Monday, June 25, 2018

Rejuvenating the Urban India

Book Review
Randeep Wadehra
Founder-Editor, Smart Scholars

Urban Renewal in India by SK Kulshreshtha
Sage Publications
Pages: xxv + 276. Price: Rs. 950/-

Urban renewal has a hoary past. During the 1870s, efforts to rejuvenate Mysore led to decongestion of its Fort area. Similarly, Calcutta, Shahjehanabad (Delhi) etc. came in for various degrees of renewal efforts. After India’s independence, there has been a phenomenal growth in the number of urban areas, with more than 7,000 cities and towns in the country today. As per the UN’s projections, India’s share in the world’s urban population will reach about 13% by 2030; this translates to 600 million Indians, or 40% of the country’s population. However, despite Chandigarh and a couple of other honourable exceptions, urban growth has been largely haphazard. Consequently, the country has witnessed a sharp rise in the number of unplanned townships and slums – Mumbai’s Dharavi is not the only such instance. According to estimates, more than 3.6 crore children (in the age group of 0 to 6 years) live in urban areas, of whom more than 80 lakhs live in slums. It has been a fact that people migrating to urban areas in search of livelihoods and a better quality of life invariably find shelter in slums.

One does not really have to go for extensive research to know the state of our towns and cities. Polluted air and water, rain-flooded streets and traffic snarls are the salient features of almost every urban centre. Utilities and infrastructure are inadequate quantitatively as well as qualitatively. Thanks to carbon dioxide emissions, industrial effluents and firecrackers, Delhi’s pollution levels are among the highest in the world. This becomes worse during winters when the air becomes more toxic. Bengaluru’s transport system was never ideal even during its more tranquil past. Today, it has miserably failed to meet the people’s needs. Its roads are choked with almost eighty lakh motorized vehicles, a rise of more than 6500% since the 1970s! The consequences are there for all to see in the form of traffic snarls, heavy emissions of greenhouse gases and choked public utilities. Mumbai has become a symbol of inefficient urban governance and a highly irresponsible and corrupt system. Every year even moderate rains cause flooding of its roads and rail tracks. Deaths due to open manholes, potholes and low hanging wires are common. One regularly hears of dilapidated buildings collapsing and killing hundreds of residents. Kolkata is another metro where life is becoming extremely difficult, if not hazardous, for common people; the civic amenities are pathetic. Its water and electricity distribution systems are anachronistic, to put it politely. Chennai too suffers from similar drawbacks but on a smaller scale. However, its utilities are coming under increasing strain, thanks to chaotic urbanization. Over the past two years, Chennai has witnessed avoidable ‘natural disasters’ like the flooding of residential areas causing loss of life and property. Obviously, these ‘natural disasters’ are man-made and a result of corruption and bad town planning.

Clearly, there is an urgent need for planned urbanization. This urgency is not only from the point of view of meeting the challenge caused by the burgeoning figures of migration to urban areas but also because India has been striving to achieve double-digit growth, realise its ambitious target of becoming a $10 trillion economy and be counted among the world’s developed countries by 2030. For this, it is imperative to take up urban renewal with a clear vision and due sincerity.

According to expert estimates, about 900 million square metres of well-designed residential and commercial areas will have to be built over fifteen years to realise the target of urban renewal, with special emphasis on smaller towns and cities since 68% of India’s urban population lives in towns that have a population of less than 100,000.

Therefore, several flagship missions have been launched for urban renewal; for instance, Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, PM Awas Yojna and Smart Cities Mission. The government has obviously realized that, for reaping the demographic dividend, it is essential to focus on urban governance, health, nutrition, water, sanitation and education. This entails re-imagining of the basic designs of most of our cities and upgrading the basic infrastructure and services, including transport, rejuvenation of heritage buildings and sites as well as redesigning the commercial areas.

Kulshreshtha has painstakingly presented relevant statistics to underscore the state of India’s urban areas. He has also detailed the various efforts being put in by the government for rejuvenating the Urban India. It goes without saying, most of the urban renewal projects are of long gestation periods. Nonetheless, at least an earnest effort has begun.

This book presents a lucid analysis of the process and problems related to the renewal of Urban India, which should interest students, research scholars and policymakers alike.

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