The idea of the urban is that of human imagination, of progress and growth, of scientific advancement and an aspirational life. The city is then, subject to constant re-imagination. This decade will decide the future of Indian cities
India’s unique urbanisation opportunity is jeopardised by severe gaps in urban public infrastructure, services and capacities, the consequences of which are witnessed in our cities every day. The urban vision for the Indian city must project the aspirations of citizens, including the most marginalised while also rapidly building responses to the future. I wish to frame India’s multifold urban challenge as three distinct features, to derive better actionable points for us as citizens, civil society, planners and policymakers.
Cities are emerging as poverty concentrations and exclusions – The ever increasing cities, though contributing to economic growth, will further become ‘pockets of poverty’ and increased inequality. While urban poverty – in income and other indicators – has declined considerably, there are distinct spatial concentrations and differences within the cities itself. The cities and the multiple exclusions are further reinforced by the informal settlements and habitations of urban poor being ignored from the city planning, thereby called ‘Black holes’ of urban planning, leading to differential levels of access to municipal services and ‘absence’ of urban governance institutions. In the coming decade, the policies that monetise urban land will lead to further spatial cleansing of urban poor – worker populations to the margins, as is visible with evictions and displacements that have become a new normal of the Indian cities. Informal urbanisation will take over the peripheries, infringing into the rural hinterlands catering to the recent migrants who have not found space in the city centers. Ticking off rural and urban contestations. And yet new forms of marginalities will emerge, that will replace the existing urban deprived groups, with a lower-middle-class urban poor or a ‘neo-urban poor’; who might be better paid, but find their livelihoods equally vulnerable. Going forward, cities in this context of Climate Crisis are also witnessing the marginal populations unable to cope with its impacts. Furthering the precariat and threatening their location in the city.
Cities as unlivable and unsustainable – In contradiction to the pull of cities, most Indian cities will increasingly turn unlivable by 2030. Indian cities will emerge as significant contributors to pollution, climate change and disasters in the urban, and vulnerabilities will increase. Indian cities have already borne the brunt of climate change recently in the form of urban floods, poor air quality and heatwaves. The state response has been ad-hoc solutions, with very less correlation with how our cities are designed and planned. Cities of the future would significantly impact emission profile, playing a huge role in bringing about sustainable and resilient development. Also, in the coming decade access to resources that were taken for granted like water, air and food will be severely restricted due to the present unsustainable practices and improper planning. Urbanisation in India, until now has been viewed as contrary to environmental objectives. This altered scenario is the biggest opportunity and challenge to advocate for a sustainable form of urbanisation that is more equitable and harmonious to environmental goals, with climate justice for urban poor groups at its center.
Cities in need of urban planning and local governance – After more than 25 years of urban governance in India, the cities are still in dire need for basic institutional structures and capacities. The 10,000+ (or more) cities will be unmanageable as the local governments will lack capacities and means to engage with urban planning and issues of governance. This scenario can only get worse with higher population concentrations unless city governments are empowered. The recent policy prescriptions for urban-centric programs further ‘re-centralise’ the urban governance process. Lack of decentralisation of funds, people’s awareness, especially the marginalised sections, further complicates matters at the level of local. Also, to address the climate crisis effectively, decentralisation and people’s participation is critical, as the sustainable change will only happen if it is ground up and encouraged through a governance framework.
Proposing a vision for ‘Sustainable’ Indian Cities in 2030
Looking at the above mentioned three forked challenges of Inclusivity, Sustainability and Participatory Urban Governance, the only solution for us is to go back to the basics of cities and their imagination as democratic participatory urbans. This also presents us with the opportunity of re-writing this imagination of our cities more collectively and from the ground – up. In such an attempt at re-imagining our cities for the coming decade, as an urban practitioner and member of a civil society organisation, we posit a vision for the Indian cities in 2030. The vision is of:
1. Cities with Dignity and Inclusivity for All,
2. Sustainable, Self-Reliant and Low Carbon Cities and
3. Cities as Democratic, Participatory institutions. The details of which are as follows:
Cities with dignity and inclusivity for all – it is expected that our cities are inclusive to all, and at the bare minimum provide, access to all for adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services. Other than the housing needs, inclusion to safe, secure livelihoods – especially of informal and reinforcing the formal sector should be encouraged – leading to dignified living standards. Cities also need to be looked through a prism of health, and inclusivity also translates into cities with adequate health services and with spaces for healthy living. As a departure from the existing, our cities have to be free of violence, and deaths of the marginal groups like homeless, safai karamcharis and other informal sector workers. Cities should be without discriminatory practices as ghettoisation and segregation of communities according to race, ethnicity, caste or religion. Also, finally to ensure special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations – women, children, transgender, persons with disabilities and aged population. In sum, we should aspire for cities that value human rights and translate that into planning and infrastructure ensuring material gains for the weakest – urban deprived populations.
Cities as self-reliant, resilient and low carbon – by 2030, Indian cities should be imagined as self-sufficient and reliant by themselves. As opposed to the energy – resource guzzling mega systems, the city and its people will have to develop sustainable consumption practices, within and in relation to its hinterlands. Thereby, ensuring that there is a strict movement of discourse towards what we produce and consume within our city and its wider region.
Cities, as a continuation of self-reliance, should be imagined to leave low carbon footprints with special care to the protection of resources like air, water and generating no waste. Simple acts of designing and planning for at the human scale will make the cities livable, with built form that is suited to live, work and play characteristics. In the coming ten years cities will also encounter many urban disasters that await us. All that we build might be destroyed if we are not prepared and adopt resilient practices to adapt, enable our capacities to mitigate the impending challenges.
Cities as democratic and participatory institutions – lastly, but most importantly, we shall aspire to have cities with participatory, integrated and sustainable urban planning mechanisms, where urban planning – in the form of master plans and further devolved to local area plans – is participatory and people led. As only institutionalised participatory planning can ensure inclusivity and sustainability of our cities in the long term. This needs to be strengthened by transparent, decentralised and participatory urban governance mechanisms that ensure that every citizen – including children and youth – have their say in the making and decision of their cities. This could be ensured by participatory planning and budgetary process at the local level that builds ownership and responsibility of people towards its cities. Such democratisation in the running of cities will require institutional capacities, people’s capacities and willingness of local bodies to develop shared knowledge and information sharing mechanisms to aid in the process of democratizing city-making.
Cities across the globe are vehicles of growth and development, concentrations of wealth and symbolic of the ‘good life’. The vision for the urban must be deeply rooted in values and beliefs which shall motivate and guide every imagination of the urban- of how the State approaches the city, how the planner puts it on paper and the ways in which common citizens, women, children and all others live the urban.
The urban in India is a legacy of hope and social change – of Ambedkar’s city as a space of emancipation and Gandhi’s city driven by sustainability and self-governance. While stalwarts may guide, the urban is also a space of everyday resistance, the palpable hope that change is inevitable. It must be envisaged as an opportunity for equality, for growth, for emancipation and endless opportunities for all.