Cities will drive growth, but only if we build right: Follow master plans, develop transit networks, grow vertically, conserve water, recruit urban managers

Context: Urbanisation will be the single biggest agent of growth in the next few decades in India, but only if we design optimum policies alongside.

What is the scale of urbanisation in India?

India is already the second-largest urban system in the world with 11% of the total global urban population living in Indian cities. This is more than the urban population of the US, Germany, Japan and UK.

The UN estimates that around 416 million people will be added as urban dwellers in India between 2018 and 2050, and the country will be more than 50% urban by 2050.

This year’s Budget takes cognisance of urbanisation and has listed not one but multiple actions to steer a paradigm shift.

How can India ensure sustainable Urbanisation?

Master plans are critical for managing urbanisation.

The urban system of India consists of 7,933 settlements, comprising statutory towns and census towns.

We have 3,892 census towns which are classified as urban in the census as they meet the relevant criteria. However, they continue to be governed as villages and do not have urban local bodies. Plus, it’s estimated that in addition to the existing census towns identified by Census 2011, another 2,231 census towns have come up by 2021. These census towns account for almost 72 million ‘urban’ population and remain under the ambit of ‘uncatered’ or ‘ignored’ urbanisation.

Almost half of our statutory towns are expanding in an unplanned, unscientific manner without any master plan to guide their growth. None of the census towns has a master plan.

This is leading to haphazard growth with piecemeal interventions leading to urban sprawl.

The first and foremost challenge is to prepare scientific master plans for all statutory towns and govern census towns as urban local bodies and prepare their master plans to guide their spatial growth.

Transit Oriented Development: Indian cities must grow and evolve on the back of Transit Oriented Development. Planned development along the mode of a rapid transit network has multifold benefits. a) It reduces the number of cars, b) increases walkability and bikeability, c) brings people and offices closer to each other through compact and vertical development. All of this leads to agglomeration and enhanced productivity.

Therefore, urban planning in Indian cities must support bus rapid transit, light rapid transit, mass rapid transit and non-motorised transit systems like cycling and walking.

Densify and increase FSI: There is a need to densify our cities, build them vertically and reap agglomeration benefits of enhanced economic productivity and lower transaction costs.

The maximum Floor Space Index (FSI) in Singapore is 25, Tokyo 20, New York 15, whereas in Mumbai it is 1.33, Pune 1.25, Ahmedabad 2 and Delhi 3. 5.

Restricting the FSI to such low levels a) creates distortions in the land market, b) pushes development to the peri-urban areas, c) reduces availability of serviced land within cities, particularly for low-income groups, d) increases commuting distances and their environmental costs.

People from rural areas will continue to move to cities in search of livelihoods.

Keeping FSI artificially low to control the densities is a failed strategy.

Sustainable management of water: Water will be a key determinant in our ability to sustainably manage our cities and enhance the quality of life of our citizens.

Indian cities need to collect, treat and reuse used water on a vast scale, and need to be fully sewered to collect all used water.

Construct separate drainage and sewerage systems to facilitate used water reusage.

There is also a necessity for rational and pragmatic policy for pricing water. The pricing mechanism should be based on “pay as you use” with direct benefit transfer of a subsidy for those who cannot afford to pay.

Strengthen urban governance: States need to build up a cadre of professional urban managers and create an ecosystem of light-touch regulations, reform building bye-laws and use technologies like geospatial systems. Moreover, states need to provide greater financial autonomy and administrative freedom to cities.

Source: This post is based on the article “Cities will drive growth, but only if we build right: Follow master plans, develop transit networks, grow vertically, conserve water, recruit urban managers” published in The Times of India on 26th Apr 22.

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