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From the Indus Valley Civilisation to SEZs

By Kala Seetharam Sridhar and Samar Verma
October 25, 2012 16:14 IST
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The lack of urban planning and efficient service delivery in modern India are serious deterrents to entrepreneurship, write Kala Seetharam Sridhar and Samar Verma

Bengaluru, the IT (information technology) hub, is currently in a mess with its solid waste.

The city used to dump its garbage in a place called Mandur, but the enlightened villagers having realised its negative consequences have started returning the garbage trucks -- with the city now blinking with heaps of garbage on roadsides.

The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry carried out a review of municipal solid waste management in Indian cities in 2009, and found that only six of the 22 surveyed cities in the study had sanitary landfills, while 10 cities -- including major waste generators like New Delhi, Greater Mumbai (greatest generator of waste) and Kanpur -- did not have sanitary landfills.

Evidently, Indian cities have failed to plan themselves well to provide public services efficiently and hygienically.

A report released in 2010 by the McKinsey Global Institute, "India's Urban Awakening", provides a rich and thorough analysis of the challenges faced by Indian cities, while providing a clear agenda for future improvements. The report forecast that:

  • Water supply will need to increase 3.5 times the current supply to meet basic demand by 2030
  • Sewage treatment will need to increase two times the current level to meet demand by 2030
  • Solid waste will need to increase six times today's treatment levels by 2030 because of consumption expected by an emerging middle class
  • Public transit access and service -- 20 times the capacity of metros and subways will need to be added over what has been provided in the past 10 years
  • Affordable housing will need to increase 10 times by 2030 to meet expected needs
  • Slum populations that now comprise 24 per cent of India's urban population will need to be addressed with formal affordable housing programs and housing structures
On a per-capita basis, India now spends 14 per cent of what China spends on its cities and only four per cent of the UK's. The McKinsey Institute report also presented a framework for a plan by which India can meet the financial need to increase spending on cities from its current rate of 0.5 to two per cent of GDP (gross domestic product).

The report also outlined four significant 'dimensions', besides funding, on which Indian cities need to concentrate improvements in order to successfully transform urban economies and sustainability opportunities, of which urban planning is the most relevant.

It should be noted that the lack of coordinated planning for streets (roads), drainage and houses is characteristic of Indian cities.

One feature of town planning, which our ancestors -- nearly 5,000 years ago -- in the Indus Valley Civilisation followed, was the regularity and order of the planning for civic amenities such as roads, water supply and sewerage.

However, our cities are quite far from the ideal levels recommended for these services.

In a study recently completed with support from Canada-based International Development Research Centre Think Tank Initiative, in terms of coverage of city with sewerage, Chennai was found to have the best coverage at 99 per cent of total households, followed by Kolkata at 83 percent, Delhi at 52 per cent and Mumbai at only 42 per cent.

In terms of roads, Kolkata has the highest road length both in terms of its land area and total length (25 km of roads per sq km of its land area of 4,607 km), followed by Chennai (16 km per sq km of its land area) and Mumbai that has only 4.1
km of roads per sq km of its land area.

As far as public toilets in slums are concerned, Mumbai had five toilets per slum in 2001.

Delhi had only one toilet per slum, and Chennai and Kolkata did not even have one toilet per slum in 2009-10.

Coming to solid waste collection, Chennai has a 100 per cent coverage with door-to-door collection and Kolkata has 61 per cent of its households covered by door-to-door waste collection.

Chennai, where 97 per cent of garbage generated was reportedly being collected, was followed by Kolkata and Delhi at 94 per cent.

Let's look at water supply. About 95 per cent of all households have water supply coverage in Chennai (averaged over 2007-08 to 2009-10).

In Mumbai, the proportion of those with piped water in their dwelling is high at 92 per cent in non-slum homes but it is substantially low in slums, according to Mumbai human development report 2009.

In Kolkata, only about 27 per cent of the households have municipal water supply coverage. Comparing public transport, Chennai has the largest number of public buses per lakh population (74), followed by Mumbai (38) and Delhi (29).

Despite the data inadequacies that permit robust assessments, overall, in this and other related work, it was found that Indian cities, including those in Karnataka or those pan-nationally, fall short of the desired norms recommended as bench marks by the ministry of urban development, Government of India. Let alone service level benchmarks, the cities do not even know what data they have and how much of that is reliable.

It is important for cities to showcase themselves as good places to live and do business, to compete for firms that create jobs. In a study by Kala (co-author of this article) several years ago in designated "growth centres", she found that although several of these firms represented local entrepreneurship, the growth centre infrastructure being offered at the time influenced their decisions to locate there.

With the growth centre, and the guarantee of infrastructure provision, their entrepreneurship decisions occurred sooner rather than later.

Her discussions with firms in the various growth centres had indicated that the availability of all infrastructure (power, roads and telecom) at one time is an important factor attracting them when compared to areas where infrastructure comes to be available only in phases (first power, then telecom, followed by roads).

This should not surprise serious observers of urban decay characterising Indian cities.

Largely to circumvent this urban planning failure across the city geography, the special economic zones (SEZs) in India were conceptualised as engines of economic growth supported by quality infrastructure and complemented by an attractive fiscal package, both at the Centre and the state level.

There is a single-window clearance in place to develop infrastructure expeditiously.

Wherever SEZs have taken off, they have indeed contributed to growth.

However, viewed from a pan-Indian perspective, it remains a serious question whether creation of such growth islands are the best public policy tool to promote inclusive growth.

Robust principles of urban planning are a part of our very own history, going back to Harappan cities. Let's not forget history, and suffer consequences that affects our and our children's lives.

The authors are with the Public Affairs Centre and International Development Research Centre, respectively. These views are personal.

They thank the team at the Public Affairs Centre, which worked on the State of India's cities from which some data are drawn

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Kala Seetharam Sridhar and Samar Verma
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