While only 30% of the India resides in cities, around 60% of the GDP is accounted for by the urban India. Therefore, It’s of utmost importance for the nation to ensure that Urban India is properly maintained and is in good health because future growth and prosperity will largely depend upon the condition and wellbeing of Urban India.
However, this is not being done in India till now which is evident from the fact that air quality and congestion are worsening, house prices continue to soar, and amenities and services like clean water, public spaces, public transport, and solid waste management are severely deficient. The local bodies entrusted to govern cities neither do have sufficient finances nor the expertise, or personnel to plan for and address these challenges.
The core of the problem is our mindset as we continue treat cities and towns as labour market. It’s true that people move to cities for jobs and opportunities. But the conditions prevailing in cities should help to increase the productivity of the people. Access to affordable housing and transit options that allow workers and city residents to commute easily between home, work, schools and other places are also crucial for improving productivity. On the other hand, we see in our cities just the opposite.
This is the situation prevailing in almost all the cities in India. It’s true that the government selected 100 cities in the country to make them smarter, but other cities and towns too need urgent reforms in order to unlock their economic potential and transform quality of life.
Our cities are being held back due to various reasons like deficiency in land markets, poor planning regulations, inappropriate governance structures and so on. Thus, agenda for reforms is exhaustive and complicated too but none of them are impossible to solve.
First of all, there is a need to change way we measure the urban growth and we need to include objective metrics, which can be measured at more frequent intervals. Cities should plan ahead for urban expansion and it shouldn’t be other way around as has been the present practice. Planning ahead is particularly essential to reserve land for an arterial grid as the city expands. There is also need to redesign incentives and policies that disproportionately benefit rural areas (such as rural employment guarantee schemes) to dissuade residents from objecting to conversion from rural to urban.
Further, there is need to overhaul the way we prepare master plans for the urban areas. Current method of top-down approach should be changed to accommodate more public participation in the planning process. There is also need for simplifying the land use conversion process. As the economic base of the city changes, land use requirements also change. If the process of converting land use is not flexible or easy, the de facto and de jure land use diverge.
Presently, land use and infrastructure investments are decided by a host of city bodies and often lack of coordination between these bodies delays the decision making process. Therefore, there is need to improve coordination among these bodies and also reduce the layers of hierarchy to speed up the process of decision making and their implementation. The existing land use planning process should be replaced with a more flexible approach, including a mechanism to review and change plans periodically.
Intelligent and pragmatic usage of floor space index can increase supply of land and reduce land prices, especially in well-connected areas. Optimising use of public lands should begin with creating a detailed inventory of land ownership and use and then identifying suitable strategies such as leasing, outright sale, providing public housing etc.
However, it should also be noted that sequencing of urban reforms is as important as their implementation. We should learn from our experience in power sector reforms where initial reform efforts turned futile due to improper sequencing. Policymakers will have to resolve various implementation challenges to successfully transform plans into actions. This needs to be done urgently to avoid widespread unemployment and poverty and ensure healthy urban living.