By Gaurav Bhatiani and Gireesh B Pradhan
India’s cities lag on the quality-of-life metrics compared to international cities. The Mercer’s Quality of Living Ranking (2019) ranks Hyderabad at the top among Indian cities, with a global rank of 143. It is followed by Pune at 144, Chennai at 151, Mumbai at 154, Kolkata at 160 and New Delhi at 162. The Ease of Living analysis by the Union ministry of housing and urban affairs (MoHUA) revealed a national average score of 53.5 (out of 100) for 111 smart cities. The relative underperformance of cities drags down the economic and social outcomes by imposing higher cost of living on individuals, families, society, and businesses.
Our recent research titled Sustainable Urban Networks for Dynamic and Resilient (SUNDAR) India identifies key constraints and opportunities to transform cities into engines of economic growth while enhancing sustainability.
A key constraint is the low provision of infrastructure and poor quality of utility services across cities. The findings of the MoHUA’s Swachh Survekshan 2022 are illustrative. Less than a third of 4,500 cities have connected at least 80% of their toilets to sewerage. Less than a fourth process 80% of wet and dry waste. Other reports point to mediocre performance on public transport (63 out of 458 cities with one lakh population have a formal bus service), treated piped water (less than two-third of urban households) and electricity (global rank of 80 out of 137).
Second, the disconnect between the current quality of utility/other services and customer expectation is stark. Most customers therefore rely on backups to cope with unreliable and poor quality.
Third, urban planning and infrastructure delivery are not integrated. This results in avoidable costs and inconvenience. Fractured mandates across multiple agencies, lack of coordination and short-term “bandage approach” leads to suboptimal outcomes.
Fourth, many services, including electricity, are delivered by state-level entities and therefore local governments have a limited role. They often view state agencies as entities with limited interest in city priorities.
Fifth, infrastructure development follows habitation with the consequent burden of living through ongoing construction of roads, pipelines, and bridges.
Sixth, resource and energy conservation is not emphasised. Therefore, significant opportunities for conserving resources exist, such as water harvesting, recycling of construction and demolition waste, and proactive development of decentralised options.
Enhancing infrastructure development and improving quality of services will require an integrated approach across sectors. While full-scale integration of departments or organisations may be challenging, integration of utility services in urban planning can be achieved through a combination of policy, technology, and administrative measures.
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On the policy side, a mandate for integrated urban planning to development agencies, urban local bodies, and utilities such as transport, electricity, gas supply, water, waste management, etc, can facilitate a strategic and coordinated approach. Some states have attempted this by creating a regional planning or development authority such as Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority in Mumbai and Bangalore Metropolitan Region Development Authority in Bengaluru. A more comprehensive approach encompassing sectors such as electricity, telecom, public transport, and natural gas should however be attempted. The master planning needs to go beyond the narrow focus on land use and development control regulations to ensure that utilities are planned, land is allocated, and infrastructure developed, ahead of habitation. Most importantly, urban plans need to detail the mechanisms and instruments to finance urban infrastructure.
Technology convergence across electricity, telecom, gas, and transport presents newer opportunities for enhancing integration to improve quality of life, reduce cost and enhance sustainability. One such option is underground utility systems that are gaining global popularity. Power distribution or metro rail or gas distribution can be the focal points for developing an integrated underground utility system. High distribution losses present a strong case for underground power distribution. They also reduce accidents, improve quality and are aesthetically pleasing. Given the higher capital cost, adoption can start with cities with high losses, followed by towns and peri-urban areas. Kolkata and Mumbai traditionally had a part of their network underground with consequent better quality and are now considering expansion. The overall beneficial case for the underground distribution networks was recognised by the Parliament’s Seventeenth Lok Sabha Standing Committee on Energy.
Last but not the least, the plumbing for urban planning requires an overhaul. We need to fill the vacant positions of urban planner, bring in cross-sectoral experts, develop formal structures such as empowered committees and build capacity of institutions involved. More elaborate options such as broadening and deepening the mandate of the urban local bodies, consistent with the 74th constitutional amendment, can also be explored, wherever political will exists. Given that the states and cities have varying needs, different options can be exercised, depending on the context. At the central level, an enabling policy detailing options and a broad roadmap, with fiscal incentives, can be proposed to guide and encourage adoption. Integrated infrastructure and enhanced urban planning will make our cities more livable.
Gaurav Bhatiani and Gireesh B Pradhan are respectively, director (energy and environment), RTI International India, and former chairman, CERC, former secretary, MNRE