Home / Industry / The way forward for Indian cities

The general elections victory is for all, the credit goes to a few, and the award to one.

The speeches suggest that we have a prime minister on a mission, a man in a hurry to deliver results. The jostling and speculation for ministerial portfolios indicate what the plum positions are—and alas, urban development does not seem to be one of them.

An investment in urban India will pay Narendra Modi rich dividends, it is where our unprecedented demographic shift is headed: where the youth is seeking jobs, where women have the chance to throw off the shackles of oppression, and where the poor have access to opportunities.

It is also where the challenges of development (or vikas, as Modi calls it) are the most complex and challenging. With the bulk of the population getting priced out of affordable real estate within the cities, unplanned development is sprouting at ever-increasing distances from the city core out into the rural periphery. Our cities are tilting precariously towards an abyss of daily crisis and disrepair.

City leaders’ responses to infrastructure demand have resulted in ad-hoc outcomes: random widening of roads, arbitrary construction of flyovers, hasty decisions on mass transport. A visual canvas of any city of India is of buildings crowding chaotically on top of squalid streets, or emerging incongruously as looming towers in an otherwise rural landscape. It will also reveal the increasing number of rural migrants living in tin shacks, without adequate housing, reliable livelihood, or civic infrastructure.

Multiply this hundreds of times and the milieu of urban India unfolds. While some of this is the justifiable trauma of transition—the signs of a country under transformation—it is a runaway problem that can only be checked with leadership and vision.

The common perception is that the problems of urban India all have to do with the failure to provide good governance—the buzzword of the day.

However, there is another aspect that is being overlooked, the failure of urban planning. The spatial nature of our urban centres is invisible to all, and yet all our challenges, expanding cities, damage to the environment, increasing slums, rising traffic, poor civic infrastructure, absence of public facilities, are located in the physical space of the city.

The prime minister’s mantra of good governance is a necessary, but insufficient condition for vikas. For urban India, good governance is the tail side of the same coin whose heads side is good city planning.

Our leaders therefore remain largely unaware of the centrality of planning in shaping vibrant cities. Unlocking the power of the plan requires rethinking the “what" and the “how": what needs to be done to create successful plans; and how is good planning enabled for cities across the country.

What: spatial development plans

In 2010, the ministry of urban development proposed the creation of new planning guidelines and tasked this author with the effort. The new guidelines, called the national urban spatial planning and development (NUSPD) guidelines, have since been drafted, submitted, and endorsed by the Planning Commission steering committee earlier this month.

The guidelines move the needle away from the old approach of creating “master plans" towards a new approach of creating “spatial development plans (SDPs)".

They also frame progressive planning policies, institutions and processes to enable implementation and enforcement on the ground, reinforcing federal structures, decentralization, participation.

Formulating robust SDPs for cities provides the foundation for dramatic transformation. The SDP communicates the long-term vision of leaders for the city, translating it onto physical space; integrates the plans of individual agencies and departments, and aligns budgets towards common development goals; measures outcomes, promoting accountability.

How: the 468 number

The Census 2011 lists 7,932 urban settlements in the country. The Bharatiya Janata Party manifesto promises new cities as well. New cities are propositions with longer-term gestation periods of a decade or more. They require financing partnerships and careful consideration of economic sustainability, and leveraging existing infrastructure. Preparing SDPs for the 7,932 urban settlements is itself a gargantuan task, given the scarcity of India’s technical capacity—both in quality and quantity.

Rolling out SDPs across all urban settlements is best done as a phased strategy.

Only 468 of the 7,932 cities and towns have a population of above 100,000. These are classified as “cities" in the new guidelines, while the remaining urban settlements that are below the population of 100,000 are classified as municipal “towns".

The 468 cities account for 70% (264 million) of the urban population, and will see the bulk of the future growth in urban India as well.

Preparing SDPs for the 468 cities presents the greater challenge, requiring three levels of tiered SDPs—regional, municipal, and ward level.

The 468 settlements can become the lighthouses to showcase the power of the SDP, improving the quality of life for residents, and preparing for the tsunami of over 200 million more urban residents over the next two decades.

Our new government has many challenges, with multiple claimants for limited public resources. Hence, a large part of leadership is about prioritization. Like electoral math that looks at seat share rather than vote share, addressing the challenges of 17% of cities addresses the quality of life for 70% of citizens.

Ensuring that the urban future is substantially secured can be achieved with a twin-track approach of good governance and robust spatial planning in the top 468 cities of India.

Swati Ramanathan is the chairperson of Jana Urban Space Foundation, and Co-founder of Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy. The NUSPD Guidelines are being prepared by her.

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