by Shipra Narang Suri
What do cities in India need to be more livable? In the four part series “Spotlight on livable cities”, ISOCARP Vice-President Shipra Narang Suri aims to answer this question by approaching it from various angles, giving examples from different areas of urban planning. In this fourth part, she explains what is concretely being done against the factors that threaten the livability of India’s cities and concludes by saying that there needs to be a fundamental shift in the way planners and policy-makers approach urban development.
Urban security and inclusion
Despite all its positive impact, urbanisation often brings in its wake many kinds of security challenges. In India, like many other countries, the most obvious one is the increasing vulnerability of urban areas to natural and man-made disasters – both climate- and non-climate related. Flash floods (e.g. seen in Mumbai in the year 2005), earthquakes (most recently in Kashmir (2005), Andaman islands (2004) and Gujarat (2001), countless urban fires and other such disasters regularly affect poorly planned settlements and buildings which usually disregard the most basic building bylaws and safety standards. The result is loss of life as well as livelihoods, mainly for the poor who live on precarious sites (e.g. along railway tracks, close to land-fill sites, or on low-lying land), in overcrowded conditions, and without many basic services such as water, sanitation and health care.
Large parts of the city of Delhi lie in the floodplain of river Yamuna, and are especially vulnerable. Mumbai is susceptible to rising sea levels, as large sections of the city are built on land reclaimed from the sea, and to heavy monsoon rains, which can cause serious havoc as the natural storm water drainage systems of the city have been haphazardly built over. Kolkata has witnessed frequent and increasingly severe cyclonic storms over the past few years, and is also facing a freshwater crisis, while Chennai is at risk of being struck by tidal waves.
National policymakers have attempted to respond these issues by creating a National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), which was established under the aegis of the Disaster Management Act of 2005 and is headed by the Prime Minister. Since its inception, the NDMA has adopted numerous guidelines on preventing and responding to natural and man-made disasters. At the city level, too, many innovative initiatives are seen.
Yet another form of urban insecurity is rising crime. Urbanisation also leads to an increasing gap between the rich and the poor, between the formal and the informal. At the same time, crime also limits the access of vulnerable populations such as women, youth and the elderly to urban spaces, which has serious implications for liveability in cities.
Contrary to the widely-held belief that poverty, and the poor, are the most important cause of crime, they are in fact the most vulnerable as they don’t have the means to defend themselves. Urban violence erodes their social capital and prevents social mobility and progress, especially that of the youth, who in turn get increasingly disenchanted. Furthermore, poorer women and girls are the most affected by crime and violence, both in their unprotected dwellings and on the streets. In India, past efforts have focused mainly on domestic violence and sexual harassment at the workplace, sexual assault and rape, but some recent initiatives have also attempted to reduce violence against women in public spaces, and increase safety and inclusion.
The National Capital Territory of Delhi, for example, while leading the pack with respect to many urban innovations, has not been able to successfully tackle the problem of gender-based violence, especially in its streets, squares, parks and public transport systems. This lack of safety for women, both experienced and perceived, significantly undermines their Right to the City – the right to move around freely; to use and access public spaces and services; to make choices about their place of residence, work, or leisure; and more broadly, to make the most of the opportunities the city has to offer.
To address these challenges, the Department of Women and Child Development, Government of Delhi, in collaboration with UNIFEM, UN-HABITAT and Jagori (a women-focused NGO), has developed a Strategic Framework on Women’s Safety. This Framework is the first attempt in the country to address the issues of women’s safety systematically and comprehensively.
Unlike China, where urbanisation is a heavily directed and planned effort, urban growth in India can be described as largely organic and chaotic, with the planning and provision of housing, infrastructure and basic services constantly playing catch-up (often unsuccessfully) with such growth.
To make Indian cities liveable from the perspective of inclusion, resilience and authenticity, which intricately interconnected, there needs to be a fundamental shift in the way planners and policy-makers approach urban development. Learning from the success stories as well as many failed initiatives, a few factors emerge as central to making Indian cities liveable.
Planning legislation needs to be overhauled, in conjunction with the legal framework relating to urban land. Conventional master plans have proved to be unwieldy and un-implementable, while new-age Comprehensive Development Plans have yet to be mainstreamed into the legislative framework. Land management needs to be made more efficient and transparent, with a role for both the state as well as private developers.
Creation of extensive infrastructure, often at massive cost, not unlike China, is often seen by political and business leaders as the key to resolving the urban problems. More importantly, however, Indian cities need more equitable as well as efficient systems of planning, stakeholder engagement and provision and management of services. Addressing urban poverty, lack of decent shelter and urban services, and the challenges of slums and homelessness need to be accorded the highest priority.
Safety and security in cities cannot be viewed as an optional extra, but is a central concern of liveability. Security against natural and man-made disasters, as well as crime, can be enhanced significantly through better planning practices, implementation and enforcement of appropriate zoning and building regulations, and the provision of basic amenities such as water, sanitation, and electricity/lighting. This will in turn contribute significantly to making cities resilient as well as inclusive.
The approach towards historic city centres needs to shift from on heritage conservation to sustainable urban revitalisation. This is critical in order to make it people-centric in general, and pro-poor, in particular. Historic districts not only provide a sense of place and authenticity to cities, but are also important economic and social hubs whose development needs to be integrated with the rest of the city.
Finally, better and more reliable spatial as well as socio-economic data is needed in order to make policy decisions that are suitable to different stakeholders in Indian towns and cities. This requires not only technological solutions but also a change in mindset, and also needs to be built into planning education systems and curricula.
As India stands on the verge of being an economic superpower, urbanisation is a phenomenon that can no longer be ignored or relegated to the backburner. Many Indian cities, their citizens and administrators, researchers and thinkers are taking innovative steps to address the challenges of liveability, but bringing about change across 4000+ urban centres which are home to nearly 380 million people needs more than one-off initiatives. Laws and policies need to be changed, institutions need to be transformed, capacities need to be upgraded, and most importantly, citizens need to be empowered, if India’s cities are to fulfil their enormous potential and become liveable for generations to come.