in Indian cities. For example, most of the cities perform poorly on walkability index. There is a need to shift priority away from cars and towards bicycles and walking to create a liveable city. No one likes to walk between car bonnets and noisy hawkers. People want pathways to walk freely, without fear of getting hit by a speeding vehicle. A liveable city needs to provide walking spaces to its population. It has to have efficient parking management systems that ensure vehicles are not parked haphazardly causing problems for pedestrians. The famous Danish urban planner Jan Gehl says in his book ‘Cities for People’, “People need to be able to comfortably traverse a city on foot.” He also quotes Danish philosopher Kierkegaardon the physical and metaphysical importance of walking, “the true measure of a city’s health is actually not how much people walk, but how long they want to linger.”

Pollution in cities

Everyone knows that cities are polluted. Air, water and noise pollution have become the urban reality. It is so entrenched in cities that citizens have become unconcerned and do not even give much heed to it as the situation is beyond their control. A recent study by the World Bank ranked Delhi the most polluted city in the world. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal recently tweeted images of two lungs; one was of a 55 year old man living in Himachal Pradesh and another one was of a 52 year old residing in Delhi. The lung of the Delhi man was visibly dark. Doctors say that sustained exposure to particulate matter causes asthma and lung ailments. To clean the air of the national capital, the Delhi government has tossed a formula ‘odd-Even’ for reducing vehicular traffic and to bring down air pollution levels in the city after the government conducted a survey in 39 strategic locations to monitor air quality in the city. Under the rule that is proposed to come into effect from January 1, personal cars will be allowed on alternate days based on the last digit of their registration numbers.

No one would like to live in a city where the health of their children is at risk. An intensive drive to clean the air and the water bodies is the need of the hour. Many global cities like Beijing have begun the exercise of cleaning their ecosystems to ensure healthy environment for future generations.

Shrinking of open green spaces and continued growth of vehicular population has made the situation worse in cities. People have been demanding more open space area in cities and even, the city planning authorities have been proposing the same but the implementation of these plans is not satisfactory. Open spaces marked in the city plans have been used for other purposes. Mumbai city has only 5.6% per cent of its developed area for open spaces, while the situation in a few cities like Delhi, Chandigarh, Bengaluru and Gandhinagar is better. Per capita green space in Delhi, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Surat, Jaipur, Gandhinagar, and Chandigarh is respectively 5.5, 17.79, 2.01, 0.5, 3.9, 1.03, 2.7, 20, 147.6 and 54.45 sq. m.

Citizens in most cities are vying for open green spaces. The question that arises here is how much open space is required for a given unit of urban population. According to WHO norms, every city shall provide a minimum of 9 sq. m/capita of open green space to its citizens for ensuring a healthy environment. Most of the above- mentioned cities, except Chandigarh, Jaipur, Bengaluru and Gandhinagar, fall short of the required green space. Such places not only improve the ecosystem but also act as social hub for the community and hence tend to become epicentres of the vicinities.

Beyond all fancy jargon for new-age cities lies the fundamental question of how governments, corporations, urban planners, and individuals can help shape the cities that will determine collective quality of life in our cities fitting a holistic ‘liveability’ criterion. But, what is the definition of liveability and who is it for? The process of building a liveable city will need to consider whose demands are met or who are sidelined
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