By Riya Mathur, SRCC, New Delhi.

Given that the purpose of urbanization for any developing country is to produce highly efficient urban areas for better consumption and efficient management of resources and ensuring public welfare, India needs a concrete structure to embark on this journey. In a time when rural to urban migration is high and the consequential environmental degradation concerns the policy makers, the aim of a truly urbanized country seems difficult to achieve. With all that it faces today, it is only apt to not just consider where India’s urban planning went wrong but also how these mistakes can be addressed in a way to strategize as to what the country can do to better its policies in the face of ecological challenges that accompany massive urbanization. The best way to do this would be to compare India’s practices with those of its peers which consist of similar assets and face similar challenges. 

Managing Urban Pollution

India is confronted with problems of high primary energy consumption, land shortage and high population in the light of ecological degradation. A recent report by the Council of Foreign Relations explains how urbanisation in China has adversely affected its environment . As one of the world’s largest carbon emitters, the pollution problem spans across its various cities at alarming rates. Added to this, an ever-rising number of vehicles on the road and massive coal production have received slack for discounting growing ecological concerns. The harsh adverse impact of Chinese urbanisation and industrialisation has begun to take a toll on public health, sparking public outrage. Thus the air of concern around the Chinese model of urbanisation is precisely what the case with India is right now; rapid urbanisation depleting the quality of the air we breathe. 

In 2015, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) granted a $300 million loan to China towards dealing with its smog crisis. The country, since then, has focused on a variety of New Urbanisation Indices (NUIs) which called for an amended focus towards urbanisation that takes note of sustainability, infrastructure, demographic dividends and spatial dimensions. As some very creative solutions, it introduced the Cap-and-trade program and further encouraged the prevalence of ‘Green bonds’, striving for an international system of trade and development which does not deplete natural resources excessively. The essence of the former is to put a ‘cap’ on emissions such as greenhouse gases and allow countries (through their industries) to ‘trade’ allowances so as to further production with a limited scope of pollution emissions. 

Already underway in seven provinces of China, the program has also shown promise in the United States and European countries, with many suggesting India to adopt the same. However, for a country like India, such adoption will not be easy. As per a recent report of the Institute for Energy Research, lack of proper alternatives added to the woes of more expensive conventional energy sources will only go on to hit the poor harder. Furthermore, in a time like now, such a shift could risk the national energy security and slow the growth of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) even more. Considering the long run, unless this scheme is picked up by other countries as well, India will stand to lose out on its trade position as companies would seek to move elsewhere if they are asked to limit their greenhouse emissions on a priority basis. Again, such a policy would demand the brainstorming capability of a number of experts to arrive at contracts not just for CO2 emissions but quantifying the trade potential of several other harmful gases. A cap set on wrong levels could not just make the program ineffective, but could also adversely affect the economy.

Making Cities Sustainable

India’s major cities struggle with poorly constructed living spaces, even as the ever increasing number of migrants have to be housed in and sustained by the same cities. Given the lack of efficient city planning, the concern of ecologically sound housing solutions seems like an unreasonable dream for India. However, now that we are witnessing frequent occurrences of unpredictable climatic conditions, (human induced floods and heatwaves) sustainable and environmentally sound city planning is an urgent need for the country. The feats achieved by Singapore is an urbanisation model, driven by its own distinct features. Singapore is home to the highest urban population in Southeast Asia and has maintained its position as a nation with strong environmentally sound agendas. For India, the Singaporean model can set the precedent for sustainable urban planning. 

The Overall Thermal Transmission Value (OTTV) adopted by Singapore is an ingenious system aimed at calculating the heat gain into buildings through roofs and windows. Annual reports call for systematic follow-ups through a decentralised public structure, thereby helping regulate, minimise and ensure efficient energy consumption in commercial settings. However, in the case of India, the need would be for agendas which focus on OTTV levels depending on varied climatic conditions, which will serve as a major challenge. Moreover, the budget to be allocated for setting up such systems without offsetting the expenses of small organisations and the robustness of such a measure can be another problem if India were to adopt this model to regulate energy consumption in commercial building complexes.

For the future, Singapore is set to work towards reaching its Green Mark and developing smart buildings with gardens and artificial water bodies between floors. Singapore’s urban infrastructure policy focuses on community centric towns and ‘green buildings’. More than 90% of Singapore’s residents own their homes and it continues to uphold its ‘100 percent greenery replacement policy’. 

India also needs to prioritise the urgency to house a large urban population while keeping the environment as a key focus area. In this regard, we can learn from Singapore’s model of ‘liveable high density’ infrastructure which guarantees a decent quality of life leading to a harmonious blend of the urbanisation demands and ecological well being. For India, which faces the challenges of high population numbers and inadequate supply of land, high density infrastructure is unavoidable. The focus on liveable density marks a stronger and more environment-friendly future, calling for high rise buildings with provisions for environmental compensation as well as ‘environmental architecture’- buildings with gardens and domestic reservoirs. However, these are indeed high cost projects. At the moment, India needs adequate housing for the majority of its ever increasing population. The need of the hour is thus efficient rehabilitation coupled with ecologically sound actions, i.e. sustainable yet affordable housing.

India’s Future Considerations 

As the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) puts it, ‘India would need two Indias to provide for its consumption and absorb its wastes.’ It is a widespread opinion that countries like India and China will define the future of markets and renewable energy. India, Asia’s second largest economy, is 31% smaller than it would have been in the absence of its environmental crisis like global warming. To paint a clearer picture, India racks up health-care costs and productivity losses from pollution of as much as 8.5% of GDP. Drawing on data from the University of Notre Dame, the Drivers and Disrupters Report ranks India as one of the most exposed countries in the world to climate change.

Thus what India needs is stringent action. Analysing the status of its South East Asian peers suggests that the challenges of urbanisation faced by the country have either been dealt with or are being effectively addressed in other equally dense and much more urbanised parts of Asia. Our focus needs to shift towards a more inclusive approach of harmony between man and the environment which sustains it. For India, investments need to be aimed at the development of climate sensitive technology and the search for alternative sources of energy. As it continues with rampant construction, India needs to find a way so that the outcomes of this unavoidable urbanisation is not disastrous for the country’s ecological well being. 

Our public transport systems need to be made more efficient and user-friendly in so far as to discourage and minimize the use of private vehicles in our cities. Broadly speaking, urban infrastructure needs to accommodate the population and their demands. There can be research investments in freshwater preservation, bio-fuels and nanotechnology. As of now, more than 95% of investments made towards cleaner fuels come from the private sector. Public spending therefore, needs to go hand in hand with the wants of the population. 

There are a number of fronts the country needs to work on, and soon. With all its potential, India stands at the cusp of one of the largest and most effective urban transformations the world will see, becoming the harbinger of sustainable growth for other under-developed and developing countries.