In popular perception, growing more trees, burning less fossil fuels, and switching to renewable energy sources are the most widely understood ways of checking global warming and climate change. However, what is less obvious is the crucial role that cities will have to undertake if the world is to achieve net-zero levels of carbon emission.
The critical nature of this role emerges from the startling fact that though cities occupy just 2% of the world’s land, they are responsible for as much as 70% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. At the same time, cities present environment-related planners and policymakers with a grave dilemma. On the one hand, cities are engines of economic growth; on the other, they are the biggest sources of carbon emission. In comparison, the transport sector, which attracts considerable ire, accounts for 23% of GHG emissions.
For economically advanced countries, cutting back on urban emissions will be tough due to high levels of urbanization, but it will be even more difficult for developing countries like India, which has to strike a fine balance between reducing GHG emissions in its rapidly growing urban centers and maintaining rates of economic growth high enough to lift people out of poverty. This dilemma was recognized in 2015 by the inclusion of Goal 11 in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the UN. This goal aimed at building sustainable cities and communities as part of the 2030 Agenda that at the same time sought to end poverty, protect the planet, and improve the lives of “everyone, everywhere”.
For advanced countries, cutting back on urban emissions will be tough due to high levels of urbanisation
“Our cities are our future,” says Kirtee Shah, urban expert and founder president of the India Habitat Forum (INHAF). “There is no question about it. But for it to be a happy future and a sustainable future, a lot will have to change in the way we plan and develop cities, in the way we manage our cities and in the manner in which we live in our cities.”
International attention was first focused on the growing problems stemming from urbanization nearly half a century ago at the Habitat-1 Conference in Vancouver, Canada. Since then, a great deal of deliberation and action have gone into dealing with urban problems, and, of late, the large quantities of urban GHG emissions.
But it has also been pointed out that cities are vital centres of economic growth. The GDP of Osaka (Japan), for example, is more than the GDP of Australia while the GDP of Seoul (South Korea) is greater than the GDP of Indonesia as a whole. The share of GDP of urban centres in India is 60% and is expected to increase by 10% over the next decade. Until 1990, the country’s GDP was dominated by the rural economy, whose share was as much as 54% in 1990. Following economic liberalisation, the position was reversed and by 2001 the urban share reached 54%. By 2008, this had climbed to 58% and it is expected that by 2030 it will reach 69% — underlining the importance of urban centres in the economic growth of India.
Dr Wally N’Dow of Gambia, who was secretary general of the Habitat II Conference at Istanbul, Turkey, in 1996, recognised, even at that time, with great foresight the economic importance of cities while noting their problems of poverty, crime, drugs, polluted air and water, shelter, sanitation and drinking water shortage being faced by residents. “For all the problems and difficulties of urbanisation, we cannot stop it, nor should we. Not only is it at the heart of the new world in the making, it is the engine driving it.” Shah says it will not be possible to meet global climate change targets without transforming cities as well as the way in which urbanisation is viewed.
The long-term strategy submitted by India at COP-27 in Sharm El-Sheikh last November essentially agrees with this assessment, saying that a new approach for urban development is one of the crucial pillars of India’s long-term plans for meeting its GHG emission targets. Therefore, India will promote adaptation in urban design, energy and material efficiency in buildings and sustainable urbanisation to meet the immediate emission targets set for 2030.
The task, however, is easier said than done, given the extraordinarily rapid urban growth that India has witnessed after independence. Between the first census in 1951 and the last one in 2011, the urban population had increased over six-fold, from 62 million to 377 million — living in just under 8,000 cities and towns. The urban population of India is not just increasing, but the pace of its growth is also increasing. The increasing pace is evident from trends of urban population growth since 1901. According to Shah, it took 43 years for the urban population to double from 1901. The second doubling took 26 years, the third doubling took 20 years, and the fourth doubling from 1990 took just 17 years. By 2031 the urban population is expected to reach about 600 million and by 2051 it is projected to reach 877 million.
How is India to deal with this gigantic problem? The solution offered in the government’s long-term strategy is three-fold—urban planning, building codes and improved municipal services like waste management, sanitation and water supply. Urban planning includes rejuvenation as well as adaptation in building design, energy- and material-efficient buildings, and low-carbon urbanisation. Urban planning includes provision of housing under the Prime Minister’s Awas Yojana (PMAY) and the Smart Cities Mission. These policies are in continuation of those of earlier governments though under different names.
But in Shah’s view nothing short of a revolutionary change in mindsets will bring in substantial change. First, questioning the inevitability of resource-depleting, polluting, exploitative, dehumanising and unsustainable urbanisation is the key to making Indian cities better, liveable, inclusive, and sustainable. “There must be a revolution in the way we think of development. If the urban world and civilisation are to survive and produce peace and happiness, we need different kinds of economic growth, technology, energy, institutions, governance, and visions — a different kind of development.”
A new approach for urban development is one of the crucial pillars of India’s long-term plans for meeting its GHG emission targets
Second, the focus on economic growth must shift from exclusively quantitative to qualitative dimensions. It is true that cities are the engines of growth but at the same time they are also produced by growth. The qualitative aspects include determining whether the means of achieving growth are in harmony with ecology, whether it is exploitative or just, and whether it leads to contentment, happiness, and peace or to greed, strife, and violence.
Third, Shah lays emphasis on understanding and managing creatively the informality of Indian cities — informal systems, production processes, transaction methods, delivery systems and even the informal economy. He feels that planners, administrators and the ‘upper crust’ of urban society are hostile to this sector that is seen as ‘un-urban’, ‘backward’, ‘unsmart’, ‘illegal’ and ‘unauthorised’. But rejecting something as ingrained and innate as informality is like walking against gravity.
Shah feels that for sustainable urbanisation the poor have to be involved in governance. They have to be trusted to do things and solve their own problems rather than being viewed as a burden. “They are a resource. They are problem solvers,” he says.
That is why he is not optimistic about government housing schemes, which he feels are unlikely to succeed despite all their incentives and tax concessions. Slums, on the other hand, may provide an answer. They should not be bulldozed and removed from sight as eyesores. “Forget about building shelters for the poor. They can do it on their own as experience shows that out of every 10 houses the government has built only one while the people have built six. Instead, the government should focus on provision of services like sanitation, roads, and water supply.”
Shah, who had been a member of the National Commission on Urbanisation created by the prime minister in the 1980s, said that the people who live in slums will come up with the solutions, provided they are given the opportunity to do so. In a letter to the Ministry of Urban Affairs some years back he pleaded, “Do not bulldoze, do not evict, do not shun them as ugly eyesores. Do not see the residents as criminals and parasites. They are hard-working people. In fact, they run our laundry, clean our kitchens, supply us vegetables and allow us to bargain unlike the big departmental stores, and whether we like to admit it or not, build our cities.” That is why he suggests that they should be provided by the government with some kind of security of tenure so that they invest in it. “For the slum dweller ‘location’ is the social and economic asset. In the name of giving them better houses if you throw them 20 km away, that is not a service.”
“They are building what they can afford. We should start our intervention not with what they have but with what they do not have and badly need. Houses they have, services not. Give them services — safe drinking water, healthcare…. They have built these houses on their own. They will improve them on their own too.” This approach is not against formal housing. “This is an argument to make the houses ‘formal’ in the way they have been created… in the way low income can afford.” This, says Shah, will spare resources for the government, which can be used for improving physical infrastructure, social services and income generation. The saved resources can be used for increasing the supply of power from renewable sources in urban areas as well.
As much as 36.9 million tonnes of cement and 8.4 million tonnes of steel were used for construction of over six million houses
The progress review carried out by the government over six years of PMAY and published in June 2021 shows that the government can indeed not only save a great deal on resources and investment but also on the production of cement and steel that produces large amounts of GHGs. According to the review, as much as 36.9 million tonnes of cement and 8.4 million tonnes of steel were used in the construction of over six million houses. Cement production worldwide alone is responsible for the emission of 8% of the world’s carbon dioxide, according to a Chatham House report and as of 2023 India is the second largest producer in the world.
Sound advice. But will it be followed by those who wish Indian cities to resemble cities in economically advanced countries?As Shah points out, the trouble is that many in India want our Mumbai to become Shanghai and our Chennai to become Singapore. “We need to give up or shelve that dream… and think of a liveable and inclusive Mumbai. Just Mumbai, everybody’s Mumbai. And Chennai.”
The writer has been a media professional for 38 years. He was the former HoD of the Amity School of Communication, Amity University.