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What Needs To Change In India’s Bid To Sustainable Development?

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Emphasising the diverse nature of cities and the need to perceive urban transformation with a sustainable lens, Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS), Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi, discussed with Prof Jyoti Chandiramani on India’s Urban Transformation: Marching Towards Sustainable Development Goals Agenda 2030 as part of The State of Cities – #CityConversations.

Impri Panel
IMPRI Panel.

Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhyay, Associate Professor, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, and Senior Fellow, IMPRI, initiated the conversation as the moderator. He said that cities are underperforming in terms of their response to issues such as climate change, inequalities in accessing services and opportunities and other socio-economic impacts.

The pandemic has further exposed the issues. In this regard, #CityConversations has been engaging with experts to explore the pertinent challenges.

Changing Our Development Strategy

The Chair for the session, Prof Seetha Prabhu, Visiting Professor and Senior Adviser (SDGs), Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, took over and mentioned that fostering public opinion is very important.

She said that our lives had been completely transformed due to COVID-19, but the talk on a transformation started before when people realised that the current development paradigm was not delivering favourable results on the human development front.

For emerging economies, the proportion of the urban population will be on the rise and, thus, it is high time to discuss the values that govern the UN Sustainable Development Goals. While progress has been made economically, human suffering is neglected. She also urges the speakers to consider that SDGs form an interrelated web of dimensions.

Finally, she mentions that the monitoring of SDGs depends on data. Thus, the national statistical systems to monitor the data for indicators are essential but missing.

Failed Urban Planning

mumbai slum
India’s governance is “hidden and messy”.

Prof Jyoti Chandiramani, Director at Symbiosis School of Economics and Dean, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Symbiosis International (Deemed University), Pune, was the speaker for the discussion.

She spoke about various examples of urban transformation. While doing this, she emphasised that cities can be made with technology alone. Urbanisation is a complex phenomenon with a multitude of schools of thought intersecting. She said that the convergence of multiple disciplines would enable effective transformation and participatory solutions.

Speaking of interlinking global and national factors for SDGs, Prof Jyoti presented an elaborate map and explained the historical events. Out of the 20 most polluted cities, 13 are in India.

The last 15 years have seen policy frameworks that encompass important values for livability, inclusion and equity. Until the National Commission on Urbanization of 1986, the urbanisation discourse was almost non-existent. After this, with the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act, the third tier of governance began performing.

However, India’s governance is called “hidden and messy” as many urban areas are not included and livability conditions in slums can be inhuman sometimes.

Buses commissioned under JNNURM
Buses commissioned under JNNURM. (Source: flickr)

She also spoke about JNNURM, which was the first large-scale transformation mission. The sub-missions included Urban Infrastructure and Governance, Basic Services for Urban Poor for big cities, Urban Infrastructure Development Scheme for Small and Medium Towns and Integrated Housing and Slum Development Programme for small towns and cities.

However, this scheme had limited success — only 42% of its projects were completed. The four sub-missions were concentrated in particular states such as Maharashtra, West Bengal and New Delhi. Investments had been defined and benchmarks had been laid for urban development.

In 2012, the XIIth plan highlighted a holistic approach to spatial development to achieve inclusive growth. The 2011 Census underlined the change in Census Towns, which rose from 1362 in 2001 to 3894 in 2011. At the same time, Prof Jyoti emphasises that these towns are considered urban, but they do not have strong governance structures.

She said, “The definition of urban as per the 2011 Census is extremely stringent.”

Having looked at research papers on Census Towns, especially near Pune, she says these towns are chaotic and unplanned. With regards to testing the degree of urbanisation at the global level, India’s urbanisation has been defined as 54% in 2015 and the built-up area as 53%, but only 2.4% is actually urban.

Sustainable Cities and Communities

UB City Bangalore
UB City Bangalore. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The SDG framework provides an opportunity to set up-to-date credible baselines for cities and slums and make historical data more accessible. Several interventions such as Smart City (2015), Amrut (2015), PMAY (2015) and RURBAN (2016) have come into place in accordance with the SDG framework, but the outcomes have wide gaps.

Although cities like Bengaluru, Pune, Delhi and Ernakulam rank quite high on the Ease of Living Index, there are environmental issues prevalent in all of them. The speaker also specifies that GST has paralysed the urban local bodies, which currently do not have much funding.


Prof Jyoti recommends redefining “urban” and developing systems to address systemic urban breakdown. Additionally, data limitations at the sub-national level make it hard to reach definite conclusions. She urges digitisation, inclusion and strong implementation. Employing and building the capacity of resource persons can help manage the large population in urban areas.

It is also time to move beyond policymaking to action-oriented practices. The speaker concluded her speech by stating that the plans for the future can be difficult to construct due to the present changing dynamics.

Perspectives Of The Discussants

As a student of political science, Dr Simi Mehta spoke about the crucial role of politics in urban transformation for policies to translate into reality. She also mentioned SDG 5: Gender Equality and emphasised that planning processes have to incorporate the marginalised voices. Dr Mehta believes that scientific urban governance with an apolitical and objective approach can ensure a resilient urban environment.

The Chair, Prof Seetha Prabhu, commented on the initiatives saying that most of them focus on urban development and not transformation. The discourse on transformation is essential at this juncture. At the same time, the vulnerabilities of people in peri-urban and rural areas that have been exposed due to COVID-19 have to be analysed carefully.

For proper monitoring of various indicators, data has to be generated at the local level using statistical approaches. Capability enhancement along with diversity, transparency, equity, efficiency and democratic decision-making are all necessary for urban transformation.

Mr Tikender Singh Panwar, Former Deputy Mayor, Shimla, mentioned that sustainability could be in terms of cities, people or capital. There is a need to consider the basics of planning city and question consultant-driven development. He also mentioned that the nation is far from achieving sustainability.

Mr Sameer Unhale, Joint Commissioner, Department of Municipal Administration, Government of Maharashtra, particularly spoke about SDGs and cities and gave the example of Thane. The international community is seeking to achieve consensus on development and welfare and Mr Sameer appreciated that.

Prof Jyoti Chandiramani specified that infrastructure does not always ensure quality. She also re-emphasised Prof Seetha’s point on differentiating development and transformation and added that transformation is possible only if basic livability conditions are decent. She also said that cities need to have the capacity to absorb investment and without this capacity, schemes cannot fully succeed.

Lastly, all the discussants shared their final remarks. The moderator ended the session by thanking the Chair, speaker, and the discussants.

Acknowledgement: Ritheka Sundar is a research intern at IMPRI.

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