Sustainable Town Planning in India: The need, law and roadblocks

Manu Tripurari
Urban town planning

Usually when I start off for my workplace, I find busy roads, flooding garbage bins, overcrowded markets, and jams at confluence of major routes. When heavy showers pour during rainy season, we find several cities including metro cities like Delhi and Mumbai facing flood like situations. The decreasing green cover and shrinking water bodies add to the woes of such populous cities. Most advanced cities face critical shortage of potable water, electricity and public amenities. Why are such things happening? Why are we still facing such problems when we have made considerable advances in technology, economy and lifestyle improvement? This piece would highlight the issue of sustainable town planning in India, the need for it, the legal framework and the roadblocks.

The Predicament

One of the prominent reasons why big cities face the worst situations is because of the tremendous pressure put forth by the ever-increasing population, migration and the scarcity of resources. Town planning therefore becomes of critical importance. But what kind of planning are we talking about? Is it for satisfying the present requirements or preparing a viable model for the future? This means that the need of the hour is sustainable town planning. Sustainability is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”[i]

Sustainable urban planning involves several disciplines, including architecture, engineering, environmental science, materials science, law, transportation, technology, economic development, accounting and finance, and effective governance, among others. Such kind of arrangement also develops innovative and practical approaches for land use and its impact on natural resources.[ii] Sustainable cities & communities have also been included as the 11th Goal in UNDP’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Question however remains – why it is needed? To answer that, let us imagine a ply sheet which the manufacturer proclaims to withstand a weight of 40 Kg but is imposed with a weight of 80 Kg. It still might not break but if the weight is increased to 100 Kg or anything above the tensile strength,[iii] it is surely going to fracture. This is pure physics, which is followed by our urban ecosystem as well. In absence of planning we bulldoze our cities so much that the results are such catastrophes.

The rapid growth of cities in the developing world, coupled with increasing rural to urban migration, has led to a boom in mega-cities. In 1990, there were ten mega-cities with 10 million inhabitants or more. In 2014, there are 28 mega-cities, home to a total 453 million people.[iv] This has grown to 35 as per Dermographia (2020) with each with a 10 million plus population.[v]

Building a sustainable town/city should mean ecologically friendly projects, people-oriented designs, transparent and accountable urban governance which is accommodative and inclusive. This also has an effect on lifestyle and longevity as studies conducted by Harvard’s Healthy buildings center found that in green buildings with enhanced ventilation and optimal thermal conditions, participants scored 26 percent higher on cognitive function tests and had fewer symptoms of sick building syndrome, claustrophobia and several like. Exposure to daylight and brighter, blue-enriched lighting, which best mimics natural light, was also associated with better sleep quality. Chemicals used in building materials and furnishings that are known to accumulate in both humans and the environment is coming under closer scrutiny by researchers.[vi] Planting trees, growing resilience, rainfall water harvesting and storm drains, etc. might reduce the risks to the neighborhoods including life and property.

Extreme poverty is often concentrated in urban spaces, particularly slums and national and city governments struggle to accommodate the rising population in these areas. Making cities safe and sustainable would mean ensuring access to safe and affordable housing and upgrading slum settlements. It also involves investment in public transport, creating green public spaces in a planned manner, and improving urban planning and management in a way that is both participatory and inclusive.[vii]

Sustainable city life is one of 17 Global Goals that make up the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.[viii] Urban city planning also calls for “a communications exercise,” a strategy for reaching different sections of the city, says architect Jon Penndorf,[ix] who was part of a team that developed architectural plan for cities like Washington, New York & Las Vegas. That includes outreach to lower income and less mobile populations, who are often in the most vulnerable parts of the city.[x] Apposite waste management, water, energy, well developed public transport systems; tree plantation, etc. are few of the many essentials of a better town planning which results in increased organizational levels, convenience and productivity. Unfortunately, in India such communication exercise is absent leading to prioritization of certain developed regions of the city over the other and truncates the role of local governments.[xi]

Smart Cities with Un-smart Governance

Smart Cities are basically focused on improving how we, piece by piece, make existing systems more efficient. In the Smart Cities Mission under the aegis of Ministry of Housing & Urban Affairs, the objective is to promote cities that provide core infrastructure and give a decent quality of life to its citizens, a clean and sustainable environment and application of ‘Smart’ Solutions.[xii] Despite the so-called initiative of developing 100 smart cities and rejuvenating another 500, the present reality is grim. Most of the urban cities still suffer from lack of basic amenities and most of the projects are focused on addressing current situation with poor implementation rather creating a roadmap for requirements/pressure that would mount in near future because of increasing population. Many states due to lack of scientific planning and poor policy making fail to either utilize the smart city fund or keep reworking their projects.[xiii]

In a recent example from Patna, on the busy Bailey Road, in the heart of city, more than 2,200 trees have been chopped in the last two and half years in the name of road widening.[xiv] After cognizance was taken by the Patna High Court which equated such felling with murder, most astonishing was the fact that the State Government did not have any plausible explanation for indiscriminate felling or any relocation policy for trees.[xv]

Software and technology that makes better use of our buildings, roads, services, and open space is critical to setting the stage for a more inclusive and less demanding city. But also needed are tools and practices which can shape a more coherent protracted range future, that look to the large changes in infrastructure without compromising on environmental factors as it is the foundation of sustainable development. But this must happen from the microscopic level so to make the model sustainable. Several modern-day green buildings[xvi] are equipped with rooftop rainwater harvesting system, waste management practice, composting toilets and taps solar energy for its in-house needs, making them self-sustainable, yet such practice remains exclusive to certain segments of large metro cities in India.

Future land-use patterns and circulation systems are the groundwork of better cities, shaping the next generation of investments, systems and policies. We cannot understand the efficacy of new strategies and infrastructure without setting the future framework. This is where law comes into play. The amended land acquisition act though empowering has created huge difficulty and tardiness in land acquisitions and executions of projects; hence requiring a review. Acquisition process is sluggish and troubled with bureaucratic decision making.

Red Tapism keeps procrastinating timely execution of sustainable project and discourages private players & public participation. Litigation over such ventures leads to both cost escalation as well as under-performance of time skewed projects. The Government makes policies without input from subject specialists or stakeholders leading to criticism and delays. The present Environment Impact Assessment policy, 2020 was being criticized for being insensitive towards the voice of people and community, leaving action subject to cognizance by government alone.[xviii]

Shaping the future of the city depends on consensus and coalitions; it is essentially apolitical act. Current practice typically involves elected officials adjudicating the interests of multiple stakeholders; neighborhood groups, developers, unions, environmentalists, and social equity advocates to name a few. This diverse group of voices often leads to stalemate, delay and least common denominator outcomes. Comprehensive analysis across a full range of metrics can reveal win-win strategies that demonstrate there are choices that do not involve painful trade-offs.[xix] Some virtuous development patterns can solve many problems simultaneously, amplifying cost effectiveness and smoothing the political process. Every project must push beyond static jurisdictional boundaries or simple property lines to the regional context. Expanding the domain always leads to more sustainable and powerful schemes. It is essential for planning in the 21st century that could be sustained for at least half the century.[xx]

Conclusion

The foundation of our future rests at the intersection of environmental responsibility, social equity, and economic strength of our cities. The efforts should be focused on creating an urban design, a plan, framing the right infrastructure and revolutionary public policy. This would involve enhancing connections between the stakeholders and taking special interest into analyzing information/data and utilizing the same for the purposes of a planned and robust sustainable urban infrastructure. Reducing bureaucratic hurdles could be a better way to start with. Scientific approach with inputs from subject specialists and scenario planning could be next. Connecting information in ways that create insight is fundamental to understanding and design of a well-developed sustainable city. This information and futuristic vision should be the threshold for formulating laws rather than whims of legislature based on political history. Greater good can only come if we optimally utilize our scarce resources for a sustainable urban development model by having all stakeholders being on the same page.


[i] Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (United Nations, 1987), www.un-documents.net/ocf-02.htm#I.

[ii] https://academicpartnerships.uta.edu/articles/public-administration/what-is-sustainable-urban-planning.aspx

[iii] maximum load that a material can support without fracture when being stretched, divided by the original cross-sectional area of the material; Source: https://www.britannica.com/science/tensile-strength

[iv] https://www.in.undp.org/content/india/en/home/post-2015/sdg-overview/goal-11.html

[v]  “World Urbanization Prospects, The 2018 Revision” (PDF). UN DESA. 7 August 2019. p. 77

[vi] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/urban-expeditions/green-buildings/design-trends-sustainability-cities-wellness-climate-change/

[vii] https://www.sdgfund.org/goal-11-sustainable-cities-and-communities

[viii] Supra Note 4

[ix] Jon Penndorf, AIA is a Senior Associate in the Washington, DC office of Perkins+Will, where he serves as Sustainability Leader and Project Manager

[x] Supra Note 5

[xi] Smart Cities Mission- Flaws in flagship programme; 29th June 2016, Source: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/Smart-Cities-Mission-Flaws-in-a-flagship-programme/article14406724.ece

[xii] http://smartcities.gov.in/upload/uploadfiles/files/What%20is%20Smart%20City.pdf

[xiii] States fail to spend Smart City funds, The Hindu, 10th September 2016; Source: https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/State-fails-to-spend-smart-city-funds-Centre-takes-serious-note/article14631072.ece

[xiv] https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/pollution/bihar-bans-tree-felling-65186

[xv] Patna: Cutting of trees for road-widening akin to murder says HC; 25th June 2019; Source: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/69946270.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst

[xvi] Green building is the practice of creating structures and using processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s life-cycle from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation and deconstruction

[xviii] https://thewire.in/environment/draft-environment-impact-assessment-notification-international-law

[xix] Peter Calthrope, The Cognitive City; Source: https://meetingoftheminds.org/the-cognitive-city-25818

[xx] https://urbanfootprint.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/7-Strategies-for-Sustainable-Urban-Planning-Final.pdf

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