Moving towards sustainable cities is critical to India's future


Legendary Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier had a vision for utopia. Ville Radieuse, the Radiant city, was designed to include extensive green spaces and effective public transportation, with separate zones for business, residence and entertainment. The project never became reality and was, in fact, criticised by modern architects for several reasons. However, Le Corbusier did apply its concept to Chandigarh, where he designed the Capitol Complex in 1949, as well as to buildings such as Unité d'habitation in France.

Despite their shortcomings, Le Corbusier’s ideas influenced many urban planners. At the core of his designs were sustainability, greener lifestyles and social equality – characteristics that are glaringly absent in our cities today. Jawaharlal Nehru wanted New Delhi to be the modern, poverty-free capital of independent India. Unfortunately, it has become one of the most polluted cities in the world with high social and economic inequality. The impact of uncontrolled urbanisation is already evident in our country. If Indian cities are to survive the massive population wave that will hit them in the coming decades, sustainable development is paramount:

Compact cities

Large-scale rural to urban migration has multiplied the demand for basic infrastructure like housing in recent years. Hence, cities are stretching further out to accommodate a swelling population. Slums and illegal colonies have emerged within major cities, and settlements have encroached on lands surrounding them as well. These areas are characterised by poverty, congestion, poor health and inadequate sanitation and water facilities. Additionally, travel from peri-urban and suburban regions to city centres for work and other purposes has increased the number of vehicles and consequently, our carbon footprint.

Compact cities are now being touted as a solution to such unsustainable urban sprawl. A compact city stresses on shorter distances between homes and urban services, higher residential density, walking or cycling and a sound public transport. In order to achieve the aforementioned features, mixed land use is afforded prime importance in such city designs. Houses, schools, offices, hospitals, parks, shops etc. are all built in close quarters, or sometimes in the same buildings, to reduce travel time and distance. Amsterdam, one of the top five most sustainable cities in the world, is an ideal example in this case. It makes optimal use of space while preserving natural reserves and public health.

However, Indian cities face a more pronounced population pressure when compared to Europe or the West in general. Hence, achieving the goal of compact cities will be a tough task. Fitting the 377 million strong urban population within city centres is definitely impossible, and if the sizes of cities are limited to their present borders, it should be done so in a manner that doesn’t lead to more congestion or the sacrifice of green resources. High density buildings can also result in real estate becoming more expensive, and once again it is necessary for the government to ensure that this development doesn’t just benefit those on the upper rungs of the economic ladder.

Perhaps the concept would work better if local governments identified certain areas in the city for compact growth and connect them to the centre and with each other through smooth functioning state transport facilities. These areas, essentially functioning as cities within cities, will reduce the pressure on just one part of the urban landscape and give more affordable options to citizens based on their requirements.

Energy efficiency

India is the third largest consumer of energy in the world. Yet, we fall short of our energy needs, with only 79 percent of the population having access to electricity, not all of which is uninterrupted. According to the BP Energy Outlook 2035 report, India’s energy demand is expected to grow by 132 percent by 2035. Hence, it goes without saying that energy efficiency should be high on our sustainability agenda.

Presently, the primary source of energy in the country is coal followed by crude oil. The share of renewable sources (not including hydroelectricity) in our energy mix, though low, has steadily risen over the years to 12.9 percent. The NDA government has now set an ambitious target of increasing our renewable energy capacity to more than 300,000 Mega Watts (Mw) by 2030. This shift in focus towards clean energy is a welcome move. Though initial investment in renewables may be high, it is more than offset by the significant reduction in energy expenses later on. By either providing subsidies to low income sections, which the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) is already doing, or completely funding renewable energy projects in extremely backward areas, the state can get one step closer to becoming energy efficient.

The government is also hoping to save about 600 billion rupees a year by upgrading to energy-efficient air conditioners, irrigation pumps, lights and fans. A similar enhancement of equipment in manufacturing and industry can further cut down the country’s energy consumption. Insulating homes can also reduce the use of air conditioners or heaters by effectively blocking out heat in the summers and keeping it in during winters.

Finally, decentralisation of energy production will greatly add to the efficiency quest. A part of the energy is lost during transmission from remote areas through national grids. Carbon emissions are also high in this method of supply. Hence, producing energy locally, be it from renewable resources, fuel run engines or cogeneration, will be both cost-effective and eco-friendly in the long run.

Public transportation system

The significance of an efficient public transportation system to sustainable development cannot be stressed enough. As we mentioned above, for cities to take the route of compact growth, well connected mass transit facilities are fundamental. They reduce the dependence on private transport, thereby cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions as well as fuel demand. It is also an affordable and time-saving mode of commute. Hence, it has to be made an attractive option to the public.

However, price incentives alone won’t do the job. A systematic, safe, timely and well-maintained network of rail, metro and bus is crucial. A majority of Mumbai’s residents choose to travel in the overcrowded and often delayed local trains for the lack of a cheaper and quicker option. If the government invested in more lines, better maintenance and upgradation of infrastructure, even those who avoid taking the trains might feel encouraged to do so.

We could take a page out of Seoul’s book while planning for future transport designs. The city’s subway trains are spacious, clean and cheap. Similarly, the bus system is efficient and connects to cities all over Korea as well. The popular T-money card, which can be easily recharged at stations, ATMs, convenience stores or kiosks next to bus stations, can be used for trains, buses, taxis as well as at accepted retailers. Such easy methods of payment make travel by public transport hassle-free.

Simultaneously, new measures to discourage the use of private transport can be put in place. New Delhi plans on introducing congestion taxes as well as increasing parking prices to reduce the number of private vehicles on the street. A government panel also suggested more investment in infrastructure for walking, cycling and buses and less in flyovers. Such initiatives combined with a superior mass transit network will surely boost sustainable growth.

Protection of natural resources

The grave consequences of extensive ecological damage need no explanation. Vehicular and industrial pollutants, large-scale deforestation, contamination of water bodies, dumping of waste, high noise levels and several other harmful practices are systematically degrading our natural environment. New Delhi’s struggle with excessive air pollution is well-known. Similarly, destruction of the Yamuna river due to sewage and industrial effluents has long been discussed. So has the issue of encroachment on lakes and storm-water drains in cities like Bengaluru and Hyderabad, making them prone to floods. Despite debate and discussion in public forums, laws, judgements and panel recommendations, the degree of pollution has only risen in the country.

Strict enforcement of rules is key to protecting our ecological resources. Government representatives have quite often turned a blind eye to blatant violations of environmental law. This is evident in the cases of illegal sand mining, building construction on water bodies or mangrove destruction, to name a few. Transparency and accountability are a must, so is greater awareness among the general public.

Cities could start with setting up low emission zones, where vehicles with carbon emissions higher than a prescribed limit will be barred from entry. A shift to public transport dominated travel will further reduce the amount of greenhouse gases released into the air. Besides pollution from vehicles, industry emissions need to be controlled as well. Installing carbon capture and storage systems (CCS), like those in Rotterdam, will prevent harmful gases from escaping into the environment.

Similarly, more silence zones should be mapped out in the country to bring down noise pollution, while existing ones are monitored strictly. Citizens are becoming more conscious of the ill effects of excessive noise and are taking steps to reduce it, especially during festive seasons.

Abysmal waste management is one of the major reasons for water and land pollution in cities. Either it is directly let out into nearby lakes, rivers and backwaters or dumped into landfills, where waste is set on fire. Segregation of garbage, proper waste collection systems, sewage treatment plants, biodegradable waste disposal practices and recycling centres require major emphasis in our cities.

Private sector investment

To modernise and upgrade infrastructure for sustainable development, government funding alone will not be enough. Investment in sustainable public transport is one of the best ways to engage the private sector. In fact, several such projects have already been completely or partly funded by corporate companies. For example, the Rapid MetroRail Gurgaon is India’s first fully private run metro in the country. Metro systems in Mumbai and Hyderabad were built through public-private partnerships as well, with Reliance and Larsen & Toubro (L&T) respectively. Similarly, encouraging builders to design green buildings would go a long way in securing our sustainable future, especially since real estate is one of the largest growing industries in the country.

However, it is in the hands of the government to incentivise private companies either by ensuring good returns or decreasing the risk on investments. Besides that, corporate social responsibility (CSR) too can help in bringing money for investment or initiate projects for social, environmental and economic sustainability.

We have already brought irreparable harm to the planet. Our only hope going forward is to not further damage what’s left of our ecological resources and work towards an equitable and sustainable future.


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