Urban growth model needs reality check

Urban India is beginning to explode. The question is if our cities will be able to manage this growth or will they just burst at the seams? The reason I ask this is because we still don’t have a clue about what urban growth will mean for us. We cannot see beyond the glitz of the malls, the swank of the private housing apartments or guarded green areas. We cannot and do not know how we will supply water to all, build houses for all, treat sewage, provide the required parking for an ever expanding fleet of vehicles or even, more basically, where we will bury the growing mountains of garbage our cities throw up. We seem to live in a make-believe world where infrastructure is the buzzword and hope funds for urban renewal will make problems go away.

But the reality is a little different and difficult. The fact is that cities represent a face of development that is resource- and capital-intensive. The resource intensity of the model of urban growth means that it uses huge amounts of energy and materials and leads to huge amounts of waste. This then requires investment — huge and continuous — to mitigate adverse environmental impacts. On the other hand, the capital intensity of urban growth means that it divides the rich and the poor. The high cost of urban services — for water supply, sanitation, garbage removal, transport — requires big investment in social services and provision of basic goods for poorer sections of society.

This so-called sustainable urban growth model has worked (partially) in the industrialised world because of its past wealth accumulation. Developed countries could afford to temper the adverse impacts of growth through public investments and subsidies. But even they remain steps behind the environmental and social problems and therefore, need to keep investing more to mitigate them.

The question for India is if this model of urban development will work. The technical answer seems obvious: to invest in big and small infrastructure projects like flyovers, roads and drinking water supply programmes. The managerial solution seems equally simple: for the state to become efficient in delivery of services or to outsource delivery and create infrastructure for the supposedly more efficient private sector. The buzzword for this is public-private partnerships, which have resulted in the reform of public agencies. But this, most cities find, is not the full solution.

This is because we must understand that our urban services are stretched not because these are subsidised for the poor. The capital and resource intensity of this model means that these services are too expensive for even the relatively rich in the developing world. In this scenario, cities cannot under any circumstances extend these services to all. The problem is that cities in the South remain inhabited by relatively poor people. In most cities — rich and modern — as much as 30-50 per cent of people live in poverty, in slums, “unauthorised” colonies or illegal settlements. They remain outside the purview of development.

Similarly, even in supposedly modern and car-dependent cities, as many as 20-30 per cent of people walk or bicycle to work. They cannot even afford public transport. In surveys done in relatively affluent and fast modernising cities like Delhi, it has been found that even now 60 per cent of the people commute by buses, which occupy less than 7 per cent of the road space, while cars which crowd over 75 per cent of the roads, transport only 20 per cent of the people. In other words, in these cities, the car has not replaced the bus or the bicycle it has only marginalised them; crowded them out.

In this situation, Delhi and other cities of our rich-poor country must combine the convenience of mobility and economic growth with public health imperatives. In this hybrid-growth paradigm — which combines the best of the new and old — cities should run on public transport, using the most advanced of technologies. In other words, even as the whole world looks for solutions to pollution and congestion, we must find our own answers.

The situation is similar with water and waste provisions. With large numbers of people in modern cities without access to clean drinking water or unconnected to sewerage systems, the answers for both water and pollution will be in planners’ ability to find innovative solutions that can distribute water at affordable prices, without distribution losses and innovate with cheaper and more manageable sewage treatment options so that cities do not drown in waste.

The answer will lie in making services cost-effective. This can only be done if water utilities are improved, services are paid for and, most importantly, we realise that distribution losses can at best be plugged by reducing the length of the pipeline itself. A city will be more efficient if it collects water locally, supplies it locally and disposes waste locally.

Our cities must draw up a model of sustainable urban growth. This requires finding ways of ‘leapfrogging’ so that they can have progress without pollution and inequity. But this will demand knowledge: new and inventive thinking so that planners do not imitate the cities of the developed world, but create models based on their present and future challenges. In other words, the concept of modern cities must be re-imagined so that it does not follow New York or Shanghai, but instead is based on the reality of building a liveable, safe and healthy Raipur, Guwahati or Mumbai.

Otherwise, we will continue to build gated communities — elite enclaves of clean India, which will find it difficult to survive the growing stench of poverty and pollution. The question is: do we have the guts to dream different dreams and make them come true?

- Sunita Narain