Indian cities are going through a historic transformation: never before have so many cities changed so much in such a short time. But the citizens have diminishing say over these changes.
For example, the National Urban Renewal Mission, the largest ever direct public investment project for reviving Indian cities, funded by the government of India, has come down from urban renewal to building sewerage, roads and bridges: a wishful exercise of catching up with basic service gaps. This is not a renewal but a poor and late effort to repair our cities, guided by token consultation events. A democratic opportunity to involve citizens in shaping their future is being lost.
Similarly, the unprecedented infrastructure investment in our cities by the private sector is narrowly focused on specific projects — airports, roads, townships, economic zones or convention centres — and not on the city as a whole. Regency Park residences are offered next to Roshanara Road halwai shops by clever builders in Delhi, or Manhattan Avenues are launched in drainageless areas of Maninagars of Ahmedabad by city contractors. Projects are not planned and integrated as part of a larger vision, but as insular activities.
Recent visits across nine Indian cities showed that what citizens want are safe, sustainable and inclusive cities. G. Shanker of Habitat, a leading artisan’s construction movement based in Thiruvananthapuram, points out that cities can, in fact, be engines for reducing carbon footprints by building climate-friendly offices and homes, using near-zero emissions public transport and accelerating expansion of the recycling industry. “We have the know-how and we have the willingness of our citizens across cities,” Shanker argues. We can build cities that save conventional energy as well as produce alternative energy, make pollution reduction profitable and contribute to both climate change mitigation and adaptation initiatives of the city authorities and citizens.
Making cities climate-friendly also has potential for promoting work security for vulnerable communities by accelerating their livelihood returns from carbon-reducing construction and waste-arresting consumption. “The poor can earn income by making large-scale but decentralized solar energy available at local level as well as recycle almost everything that is now dumped as garbage,” pointed out a women masons cooperative member, Dipikaben, in Ahmedabad. Manufacturing solar panels or constructing new tools and utilities has employment potential. “If thoughtful financial incentives for green products and services are offered, climate risk mitigation can be a low-investment, high-employment sector,” added a leading local women’s cooperative bank officer from Surat.
Building climate-friendly cities through mass employment across low-income communities cannot be achieved by the way we currently govern our cities. Decentralized, participatory and inclusive governance is a must. “Citizens must see the impact of their views and decisions in their working and living conditions,” pointed out a community schoolteacher in Delhi. Governance must focus not only on economic growth, but on sustainable growth of all in the city. “City governance should balance global economic forces affecting the city with local ownership and management by citizens,” added a city safety adviser in Mumbai.
Such cities cannot be reserved for a few, however rich or poor, rooted or migrant citizens. Cities will have to reach out to more and more citizens. What city planners have offered is endless issues, but not solutions that can be used in different states and cities. It is time citizens themselves offer prototypes to planners and policymakers to support and proliferate. The Mattanchery Anganwadi Committee in Kochi said: “We should not be pushed back to managing our homes. We can manage civic affairs.”
India’s globally recognized management consulting firms can work on suitable interplay across livelihood, carbon use, governance and inclusion in cities. They would need the vision from civil society and leadership from key cities such as Delhi or Mumbai. It would be good idea for India to showcase a few prototypes of safe, sustainable and inclusive cities at the upcoming World Urban Forum organized by the UN Habitat in Beijing.
Citizens should not leave the future of cities to government or political parties or investors alone. They should start shaping their cities.
Mihir R. Bhatt is an architect and city planner, working with the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute, Ahmedabad. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org