Towards New India’s Urban Transformation

Soumyadip Chattopadhyay, Arjun Kumar, Manoswini Sarkar

‘Urbanisation holds out both the bright promise of an unequalled future and the grave threat of unparalleled disaster, and what it will depend on is what we do today…unless a revolution in urban problem solving takes place, the future is not very certain.” -Mr. Wally N’Dow, Secretary-General of Habitat II.

The cities, as they are, as they grow and develop, seem to convey that things are not what they should be and need an urgent re-see, rethink and re-act in policy, programs, institutions and investment. There is an unspoken and in-articulated emergency and the missing urgency in response is causing harm in economic, environmental and human terms. The government has been not been able to read the urban challenges properly, both in terms of its positive potential and negative consequences. Therefore, the responses by traditional sources aren’t as desired or as it should be and lacks direction and purpose.

The vision of Asian city as discussed in the Kauntan Declaration in Malaysia where panchsheela statement was put together to view a city. City was viewed as economically productive, socially just, culturally vibrant, politically participatory and environmentally sustainable. Over the next 20 years after the meeting, three more attributes have been added – ecologically sensitive, technologically progressive and adaptive and people centric and inclusive.

WhatsApp Image 2021 01 14 at 14.51.04

Statistics show that 25 to 30 people being added to the urban population every minute. It is estimated that there will be 820 million people in cities by 2050. There is a financial need of $640 billion in 20 years for infrastructure where we barely managed to spend $14 billion in 10 years under JNNURM. During this time, the population almost doubled and gave rise to more complex challenges. During the pandemic, we saw thousands walked back to villages due to the national lockdown. It also lead to a new class of urban homeless surfacing. This crisis is calling for an urban employment guarantee program – an urban MGNREGA that needs to be designed.

The matter is not confined to the physical and visible realm alone. What is not visible is equally problematic such as jobless growth; resource crunch; depletion of natural resources; inadequate and antiquated institutions; rural neglect; planning control in the hands of the nexus between politicians, the officials and the land mafia; poor planning and unimaginative governance and issues of priority. Sustainability, inclusivity and participation have been only limited to the rhetoric, with no tangible changes.

However, there have been positive developments too. To say that cities have got it all wrong or that there is little thought on the present state or the unfolding future, would be a biased negation of all that was there in the design and purpose of programs like JNNURM, and the Cities without Slums of the past, 100 Smart Cities, 5000 cities under AMRUT, Housing for all by 2022, Make in India, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and many other related initiatives, developments and investment plans.

That said, however, these policies, plans, programs do not look like delivering on the current problems or display the potential to produce desired results. What it requires is thinking out of the box, non-conventional approaches and imaginative strategies. Faced with the challenge of staggering numbers, a paucity of resources, limited time, nature and scale of development challenge and unconvincing performance of multiple fronts till date, we really have little time available to organize, and reorganize ourselves and our response. It is important to revisit Wally N’dow’s quote here that “…Unless a revolution in urban problem solving takes place, we are facing an uncertain, if not a bleak future.”

What must change?

Before anything, there is a need for a paradigm shift needed in the mindset in regards to questioning the inevitability of urbanization, in terms of resource depletion, pollution, and exploitation. It is essential to recognize the urbanization we experience and the cities we live in are the product of the economic policies we pursue and the development model they promote.

There also needs to be a shift from exclusive quantitative growth focus to qualitative dimensions of growth. This means we need to differentiate between achieving growth in terms of ecological harmony and polluting manner. It has to be ensured that this growth is just, creative and inclusive. The texture of the growth needs to be equitious rather than imbalance and the substance of growth should lead to contentment, durable happiness and peace.  This can only be done by changing the benchmark and goals of development by viewing the urbanization and development of cities in the sustainability framework and what it entails. The manifestation and symbols of poverty must change, we cannot tolerate it anymore.

Another crucial area is that of rural development. The silos mentality that sees urban and rural in isolation must change. Urban India cannot change without developing the rural areas as well. Villages must remain viable and liveable places. It could lead to a slowing down in migration to urban regions as well.

The informal economy is humongous in India and planners, administrators and the upper crust of the urban society have always been hostile to them. It cannot be rejected or ignored but planning has to be done around the informality of Indian cities.

There is a need for genuine sustainability, not a convenience or make-believe approach. It requires different kinds of energy sources, development and lifestyles.

People need to be at the centre of development. They need to be trusted to do things and solve problems. They should not be considered a burden, but rather resources and problem solvers. Slums are not only problems but can be considered as solutions too by building on the motivation, skills and entrepreneurial spirit that exists. Participation in decision making can lead to democratisation, devolution and decentralisation.

Finally, top-down solutions need to be combined with bottom-up approaches, in defining problems, searching solutions and doing things. We have talked about GDP of cities but now we need to talk about the poverty of cities as well. We have been defining poverty in a top-down manner but the time has come to define poverty through the poor themselves and then develop strategies to go ahead.

Others who participated in the webinar were – Prof Rajeev Gowda, Eminent Academician, Public Intellectual, and Politician; Prof Shyamala Mani, Sr. Advisor, WASH and Waste Management, CEH, Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI); Dr Anant Maringanti, Executive Director, Hyderabad Urban Lab, Hyderabad; Prof Tathagata Chatterji, Professor, Urban Planning and Governance, Xavier University, Bhubaneswar; Mr Tikender Panwar, Former Deputy Mayor, Shimla; Mr Sameer Unhale, Joint Commissioner, Department of Municipal Corporation, Government of Maharashtra; Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhyay, Associate Professor, Visva Bharati, Santi Niketan, West Bengal, and Dr Arjun Kumar, Director, IMPRI.

The above are the event excerpts of a webinar held by Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS) at IMPRI on Towards New India’s Urban Transformation What needs to be changed.

YouTube Video for Towards New India’s Urban Transformation: What needs to change?

Picture Courtesy: Unikolom


  • Ritika Gupta

    Ritika Gupta is a senior research assistant at Impact and Policy Research Institute. Her research Interests include Gender Studies, Public Policy and Development, Climate Change and Sustainable Development.