Tathagata Chatterji

In October 2016, representatives from over 190 countries met at the charming Ecuadorean capital Quito, set at an altitude 2850m, for the Habitat III Conference of the UN-Habitat to adopt the lofty visions of the New Urban Agenda (NUA) and agreed to frame National Urban Policies. This came just a year after the United Nations Summit on Sustainable Development held in New York which adopted the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) framework with urban sustainability (SDG 11) being a core component of it. Almost simultaneous adaptation of SDG-11 as a standalone goal and the NUA in the global fora acknowledges crucial importance of the cities in shaping global environmental outcomes. This heightened importance of the cities had evolved over time and is based on the recommendations of the Sendai Framework on disaster management and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Indeed, the issues of global sustainability cannot be addressed, without strongly addressing sustainability at the urban scale. Cities account for 55 percent of the global population and 80 percent of the Global GDP production. While cities are crucial to build the economy of scale, spur innovation, entrepreneurship and generate jobs, they are also trouble spots and difficult to manage. Cities account for 70 percent of global CO2 emissions and also 90 percent of the Covid-19 cases. The coronavirus pandemic has also starkly exposed stark inequalities in our cities regarding access to shelter, water supply, sanitation, and public health facilities.

At a city scale, economic, environmental, and social issues are closely interrelated. SDG-11 and National Urban Policies are crucial tools to bring greater policy coherence through trade-offs between conflicting priorities and facilitate a more integrated approach towards urban sustainability.

The SDG framework is based on a systems approach and is designed to facilitate evidence-based decision-making and promote an integrated approach in policymaking. The 17 SDGs are sub-divided into 169 targets and 231 indicators. Monitoring of these indicators can provide inputs regarding the performance of different plans and programs, and thereby act as a decision support system for higher-level policy makers

There are also inbuilt synergies across the SDGs and parameters set under different goals are mutually inter-dependent. SDG 11 has overlapped with practically all other SDGs. For instance, improving the delivery of basic services like water and sanitation to slum areas (linked to SDG target 11.1) can improve the health (SDG 3 – health and wellbeing) of poor children by reducing the spread of diseases and in turn, may increase their educational attainment by reducing sick days (SDG 4 – education), besides meeting targets under SDG 6 (access to water and sanitation). Thus, a targeted approach towards urban development can help us achieve multiple SDGs simultaneously.

However, an adaptation of the global sustainability goals at city levels is not easy. City-level data are also often not available for several SDG targets, as many urban functions (e.g. water supply, electricity, transport) are controlled by parastatals functioning under upper-tier governments or private actors. Moreover, cities in most developing countries frequently do not have adequate financial and administrative capabilities to undertake additional tasks involved in meeting SDG targets. The NUA sought to address these difficulties and prod the national governments to pay more attention to their cities by framing National Urban Policies. The National Urban Policies are expected to be applied as institutional frameworks to strengthen urban planning, governance and financial capabilities of the cities, but they are not legally binding.

According to the recently released ‘Global State of National Urban Policy 2021’ report published by the UN-Habitat, 162 countries have formulated national urban policies. According to a survey carried out as part of the report suggests that: balanced territorial development, coherent vision for urban development, and improved policy co-ordination across sectors, are the main outcomes different countries aim to achieve through their respective National Urban Policies.

The report also brings out wide variations in the approaches that different countries have adopted in framing national urban policies Many countries had identified clear outcome-based targets to achieve sustainable urban development or social inclusion, while others have included quality of life indicators. More than two-third of the countries recognize the potential of their urban policies to achieve targets related to SDG-6 (clean water and sanitation), SDG-8 (Decent work and economic growth), and Goal 13 (Climate action), in addition to SDG-11. The report also highlights that there are critical implementation challenges due to deficiencies of inter-sectoral and multilevel policy coordination, lack of robust urban scale data, inadequate financial support, and human resource capacity gaps.

The ongoing Covid-19 crisis had dealt a devastating blow to the Sustainable Development Agenda 2030. The SDG targets ware already falling short in 2019, before the pandemic stuck. Now the situation has further worsened as the pandemic has caused widespread job crisis, disrupted essential supply chains, increased gender violence, worsened educational attainments, and widened urban inequalities. As the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres observed in the 2020 SDG Progress Report “due to COVID-19, an unprecedented health, economic and social crisis is threatening lives and livelihoods, making the achievement of Goals even more challenging.”

The challenges are likely to be most vivid in the cities. According to the World Bank estimates, “[i]ncreasing numbers of urban dwellers are expected to fall into extreme poverty” due to the pandemic . Under the circumstances, it is interesting to note that several countries have identified National Urban Policy as a key policy instrument to attain multidimensional SDG targets and to drive post-covid recovery to become cleaner and greener, more disaster-resilient, and socially inclusive. However, to translate policy vision to action, implementation road maps need to be identified and financial resources need to be organized. The challenges are most acute in the less developed countries and would require greater technical and economic support from the global community.

The Government of India has accorded high priority to meeting the SDG targets and is also a signatory to the New Urban Agenda. Since 2018, the NITI Aayog’s SDG dashboard has been regularly measuring accomplishments along with different sectoral goals. Tracking SDG-11 targets regarding housing conditions and sanitation facilities helps to bring out a granular picture to understand how different states had fared in implementing urban sector programs like Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and Swatch Bharat Mission.

Moreover, the Central Government has launched several city-level benchmarking exercises such as National Urban Digital Mission, Municipal Performance Index, Ease of Living Index, Swatch Sarvekshan Index etc. Data from these indices are important foundational steps towards a more evidence-based policy making in future. A challenging task in this regard would be to bring greater coherence among the indices and link them up with specific SDG targets and indicators.

India has brought out a National Urban Policy Framework (NUPF) in 2018. However, compared to other BRICS countries like Brazil and South Africa, the Indian urban policy is still at a very preliminary state in terms of comprehensiveness. The NUPF has a ‘loose-fit, light-touch’ approach and suggests that each state should frame its own urban policy based on its specific local context. As guidance towards framing of state level urban policies, the NUPF has articulated 10 ‘urban sutras’, or philosophical principles. However, these ‘urban sutras’ are broadly stated and there is no clarity about how the sutras could be applied through policies and programmes.

The ‘loose-fit, light-touch’ approach of the NUPF is indeed appropriate for a large and regionally diverse country like India. Urban development is a state subject under the Indian constitution and the need for having a state-specific urban policy cannot be overestimated to achieve sustainability objectives. State-level urban policies need to articulate steps to strengthen the municipal governments through time-bound devolution of funds, functions, and functionaries. However, for that to happen, the NUPF needs to articulate more detailed guidelines and procedures to help the state governments and transparent monitoring mechanisms. Urban policies of Brazil and South Africa could provide valuable inputs in this regard, as they also have three-tier federal constitutional arrangements.

Achieving inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable cities for all, as outlined in SDG-11 and the NUA, requires national, state, and municipal governments to recognize the interdependence of global goals and local actions and to follow an integrated vision for development and urban resilience-building. A robust and more comprehensive National Urban Policy can facilitate this process.

About the Author :


Tathagata Chatterji is Professor (Urban Management & Governance) at XIM University (earlier Xavier University), Bhubaneswar

Email – tathagata@xub.edu.in

Picture Courtesy: unhabitat.org