All that India needs to build incredible cities of the future

If all citizens get is a concentration camp akin to living by drains and sewers, it is an unforgivable failure of state duty, besides increasing health and crime hazards.

 |  6-minute read |   14-05-2017
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Cities beckon the dreamers of every generation. The fortune seeker, the job hunter, the village artisan or a young student wanting quality education to build a career. Cities in India, like everywhere else, anchored many dreams, some came good, some could not but once having arrived, not many went back to their villages.

The city has opportunities that the village does not offer. So people are moving in to cities in unprecedented numbers and there is no stopping the wave. It is happening in India, and also elsewhere in the developing world.

Sadly, the cities are not coping well. In our country, many of them were just not prepared to handle the volume of migration and stayed in the denial mode, hoping that the migration would reverse in time.

We have come to a pass where the civic infrastructure is failing, the environment has degraded because of negligence and life in our cities is under multiple threats.

City managements are stymied either by the lack of resources, the lack of powers or the plain lack of will to assert laws and regulations because the political leadership is short on vision.

With little or scant investments in the civic infrastructure and poorly-enforced development protocols, people met their shelter needs almost at will. The municipal bodies functioning without financial and administrative support could only be willing spectators, as city after city lost its ability to accommodate the constant influx.

delhi_pollution_reut_051417094950.jpgWe need a urban observatory-like agency to record and monitor all development. Photo: Reuters

A flagship research project of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate observes: "The Indian cities are expanding outward at a rate that outpaces their population, and they are doing so haphazardly, without heed to principles of urban planning, without adequate water, electrical, waste management or transportation infrastructure and services and without a regard for the environment."

According to this working paper, "The country stands to pay for this pattern of urbanisation, if it continues, an enormous $330 Billion to $1.8 trillion every year by 2050. For our GDP, this translates into a loss of 1.2 to 6.3 per cent shaved off annually."

The GDP dimension is for economists to worry about. Sure, it is a loss of possible prosperity. But what is of deeper concern is the number of lives not able to gain their full potential of joy and excellence of ideas, and of human endeavour because there was no shelter, no schools for their children and no chance to have a future because the decision makers planning and expanding urban spaces did not foresee human needs with a visionary perspective.

The city planners made poor or no choices for the growth of our cities and that too in a skewed order of priorities. Poor and insufficient housing and likewise, inefficient and deficient support structure is a familiar story in all our cities, indeed in most cities of South Asia.

The resultant inadequacies have affected generations of lives as they stay embedded in poverty, their hopes of escaping from this vicious circle postponed indefinitely.

The consciousness for healthy and productive living has universalised the quest for local governments to rise to better performance standards. They have to manage the whole range of city needs: basics like sanitation and hygiene to facilitate vibrancy of the culture of the residents. Imagining the city of the future and adjusting the city protocols is now the foremost need of the hour for progressive city governments.

It would be good to get a fix on the emerging software-enabling services and facilities which will alter the way we earn and learn, so dramatically that cities will have to create a different ecosystem of transport, shopping and leisure, types of employment, healthcare, social networks et al.

In a space of five years or so, Uber has become the largest transportation company without owning a single car. Medicare will become a service at the doorstep for most diagnostics.

Many of these developments are in currency right now and our cities have to start the adaptation and receptive strategies. Constant resistance to emerging innovations will only slow down progress just because vested methods and practices have a lot to lose.

Increasingly we will see that ability to aggregate and converge, to provide service will continue to take shape, possibly faster than ever before. The biggest emerging question is going to be: what should our children learn and how will the grown-ups earn their living from the opportunities that will arise from our urban spaces?

The local governments must arrange the environment to engage such enterprises and help them thrive rather than restrict them.

For instance, the electronic rickshaws saw the combined resistance of municipalities and the cycle rickshaws, as also Ola and Uber. Eventually, a convenience will find its reception.

It is very much a given that the cities of the future will need enlightened city-centric governments. Indeed, the local governments would do well to create a department to anticipate and prepare for the kind of change future developments will engineer.

Yes, robotics will run our production lines, regulate quality and repair the faultlines. The future of success will be redefined for sure and we have to integrate the mechanised ability to monitor and obtain compliance of laws.

Human beings are prone to bias or being callous in the context of urban protocols whereas our cities need planning and aesthetic navigation through a structured ecosystem of participative and consensual public interest.

Hence the need for a urban observatory-like agency to record and monitor all development.

True that our city management bodies lack the capacity to perform some basic functions, but the magnitude of the tasks compels much-needed reforms in substance and form to lead manage the pressures of urbanisation.

These will continue to be relentless for reasons of human necessity. The primary source of this influx will be through migrations from rural areas as the existing city population is in fact decreasing.

The challenge, therefore, increases in complexity. We need a city every two months to really receive the population migrating in search of livelihoods and life.

If all they get is a concentration camp akin to living by the drains and sewers, it is an unforgivable failure of state duty, besides increasing health and crime hazards.

There are no magical wands or sticks to wave but only to follow the Vedic wisdom, "Let's do the right thing and good results will follow."

Let's do only politics and surely disaster awaits our cities.

Also read: How the communal twins, Imam Barkati and Dilip Ghosh, are polarising West Bengal

Writer

RMS Liberhan RMS Liberhan

Former director, India Habitat Centre and a former civil servant and writes on public issues.

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