Planning for a mega city

  • 30/01/1997

Planning for a mega-city in a poor developing country like India is not easy. Large investments are needed to keep the environment clean and to provide basic services like clean air and water, schools, hospitals, proper transport and road space. If the political leadership does not have adequate financial resources or foresight to invest well in time, cities will deteriorate into living hells; Delhi today offers a fine example.

Countries like India with their grandiose and, in so many ways, fraudulent love for socialism have further worsened the situation by providing most of these services through state-owned enterprises and massive subsidies, both of which breed incredible levels of callousness, sloth, inefficiency and wastefulness. Privatisation of urban services and infrastructure will provide one solution. It will introduce efficiency and appropriate pricing mechanisms which will force urban citizens to pay the true cost of services they obtain. But privatisation can, by leaving the poor out, create an inequality problem. How does one, therefore, bring in efficiency and economic viability together with social justice? It is a million-dollar question, one which is extremely difficult to answer because urban life is expensive and subsidies just cannot provide the solution. When has a subsidy in India actually reached the poor? Politicians raid state coffers to reduce prices in the name of the poor and get their votes, while the bulk of the benefits goes to the rich who should actually be forced to pay the full costs of their consumption.

I got a taste of the problems facing Delhi a week ago at a seminar organised by the Delhi government to prepare an approach for the Ninth Five Year Plan. Speaker after speaker argued that the city was in a state of crisis. That it needed more schools, more hospital beds, more electricity, more road space, a mass rapid transit system, more welfare facilities and clean air. And to that wish list, I added my two bit as well: the city needs clean water too. But where is the money for all this going to come from?

In such a situation, there cannot be good city planning unless there is a vision - shared by the leadership, bureaucracy and the public alike. But the trouble with all urban visions in the developing world is they are totally based on Western imports. What does Delhi want to be like? London or New York? Unfortunately, none of these knee-jerk imports can work for the simple reason that the Western urban development model is highly natural resource-intensive as well as capital-intensive. When imported into the developing world, Western-style cities prey over the surrounding hinterland, depleting it of resources and polluting it with all their wastes. At the same time, the capital-intensity divides the urban population between people who can afford the expensive urban services and those who cannot. And as population and wealth grow, the city's inability to make the necessary investments in time and with foresight slowly turns it into a polluted paradise.

I would set two objectives for urban planning in India: One, environmental sustainability, and two, public participation in development and implementation of plans and programmes. To achieve environmental sustainability, natural resources need to be used carefully and efficiently. Take the case of water. There is a lot of talk and attention being paid to increasing water supply to Delhi because of its growing population, but nothing about demand management by introducing efficiency in water use. To cite just one example, a substantial part of the city's water ends up in flush toilets. The huge volume of wastewater thus generated demands massive public investments in sewage treatment facilities. Polluting technologies are usually cheaper because they externalise the health and resource management costs onto the society and the public. Flush toilets which use more water are, thus, more expensive than those which use less water. Is there not a need to reverse this price mechanism so that customers find it advantageous to purchase more environment-friendly and cost-effective technologies? Can Delhi impose a progressive and high sales tax on all flush toilets which use more water than those which use less? There is clearly a need to look at all natural resource-using and polluting technologies in this manner.

Can we also learn from the experience of Chennai and Chennai Refineries and create 'sewage markets' in Delhi? Chennai's acute water scarcity has forced the Refineries - which needs a regular supply of processed water - to actually buy sewage from the municipal corporation and then treat it at its own expense to obtain water. This experience shows that Delhi need not look to the Centre or any foreign donor for reducing a large part of the current pollution load on the Yamuna. Industries can be made to invest not only in treating industrial wastewater, but also domestic wastewater. It all depends on the pricing and availability of water.

In today's rapidly changing ecological, economic and demographic scenario, we will need to be constantly on our toes and innovate new approaches. The public has to be involved in this exercise for developing a humane and green city. This means honesty and transparency on behalf of the government and not a constant effort to under play the problems and behave defensively to every criticism. In many cities of Europe, local authorities have a minister for ngos and the civil society. Can Delhi follow the lead and appoint such a minister whose sole job will be to involve people in the management of the city?

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