Home / Opinion / Views /  Mint Explainer: Beyond Bengaluru, a colossal urban crisis

India’s Silicon Valley, Bengaluru, almost drowned after torrential rains a few days ago. To an extent, a manmade crisis. Another reminder that India’s economic powerhouses, its urban centres, are wilting under an explosion of unplanned and chaotic urbanization. It threatens to jeopardize India’s ambition of transforming into an economic superpower. While the country’s attention remains on its megacities, the problem of unplanned urbanization runs much deeper. First, there is a complete absence of urban planning in large parts of India. In fact, many urban settlements are governed as “rural" entities. And then haphazard “urban sprawls" are eating up precious land resources–often fertile agricultural land–and are environmentally unsustainable. India needs compact cities and suburbs.

What ails urban India?

It’s the sheer numbers that overwhelm Indian cities. On the surface, India still appears to live largely in the countryside, with only about 30% of its population living in the cities. But that’s still a hefty 10% of the global urban population, making it the second largest urban system in the world. Indeed, India’s cities are its economic powerhouses, contributing over 60% of its GDP.

Niti Aayog estimates India’s urban population has grown almost four-fold between 1970 and 2018, from 109 million to 460 million. And these numbers will continue to swell. The country will add another 416 million people to its cities by 2050, with urban centres stacking up to 50% of India’s population by then, says the Aayog. The problem is more severe in the megacities of Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, and Chennai–they account for over 20% of India’s urban population.

A surge in urban population has almost led to a collapse in civic governance, with the infrastructure of cities stretched to a breaking point. It manifests in haphazard constructions, environmental pollution, traffic congestion and flooding.

Already, slums house 26% of India’s urban population, according to the World Bank. For example, in Mumbai, almost half the population stays in slums. As a result, India needs mammoth capital investment in urban infrastructure, from housing and water to sewerage and transportation. India’s cities would need anywhere between $870 billion and $1.2 trillion, according to different estimates.

India can learn from the emerging trends in other parts of the world.
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India can learn from the emerging trends in other parts of the world.

But, while the attention of the country remains on India’s megacities, the problem of unplanned urbanization runs much, much deeper. Urban planning is unheard of in the new emerging urban settlements in the country. It may well be a monumental crisis in the making.

The monumental crisis in urban India

The term 'urban planning' is a misnomer, probably used inappropriately in the Indian context. Simply, urban planning just doesn’t exist in vast swathes of Indian urban settlements. And worse, the extent of urbanization in India is also underreported. And this acknowledgement came from Niti Aayog's Advisory Committee For Reforms in Urban Planning Capacity in India in August 2021.

Almost half of the 7,933 ‘urban’ settlements, labelled “census towns", continue to be governed as ‘rural’ entities, says the Aayog. It also points out that the “current definitions of ‘urban’ are not reflective of the extent of urbanization that the country has already witnessed". Worse, 65% of the 7,933 urban settlements do not have any master plan. In India, a master plan guides and regulates the development of a city and is critical for managing urbanization and ‘spatial sustainability’.

So, the urbanization crisis in India is essentially twofold. First, the complete absence of urban planning in many pockets. And second, a haphazard urban sprawl with a surge in the number of smaller settlements that have become part of India’s urban economy. An urban sprawl eats up precious land–often fertile agricultural land–and financial resources of a country and is environmentally unsustainable.

There is “a deep and substantial lack of adequate urban planning and governance frameworks" in India, asserts the Niti Aayog.

The perils of an urban sprawl

India has seen rapid suburbanization in recent years, with a surge in census towns–settlements classified as urban. Census towns must have a minimum population of 5,000, at least 75% of the male 'main workers’ engaged in non-agricultural pursuits, and a population of at least 400 people per sq. km.

Now, studies show that many, if not most, of these new towns are located near the big cities, in fact, within 40 to 50 km of cities with a population of about a million. These suburbs already add up to about 18% of the country’s employment. As a paradigm, think of how Noida and Gurugram emerged as satellite towns of the capital and continue to expand.

Now, per se, there is nothing out of place here. It’s a global phenomenon, and people have been flocking to suburbs for a superior quality of life. Only, in India, this haphazard emergence of new urban settlements is an unplanned, chaotic and undesirable urban sprawl. Niti Aayog observes that “urban sprawl is taking place in the peripheral areas, and developments are happening haphazardly". This can lead to the loss of productive agricultural lands and open green spaces, and disturb surface water bodies.

India can learn from the emerging trends in other parts of the world. In China, prime minister Li Keqiang has warned “against the model of inefficient and blind development" that is responsible for the smog in the cities. In other emerging economies, informal settlements–perhaps equivalent to India’s census towns–are proliferating, often without basic infrastructure and services.

Even developed countries have faced similar challenges. In the US, sprawled-out suburbs bore the brunt of a speculative real-estate market and rising energy prices before the 2008 financial meltdown. A spurt in energy and transport costs saw a slump in housing demand in US suburbs, triggering a real-estate meltdown. Many European countries, including Spain, too, have seen a real-estate crisis in suburban areas.

India needs taller, compact cities and suburbs

The Indian government has taken a raft of policy measures in recent years for more organized urban development, such as Smart Cities Mission, Swachh Bharat Mission and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT). While these interventions are gradually making an impact, the country may need a fundamental course correction in its urban-policy framework.

Many countries are now nudging their cities and suburbs into becoming compact. It essentially means encouraging mixed land use, with residential apartments and businesses co-existing. Compact cities also have taller structures–an effort to conserve land resources–and a vibrant public transport system. They also have ample green space to make it environmentally sustainable.

A population explosion in big cities, global warming and high energy prices have made many OECD countries focus on more compact cities. Access to public transport and local jobs and services ease energy consumption and traffic congestion, besides lifting living standards. Melbourne, Paris, Portland, Vancouver, et al. have tried, with some success, to become compact.

India, too, is experimenting with compact suburbs, as seen with the development of the NCR region and Vashi and its adjoining areas around Mumbai. But India needs land-use reforms for the concept to take hold, as the World Bank has pointed out.

Much of the haphazard development in India is a consequence of an “FSI-induced sprawl". Not only do Indian cities have very conservative Floor Space Index (FSI) regulations, says the World Bank, but they also have uniform FSI norms across a city. This is unlike mega cities like New York and Singapore, which have more flexible FSI norms, allowing them to expand vertically.

Also, India needs more transparent land valuation processes, points out the World Bank. “India lacks many of the necessary institutions, such as a transparent system to convert land use, a clear definition of property rights, a robust system of land and property valuation, and a strong judicial system for addressing public concerns to facilitate land markets, land transactions, and land use changes," it says. This aggravates the crisis of unplanned urbanization across India.

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