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Smart Urban Plans Must Solve Land, Traffic Woes

Published: 24th June 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 23rd June 2015 11:13 PM   |  A+A-

The government has announced that it will shortly unveil two urban development programmes in the form of Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) and smart cities with an outlay of Rs 98,000 crore over five years.

AMRUT will cover 500 cities and focus on ensuring basic infrastructure services such as water supply, sewerage, stormwater drains, transport and development of green spaces and parks with special provision for meeting children’s needs. The “smart city” plan intends to promote adoption of smart solutions for efficient use of available assets, resources and infrastructure. By incorporating digital technology in infrastructure like water, power and transportation, the smart city holds promise of improving the quality of life for citizens by providing better employment and investment opportunities and making the city more competitive.

Though the exact objectives and modalities of the twin programmes will be shortly announced, it is expected that they will deal with different facets of urbanisation. However, the main aim of the government is to improve urban living experience by addressing the core issue of infrastructure gaps.

Urbanisation is increasing at a fast pace across the world, and India is no exception. In five decades, urban population in India has increased five-fold from eight crore in 1961 to nearly 38 crore in 2011.In fact, there is no sign of abatement of urban growth rate in the near future. Consequent to the ever-burgeoning urban population, most of the Indian cities are facing crisis of space, water and power shortages, congestion, pollution, etc.

The issue of air pollution has become one of the most important features of urbanisation. The genesis of the problem of urbanisation existed since pre-Independence days but it has become critical in the last three decades when India began to liberalise its economy resulting in rapid growth in manufacturing, construction and services. Since the last two decades, due to rapid development, the issue of bad air quality gets closely intertwined with problems of urbanisation.

Unchecked and unregulated growth of unauthorised colonies and slums, improper urban zoning and laxity in pollution control mechanisms have become challenges for city planners. Improper allocation of land for roads and waste disposal has contributed to the problem of congestion and poor implementation of waste management.

The absence of adequate and appropriate public transit system has encouraged growth of private vehicles, which in turn reinforces congestion. This leads to further degradation of air quality and movement of population from congested city to new suburban areas that in turn leads to greater demand of land for residential purposes. Thus, more green area gets devoured for unproductive use and a vicious cycle begins. Also, India, due to its unique geographical position given its numerous mountain ranges, is further impacted by Asian Brown Cloud which aggravates air pollution. Consequently, a large proportion of the urban population suffer from respiratory diseases. This has significant implications for the economy.

As is well researched and documented, air pollution weakens a person’s immunity, results in stunted growth which affects earning capacity during adulthood and is a liability on state finances leading to higher expenditure on health. Thus, for holistic development, urban planners need to adopt a two-pronged strategy.

Short term strategies may include staggered office and business establishment timings; higher taxation on plying of private vehicles; higher parking costs during weekdays; encouraging use of cleaner fuels, car pooling and public transport system; more vigilant monitoring of pollution levels; and strict implementation of pollution abatement and penalty policies. But, short-term measures would not be sufficient to address this issue.

Long-term initiatives include a change in perspective thinking of citizens and governing bodies. It’s a well-documented fact that more allocations of scarce land for roads undo the benefits within a short span as it actualises the latent demand of private vehicles since their owners never internalise the externality created by their travel on others. Thus, India needs proper planning rather than higher allocation of land to road and transport. To combat congestion, we need a realistic solution for affordable, accessible, reliable and acceptable mobility (i.e. “AARAM”) urban commuting experience. In India’s urban scenario, modal transport system must be capable of having flexible high carrying capacity with low space requirement. The other aspect is to have public transit system which lures people away from private transport because traffic problem is expected to become severe with population growth and urbanisation putting more pressure on road infrastructure at substantial costs. Thus, policy makers need to explore alternatives like cost-effective Light Rail Transit in major cities as is being implemented in advanced nations.

Other measures include active participation of urban local bodies (ULBs). India is a developing nation with a still nascent institutional framework and comparatively weak delivery system. ULBs need to inculcate professionalism, transparency and accountability; otherwise, even well-intended plans may continue to fail. ULBs must adopt “government to governance” concept as they are a basic interface between citizens and administration.

Urbanisation generates an increase in the demand for land, and land is scarce in places it is needed most. A clear definition of property rights is a first requirement for efficient allocation of land besides systematic and transparent valuation. India lacks independent institutions for valuing land, leading to misallocation, misappropriation and higher costs for existing land holdings. This further impacts proper development of city infrastructure because land is not easily accessible. A probable solution could be transit-oriented development wherein urban land is more effectively used by vertical extension with appropriate and efficient public transit system.

Thus, for sustainable and inclusive economic development the authorities need to take a unique, holistic approach to make cities more productive and competitive, including modern public transit system. Then and only then can India achieve the vision of “Swachh, Swasthya and Shakshar Bharat”.

Charan Singh is RBI chair professor, IIM Bangalore, and former senior economist, IMF. Tarun Mittal is executive engineer, ministry of urban development, government of India, visiting IIMB for public policy studies

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