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Urban India needs to break with the status quo for a sustainable future

by December 16, 2017 General

For the first time in over two years, Afroz Shah and his team of volunteers did not set foot on the 2.5 km stretch of beach at Versova in Mumbai on the last weekend of November for their routine collection of refuse that gets washed ashore. “Volunteers abused by goons for picking up garbage,” Shah had tweeted earlier. “Administrative lethargy, non clearance of picked up garbage and abuses is what we are facing. World largest beach cleanup is suspended. Tried my best and I failed. Forgive me my ocean and my country (sic).”

Shah’s tweet had the desired effect. Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis, Aaditya Thackeray, who heads the youth wing of the Shiv Sena, which runs the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), and Union Minister of State (Independent charge) of Housing and Urban Affairs Hardeep Singh Puri all met him and assured him of their support.

Shah, who won the top UN environmental prize in December 2016 and found a mention in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s radio address in May this year, told ET Magazine: “We can only do so much, the BMC has to take it forward.” Shah said that after his tweet, the BMC cleared up 90% of the garbage which had been uncollected for five months. He also announced that he would resume his efforts in response to promises by the state and Central governments. The following Sunday, he was joined on the beach by Thackeray and Fadnavis, who has said his government is working on banning plastic in the state. The clean-up drive has so far removed reportedly 7,000 tonnes of waste from the beach.


Waste is among the biggest challenges facing urban India. A Union government report in 2014 estimated that the country’s 377 million urban residents, nearly a third of the population, generated 62 million tonnes (mt) of solid waste annually, which is expected to rise to 165 mt by 2031, and 436 mt by 2050. According to one estimate, only twothirds of the waste are collected and less than a tenth is treated. Addressing this is the objective of one of Modi’s marquee initiatives, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, implemented by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs in cities.

Last year the government ranked 75 cities on cleanliness and Mysuru topped the list; this year it assessed 434 cities, with Indore emerging the cleanest.

Starting next year the government will assign star ratings to cities based on their cleanliness. “Not all cities can be in the top 10 or even in the top 100. So we are rolling out this new concept,” says an official in the Ministry of Housing. The cities will be categorised from one to seven stars. “The stars will be assigned on parameters such as door-to-door collection of garbage, their segregation, frequency of sweeping and placing of bins, etc,” says the official. Another official says the government cannot achieve its objectives without imposing penalties. But fines for littering in 1,126 cities, for which data is available with the ministry, are just around Rs 3 crore a year. A key component of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is to make India open defecation free (ODF). The target is to make 4,041 cities and towns ODF by October 2019, but so far only a third have been declared such. And open defecation can be found even in some of the cities that have been declared ODF.

“The ODF certificate is valid for six months and the status is re-validated every six months. If any OD spot is found during the re-assessment, the certificate is withheld or withdrawn,” says Adil Zainulbhai, a former chairman of McKinsey India, who heads the Quality Council of India, which is evaluating cities. The QCI is also finalising a plan to geo-tag public toilets, initially in 130 cities. The public will be able locate them on Google Maps and even rate them on hygiene.

Waste management and sanitation are but two of the issues planners have to grapple with as urban India swells. The UN estimates that India will add 404 million urban dwellers between 2014 and 2050, a sixth of the global total, compared with China’s 292 million. The Census of India defines an urban area on the following criteria: a minimum population of 5,000; at least 75% of the male main working population engaged in non-agricultural pursuits; and a population density of at least 400 persons per sq. km.

By 2050 India will see four more cities — Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Ahmedabad — in the 10 million-plus population category, which now has the urban agglomerations of Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata.


Water Woes
Access to clean water should be a top priority for any government. More than two-thirds of urban households do not have access to water within the house and only around 60% get treated tap water. This is one of the issues tackled by the 100 Resilient Cities initiative of the Rockefeller Foundation in New York. It has selected cities from across the globe based on challenges they face and their administrations’ commitment to overcoming them. Four Indian cities — Surat, Chennai, Pune and Jaipur — are on the list. Surat, which is susceptible to flooding and whose main water source, the Tapi river, is polluted, is being aided by the city of Rotterdam on its water management strategy.


Madhav Pai, India director at the WRI Ross Centre for Sustainable Cities, says cities provide a huge opportunity: “On a smaller carbon footprint if you can do a higher amount of economic activity, it’s good for climate change.” Nearly two-thirds of the country’s GDP is generated by urban areas, which could go up to three-fourths by 2020, according to Barclays. “India’s growth depends almost entirely on its cities…. On average, as the share of a country’s population that is urban rises by 10%, the country’s per capita output increases by 30%,” writes Edward Glaeser in his book Triumph of the City. He adds that people report being happier in countries that are more urban. “So cities like Mumbai and Kolkata and Bangalore boost not only India’s economy, but also its mood.”

But happiness can be hard to achieve without something as basic as clean air, which is in short supply in Delhi and the wider National Capital Region (NCR). In early November, PM 2.5 reached levels 30 times what is deemed acceptable by WHO. Schools were shut, flights and trains were cancelled. In the second week of November, the Delhi government enforced a ban on civil construction, diesel gensets and brick kilns. But there was no attempt to tackle a problem at the source: the fields in Punjaband Haryana where the paddy stubble is burnt after harvest, with no government wanting to jeopardise their political clout among farmers.


Satellite data received by the Punjab Remote Sensing Centre (PRSC) reveals that there were 43,660 stubble-burning incidents in the state between September 27 and November 18, but almost half of them took place in just eight days beginning October 28, pointing to a clear link between the burning of crop residue and the smog in Delhi. While Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal met his Haryana counterpart Manohar Lal Khattar to discuss the problem, his request to meet his opposite number in Punjab, Amarinder Singh, was turned down by the latter, saying the meeting would be “meaningless and futile”.


Baldev Singh Dhillon, vice-chancellor of Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana, says the government must first provide, at subsidised rates, the machinery for cutting rice stubble and sowing wheat. “Second, the rice cultivation area in Punjab has to shrink not just to tackle pollution but also to curb the growing water crisis.” A 2015 IIT-Kanpur study of air pollution in Delhi found that in winter, stubble-burning and vehicles account for a quarter each of PM 2.5 emissions, and in summer, road dust, coal and fly ash contribute more than half the emissions.

Minister Puri says “things will improve”. “The prime minister has designated his principal secretary to coordinate with the state governments concerned, and I can say this much that, you won’t see the problem of pollution in November 2018,” he told ET Magazine. (See interview “We Must Have Tall Buildings in All Cities”) While pollution rises sharply in Delhi around November, it is a problem through the year. Data released by WHO last year found the annual mean PM 2.5 in the city to be 12 times the acceptable level. Ten of the 20 most polluted cities were in India, including Gwalior, Patna and Allahabad.

Problem on Wheels
A key component of making cities livable is public transport and infrastructure. Pai says there needs to be an integration of different modes of public transport like buses, trains and the metro. But in a city like Mumbai, it is easier said than done because buses come under the BMC, trains under the Railway Ministry and the metro is handled by the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority. Ajoy Mehta, who heads BMC, says cities like Mumbai have legacy systems. “To disrupt them for no reason doesn’t make sense. We can’t run the trains or build the Metro, but yes, coordination has to be better between agencies.”

Unlike in Mumbai, where water is provided by the municipal corporation, in Bengaluru and Delhi, there is a separate body which does that. Moreover, when Bengaluru’s Varthur and Bellandur lakes started frothing due to solid waste and industrial effluents, there wasn’t one agency that could be tasked with fixing the problem, since the city’s development authority, the water and sewerage board and the state pollution control authority all have a stake in it.

Saurabh Gaidhani, a programme manager with 100 Resilient Cities, says the problem of different government agencies being in charge of a city is not unique to India. “Even the best cities have silos, including New York and Paris. Singapore is an exception because it is a city-state.” When asked about the difbig ficulty in tinkering with the responsibilities of different bodies in a city like Mumbai, Gaidhani says the old system was not made for the kind of change Mumbai has witnessed.

The September 29 stampede on a footbridge at a central Mumbai railway station, which claimed 23 lives, got everyone talking about the city’s inadequate public infrastructure. Despite complaints about the inability of that footbridge to handle the surging traffic in one of the city’s key commercial hubs, the railways had failed to provide an alternative. The government’s strange decision to seek the army’s help in building three footbridges, including at the station in question, has come in for a lot of flak. (The Bharatiya Janata Party is in power at the Centre as well as in Maharashtra.) The flooding during the monsoon in Mumbai and Chennai, both of which have experienced worse situations before, also pointed to the lack of preparedness.


Given that 44% of Mumbai’s residents use public transport (only Kolkata has a higher figure among the metros, at 57%), 28% walk and less than a tenth use cars, it is clear where the priorities should lie.

But, as Pai says, “roads are designed for cars,” whereas they should be designed for slower speeds. “Other than on trains, people don’t travel very long distances. You need to improve the walking environment and eliminate on-street parking.” He adds that Mumbai’s ambitious 30 km, Rs 12,000 crore coastal road will deprive the city of its waterfronts, which are among its few open spaces.

The first phase of the Mumbai metro rail has been operational since June 2014 and the city’s residents hope that the next phases will ease the pressure off the congested roads and train network. Other cities are following suit. Last month, Hyderabad became the latest to do so, the others being Kolkata, Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru, Gurgaon, Jaipur, Lucknow and Kochi.

The Rs 14,132 crore Hyderabad project is the world’s biggest metro rail project to be executed through a public-private partnership. NVS Reddy, MD of Hyderabad Metro Rail, says on its first day the metro carried 2 lakh riders on the 30-km stretch. “Once the metro is up and running for the entire stretch of 72 km by the end of next year, 15 lakh people will use it every day.” Union minister Puri says metro rail cannot be the solution for every city. “Every city has to decide which is the best solution for its transportation woes.”


Roof Over The Head
Beyond transport and public infrastructure, city administrations have to make sure housing is affordable.

Pai says renting should be encouraged more than owning homes. Darshini Mahadevia, executive director of the Center for Urban Equity at CEPT University in Ahmedabad, believes there should be a detailed land-use inventory. “Indian cities are moving too fast. There is no political will for evidence-based intervention.”

Housing within the limits of a large city is too expensive for most people who stay in cheaper suburbs or neighbouring towns and cities and travel for work. RNCOS, a consultancy, estimates India’s urban housing shortage to rise from 18.8 million units in 2012 to 34.1 million units in 2022.

The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs earlier this year launched a livability index, which would measure the quality of life in 116 major cities, including those that are part of the Smart City Mission. Of the targeted 100 cities, 90 have been chosen for the mission, which gives each city Rs 500 crore (with an equal contribution from the urban local body) over four years.

Its objectives range from mixed land-use to preserving and creating open spaces. There may be a multitude of schemes aimed at making urban living better but they may not mean much as long as those in cities keep wishing they lived elsewhere.