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By 2020, 46% Of India Will Live In Urban Spaces. Are We Ready For This Challenge?

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In 2017, India had more than 34% of its population in the urban space [1]. According to the World Bank, by 2025, we will have 46% of Indians living in the urban space [2]. This means half of the country will be in our cities within the next decade and while they move in, our cities will have to be recalibrated to handle the existing problems in addition to dealing with the growing population. Are we ready for this massive challenge?

Keeping this burning question in mind, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs has prepared a framework for a national level urban policy — the National Urban Policy Framework (NUPF). The framework which outlines an integrated approach towards the future of urban planning in India is out for public consultation. The 122-page draft policy structured along two verticals — sutras and pillars describe a detailed layout for state governments and the Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) on how to improve our cities.

1. Core-ten sutras (philosophical principles).

2. Ten pillars (functional areas).

3. Effective citizen’s participation.

4. Focus on people, not on buildings.

5. Single unified leadership at the ULBs.

6. Ensure a variety of transport solutions.

7. Shift away from the top-down approach.

8. Focus on the financial self-sustainability of Municipal Corporations.

9. Urban development as a State subject, centre as an implementing agency.

10. A ‘Local Bodies Finance List’ similar to the Union List, State List, and Concurrent List.

First life, then spaces, then buildings — the other way around never works.

Have you ever wondered what to focus on while building up a city? Should we focus on infrastructure or on human capital? Answering this question, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs in its draft on National Urban Policy Framework (NUPF) placed human capital as the central theme putting the spotlight on the people who will be using the infrastructure, rather than on the infrastructure itself.

This would mean focus on human capital, quality of life, social mobilization, social mobility, culture, health, job opportunities, etc. To address all of this there will be a dense population in every city. A densely populated urban space, if nurtured with care can flourish and create plenty of job opportunities. This could increase the demand for skill development and vocational training initiatives within the space.

One of the most complex problems since time immemorial is the housing for the economically weaker section. Representational image. REUTERS/Arko Datta (INDIA SOCIETY BUSINESS) – RTXEIGM

Making Cities Accessible

Focusing on this, the NUPF highlighted the importance of developing urban regions like the Delhi-NCR or Pune-Mumbai rather than just satellite towns, or smart cities. Considering its focus on human capital, the draft does not forget the significance of the multi-modal transportation system with a special focus on pedestrians and cyclists. The importance of ‘interchangeability’ and ‘accessibility for all’ has been well articulated in the draft.

One of the most complex problems since time immemorial is the housing for the economically weaker section. The NUPF visualizes this problem to be dealt with in a multi-dimensional and multifactor approach by including the local NGOs. Tweaking the laws with a special focus on bringing in the in-situ up-gradation of the self-built houses with reduced physical and legal vulnerabilities is mentioned.

But beyond the economic, housing, and mass transportation needs, the social and cultural exchanges of the city need to be maintained intact especially when the focus is on quality of life. Beyond the shopping malls, religious spaces, and convention centres in the Indian context, there are plenty of other spaces that could lead to social interactions among strangers. In the Indian context, that could be anything like even space under a large banyan tree to a regular tea shop.

The draft is sharp in bringing in the example of Varanasi Ghats which could be considered as an Indian equal to the cafes in Paris, or the neighbourhood pubs of London. The draft focuses on plurality being the essence of Indian-ness and puts in localized concepts, heritage, and history at the very core of any such planning activity well ahead of burrowed western concepts.

One of the most inevitable policies every Indian city has to deal with is the master plans which specifies the possible activities that can be done in a piece of land. The master plan is very much required for every city but to have that fixed for decades is almost utopian. Since independence, we have been following this strategy which directly defines our land use and population density. The draft clearly states that this concept borrowed from countries that never had to face urbanisation on the scale India is currently facing with has to be done away with. So, moving towards a self-evolving ecosystem of Master Plan, which is more dynamic in nature and takes into consideration the changing socio-economic parameters of a city, has to be considered.

Making Cities Self-Reliant

Most Indian cities are driven by Central and State governments. This is mainly because of the city’s dependence on them for funds. Add to this the presence of too many leaders for decision making, cities, unfortunately, move at snails’ pace towards its targets. So making cities financially self-reliant with a unified leadership will be pivotal. Local tourism and municipal bond markets are just a few of the possible means to financial sustainability.

Similarly, inserting a ‘Local Bodies Finance List’ along the lines of the Union List and the State List in the Constitution will go a long way in making cities financially self-sustainable. A by-product of this could be ULBs coming forward to provide social protection to informal workers or even bringing health and insurance completely under the ambit of ULBs. Along with this, a unified leadership will help the city travel faster towards its goals.

Even though the 74th amendment has a similar framework already in place unless it is executed at the ground level, the issue remains. A mayor-council system with the head of the executive branch helps the city of New York achieve a lot of its targeted milestones faster. There is plenty of other examples that could be emulated. Similarly enabling citizens’ participation through institutionalized mechanisms will travel a long way in providing with the required tweaks for every policy measure and also creating citizen awareness.

Thus, the NUPF is expected to act as the very foundation of urban policies at the state level with each state defining the relation between urban sutra and pillar taking into consideration the local context and also ministries’ guidelines. This attempt to look at Indian cities from a more localised Indian concept with the emphasis being laid on developing a local vision for each city should help us in moving towards our goal of accommodating 46% of our population by 2025 and from then on for the generations to come.

It will take years for the urban authorities to adapt to the new organised, decentralised framework replacing the old system. Nonetheless, this set of principles is expected to create a way for the new thinking to gradually permeate bottom-up vision for cities themselves. As urban communities and municipal managers get used to thinking about issues and solutions in a context-based way, we will be able to finally, grapple with India’s urban problems.

This was my opinion, but in the world’s largest democracy, everyone’s opinion is valued. Please have your say here regarding the policy before 31st May 2019.

References:

1. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.URB.TOTL.IN.ZS?locations=IN

2. https://www.teriin.org/resilient-cities/urbanisation.php

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