India is on the cusp of major transformation in terms of how it translates and directs urbanization. The current urban development scenario and the Government’s interest in steering urban development towards creating liveable cities opens up a plethora of opportunities and planning mechanisms to be explored.
The recently announced flagship schemes of the Government of India – the ‘Smart Cities’ scheme, the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) scheme, The Housing for All scheme. The Smart Cities and AMRUT schemes primarily aim at improving amenities and infrastructure in 100 and 500 urban areas respectively, the Housing for All by 2022 scheme is an initiative of the government to provide low cost affordable housing solutions with an initial focus on 500 Class I cities in India and offer avenues for addressing some of the most daunting challenges that cities in India face today, including climate change impacts and disaster risks.
While India has faced multiple climate-related hazards in the recent years, the frequency and intensity of extreme events on the Indian subcontinent has arguably begun to increase. This clearly assigns value to the fact that cities and city regions need to account for climate calamities and climate change in their planning, development, and emergency planning parameters, but also project the low level of priority given to climate preparedness and resilience in the development planning process.
There have been clear entry points in the governance system and policy making through which the climate resilience agenda could have been integrated into urban development planning in Indian cities, yet it has not yet been done, largely due to the lack of realization of this very need among Indian city managers who are busy firefighting the humongous demands of the ever growing cities, and also because of absence of clear entry points and coordination mechanisms that take this agenda to its logical implementation process. There is a clear need to create the governance condition that takes the resilience agenda on board and builds planning and financing systems and mechanisms to facilitate action on ground.
India suffered a loss of over INR 10 billion (US$150 million) due to the adverse winter weather in January 2013 alone. Heavy monsoon rains in cities like Delhi and Mumbai, flooding events in Srinagar, Bihar and Chennai, and massive destruction caused by cyclones like Hud-hud hitting Vishakhapatnam in 2014, point towards a need to increase the preparedness of Indian cities for extreme events and foster climate-resilient urban development and planning. As cities in India are grappling with a multitude of development challenges, including unsteady and inequitable economic growth and rising poverty levels, provision of services and infrastructure development is critical yet it is imperative to push cities further towards environment sustainability if a larger goal of ‘smart growth’ is to be achieved.
Through its Smart Cities mission, the Government of India has set out a clear agenda of setting up smart systems and smart urban management mechanisms in Indian cities in the coming years. Somewhat problematically, the new scheme guidelines do not emphasize issues of sustainability, particularly in how these are related to the environment, climate change, and disaster risk reduction. While the mission statement and guidelines makes a brief passing mention to ‘sustainable environment’ as one of the elements of a Smart City, it does not give any attention to building climate resilience and disaster preparedness of cities. The Mission guidelines are still very mitigation oriented and do not speak of adaptation to climate change, which is an essential part of building resilience. Being a developing country with the growth trajectories that India strives for, sustainable resilient development should ideally be the model for urban development. This preferably would be addressed with policies and mandates at national and state levels as well as project planning and urban management at the city level. Failing to do so could mean acute resource crunch, unplanned and haphazard urban development, and increasing degradation of the environment, in addition to leading to huge losses due to climate impacts in the coming years.
"There is potential for scaling up climate resilience in the context of Smart Cities."
There is potential for scaling up climate resilience in the context of Smart Cities. If a larger body of successful demonstration could be achieved, this may then be put forth within policies, mandates, and regulations that drive project design, implementation, and planning decisions. However, as opposed to testing solutions through schemes such as Smart Cities that have immediate project implementation potential, a challenge to mainstreaming resilience into policy planning frameworks is the fact that policy making and mandate creation are largely politically driven. These are often processes that have long gestation periods, whereas resilience is an iterative, context-specific process that needs constant evolution and learning to eliminate inherent development challenges and reorganize itself through the process of learning.
A common view is that cities in India should aim to leapfrog conventional development paths and work towards a more environmentally aware approach to development wherein cities aim to ‘do more with less’ in a more efficient and environmentally sustainable manner. This shift can be enabled by learning from examples from across the globe that have been successful at reducing the negative impacts of various infrastructure sectors and promoting smart growth, and assessing their replicability to the context of Indian cities.
It is important, however, that these cities do not look at the scheme only as an avenue for funding urban infrastructure projects, but rather should see it as an opportunity to visualize and model urban infrastructure systems that help in ensuring and managing urban sustainability in the long run. India at present needs liveable cities that provide not only adequate basic infrastructure and services, but also ample employment opportunities for all that contribute to equitable and sustainable economic growth with minimal environmental impacts. In seeking to achieve this, cities should acknowledge the need for environment sustainability and climate resilience across sectors and at all levels of governance, rather than limiting these to certain issues or sectors, such as operations and management of municipal services, waste disposal, or air and water pollution. While addressing these issues within individual sectors is important, it is also essential to understand that environmental sustainability is a larger goal in itself, and would require the integration of spatial planning and infrastructure planning across sectors.
Divya Sharma is a Senior Consultant-Urban Policy at Oxford Policy Management Limited, India