Home / Opinion / Responding to rapid urban expansion

India is said to be on the brink of an urban revolution with its urban population expected to reach 600 million by 2031. However, much of this growth will not be in the core city but on its peripheries. Urbanization in India’s mega-cites is characterized by urban sprawl and not increasing urban density. A 2013 World Bank report, Urbanization Beyond Municipal Boundaries, found that rural areas adjacent to municipal boundaries are generating higher economic growth and employment than the city.

Urban sprawl is characterized by dispersed outgrowth of areas outside the city’s core, engulfing many villages around it. This poses many economic, ecological and institutional challenges. These areas are often characterized by the absence of basic infrastructure and services like water, sanitation, electricity, roads and transportation. With changes in land use, as seen in the commercialization of agricultural land, the ecosystem of the region is also threatened. In the midst of such a transformation, the livelihoods of people in peri-urban areas is increasingly become precarious.

What should the state’s response be to such a phenomenon? Initially, it was to discourage urbanization and contain the outgrowth of cities. While there are many benefits in keeping cities compact, urban expansion has become inevitable. The key question hence is not how to contain urban expansion, but how to respond to the challenges posed by it.

The state cannot afford to turn a blind eye to peri-urbanization since private developer-led growth in these areas only leads to the development of certain pockets like gated communities, with no attention paid to public infrastructure. The recent water-logging crisis in Gurgaon demonstrates how untrammelled development without the provision of basic urban amenities like a proper drainage system can result in an urban dystopia. In Bengaluru, the civic woes of peri-urban areas like Whitefield have arguably gotten worse after its amalgamation with the municipal corporation in 2007. While the area of the corporation grew by almost four times, its institutional capacity to respond to the needs of the newly added areas remains weak.

Even when the state takes a proactive role to peri-urban growth through ventures like industrial corridors, the interests of the people living in these areas are often ignored. Agricultural land in the urban periphery is acquired for mega-projects from farmers at very cheap rates and then transferred to various business and commercial units. The landowners and cultivators are left out of the development process and are often made to relocate.

As Indian cities grow outwards, we need a policy response that goes beyond callous neglect, hasty amalgamation and brazen land acquisition. Instead of merely amalgamating peri-urban areas with the city or giving real estate developers a free rein over these areas, a better approach is to plan for the future by identifying areas for growth and taking steps to ensure that these areas are first provided with basic urban infrastructure and services. An interesting venture in this regard is the Urban Expansion Initiative, a project housed at New York University’s Stern Business School, which promotes a “making room approach" to urban expansion by identifying areas that are projected to urbanize and procuring land for public amenities beforehand.

In India, the Union government’s National Rurban Mission (and its earlier avatar, Provision of Urban Amenities to Rural Areas) seeks to provide high-growth rural areas with infrastructural amenities, economic activities and planned layouts similar to those available in cities. While the mission aims to develop 300 “rurban" growth clusters, the same principle of providing urban amenities first can be applied to peri-urban areas adjacent to India’s mega-cities which may not administratively come under an urban local body (ULB).

If the challenge of increasing urban expansion has to be addressed, we also need an institutional framework that espouses vibrant urban governance and planning processes. However, even after the passage of the 74th constitutional amendment which sought the empowerment of elected municipal governments, India’s urban governance and planning regime remains paralysed. Though the amendment tasked the ULBs and the Metropolitan Planning Committee (MPC) with urban planning, various ‘development authorities’ working under the state governments continue to perform this function in most cities.

For responding to a phenomenon like peripheral urban growth, an institutional framework that provides for a metropolitan-level planning and governance mechanism is essential. But to ensure that these processes do not get overly centralized, it needs to be supplemented by appropriate mechanisms at the city and neighbourhood level. Hence, each level of urban governance—ward, zone, city and region—needs to be fortified. A useful framework for multi-scale urban planning is provided under the Union government’s Model Urban and Regional Planning and Development Law, which provides for planning at state, metropolitan and local level.

An institutional framework that provides for the formulation and implementation of plans and policies at multiple scales can ensure that the vision of overall development of the metropolitan region as well as the needs of specific localities are in sync or settled through an inter-institutional dialogue. Hence, the challenges posed by urban sprawl can be better addressed by an institutional framework that establishes multi-scale governance and a policy approach that prioritizes the provision of urban amenities in peri-urban areas.

Mathew Idiculla is a lawyer and researcher on urban policy.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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