Re-engineering India’s urban infrastructure

Re-engineering India’s urban infrastructure

Bangalore: India’s urban population is estimated to increase from 340 million now to 590 million in around 20 years, putting a huge pressure on city infrastructure. At Mint’s India Agenda event on “Building Sustainable Cities: Critical Areas and Opportunities", held in Bangalore on 3 August, panellists discussed issues crucial to improving India’s urban infrastructure.

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The panellists were: T.V. Mohandas Pai, director-human resources, Infosys Technologies Ltd; Hun Kim, country director, Asian Development Bank; Vinita Bali, managing director, Britannia Industries Ltd; Tilakraj Seth, vice-president-mobility division, Siemens Ltd; Swati Ramanathan, co-founder, Janaagraha; and Partha Mukhopadhyay, senior research fellow, Centre for Policy Research. Mint presents edited excerpts from the discussion, moderated by editor R. Sukumar.

We have huge issues when it comes to urban planning. What do we need to do?

Pai: There are not enough urban planners in India. People in government don’t understand planning and don’t want to talk to people who know it. The concept of city, urban space, clean space, does not exist here.

Ramanathan: Somewhere along the way, the speed of urbanization, globalization has taken everybody unawares. The vision for the structure of a city is missing. Physical organization of space, which reflects a vision and a strategy for a city, is completely missing. Unless and until we look at infrastructural requirements in the context of the impact it will create, we will do a miserable job. Plans today are regulatory documents, only about land use and zoning. They are not about creating a vision for the city,?a?socio-economic?environmental condition, as a result of which we have ugly cities.

Mukhopadhyay: We need to realize that we cannot proceed further until we actually have capacity in the government to do it. The first point is we do not have any planners.

Bali: Who is looking at a city holistically? We’ve got to have some sort of governance, some sort of accountability, some sorts of someone who would say I am responsible for the city, therefore, I am responsible for coordinating everything.

Pai: The fundamental point for cities going bad is that cities are the places where politicians make money on land, permits, changing land regulations. But cities politically don’t count... The root of it all is the governance issue. When Delhi became a state, Delhi improved tremendously. If tomorrow Mumbai becomes a state, you can see it grow. If Bangalore becomes a state or a Union territory, it will boom.

Hun: India’s urban focus has only been since 2005. Not just planning, all other expertise is lacking. It’s a good thing that we are now focusing on urban (development). At the government level…they should focus on building broad capacity because urban centres these days are battlegrounds and nationwide support is required.

Mukhopadhyay: When we look at our cities and find them dirty, we find them unplanned, we find them messy, we also have to recognize that they are sustainable and that they are eminently functional. So when we start reworking our cities, we must think through very carefully, how do we keep that functionality, otherwise we will get clean cities like Chandigarh which have zero economic value.

What kind of issues do cities face in terms of financing?

Hun: Ten years ago, we set up a financing facility for the municipal sector because no banks would finance (those projects). So (we) gave seed money to Indian financial institutions…but after three years only 30% of the $200 million (Rs924 crore) was disbursed. And in the 30%, there was a change in scope and the money went to industrial kind of facility, not municipal infrastructure. Here is the reason: Suppose?financing is there, you (the municipality) have to develop a proposal and then seek money. Here, there is no such capacity available. We are talking about integrated approach, which will change the pace of the city. To do that, all types of planning is required—planning to spend the money and how to manage that spending. This process takes five-six years and no state government has that capacity or intention.

Mukhopadhyay: Essentially, it goes back to the fact we don’t have capacity in most cities. The interesting thing is that if we look at how we are planning to finance the cities, (based on the) McKinsey report, we (India) plan to raise money (of) $1 trillion for capital and $1 trillion for operational expenditure. Of the $1 trillion of capital, 50% (will be raised) by selling land—not particularly sustainable. (For) around 20% raise debt (public private partnerships). The remaining 30% is supposed to be transfers. What about operating costs? (The) McKinsey report says two things: one-third coming out of property taxes and the two-thirds coming out of user fees. Part of the solution for the problem is to try and get citizens like us and try to open their purse for public services in the same way as (we) open our pockets to private goods.

Ramanathan: We also should empower the local governments, which today is not the case, to figure out and (acquire) the ability to raise their revenue. They must be allowed to charge cesses, they must be allowed to raise revenue to be self-sustainable (and) it is not going to happen unless you empower them with the authority to become self-sustainable, which currently is being held by the state.

Bali: I think consumers across all socio-economic demographics or segments are willing to pay when they perceive that at the end of the payment, there is quality coming their way.

On technology and execution for urban development.

Seth: Since we know that 65-70% of the energy is consumed by cities, and cities also have challenges like (traffic) congestion, technology should focus on addressing these issues. Since 50% of the world population will live in cities, these cities need to compete with each other, which means information about cities must be available at the integrated level. Some work is happening in Delhi and Bangalore, but we are far away in terms of integrated system.

Ramanathan: Part of the problems of reducing the energy footprint is the urban sprawl. The wider you spread, the greater the energy consumption because of transportation and distribution. Approximately 70% of our carbon emissions are from urban India, 40% of it is vehicular pollution and 30% is building and road construction. It is a very significant amount and technologies have to improve so that the transportation networks, housing construction, all of these have to reduce that kind of consumption.

Pai: We need larger entities to build the capacity and it is not possible for small contractors to give the quality, because things are huge. We have to have substantial change in execution and execution has to happen by the private sector with public money. Take the power sector. The private sector has come in large numbers; in five years’ time we could be power-surplus. In urban areas, if you have large projects executed well, it will bring in a change.

Mukhopadhyay: First we need to look at what is technology. When we design buildings, we need to have architecture that is suited for our climate. I am constantly surprised about what technology is. The Metro is seen as a hi-tech thing… You are asking for a Metro because it…is Eiffel tower, it is an icon… We are transforming our transportation solutions into icons. Technology matters to make things accountable. It can make ourselves accountable, sustainable.

Seth: We talked about icon and iconic technology…for example, the Metro. I think it’s very important that we really need to see: are we saving energy per passenger kilometre? And it may need integration of bus, rail. So far, statistics and data show that rail transport per passenger kilometre is the cheapest.