Unregulated urbanisation is rendering life unpleasant in India.A look by M.A. Siraj

Cleaner, greener, sustainable, hygienic, in short livable cities are the dream of an average Indian, now that it is pretty certain that most of us would inevitably come to depend on cities for education, health, livelihood and entertainment. But the realities that stare in our face are stark. Finding an affordable house is a nightmare and owning a house of our own is a dream. Commuting to work or navigating the cities is full of unspeakable hassles. With greenery and water bodies vanishing at a rapid pace and automobile population reaching half the number of human souls inhabiting urban spaces — or at least in major metropolises — it is doubtful if there would be enough oxygen left for sustaining life.

It may not offend our senses, but for an outsider, people sheltered beneath flyovers, sidewalks pockmarked with faecal matter, noxious fumes leaving the eyes burning, slums proliferating behind billboards, garbage piles reaching the heavens and open sewers emitting unbearable stench make a revolting spectacle.

Undoubtedly, urbanisation has been engaging the attention of powers that be for the last two decades. With flyovers having come up in their hundreds, JNNURM-financed buses trundling the city thoroughfares, Metro trains (and even a monorail in Mumbai) streaking across cityscapes and gleaming skyscrapers rising in the air, it can be said that authorities have not been all that apathetic.

But then where lie the gaps? The latest (2013-14) report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Urban Development provides a few pointers. While there has been no dearth of ideas, it is evident from the report that lack of rapport between the agencies of the Union Government — mainly concerned with funding and recommending — and the State Governments in charge of executing projects, poses the major glitch in transforming urban areas into livable spaces.

No Master Plan

To begin with it is pointed out that three-fourths of Indian cities are functioning without a Master Plan, despite the Centre offering funds to carry out the exercise. The Union Urban Development Ministry, in its Action Taken Report, claims that only 24 per cent of the cities and towns have a Master Plan. Reason: No funds have been allocated by the Ministry of Urban Development for the purpose.

One would like to ask why it is so. A practical problem that impedes the effective implementation of urban schemes is that the number of ‘statutory towns’ (with an Urban Local Body, be it municipality or municipal corporation) has remained static since 2001 while the ‘Census Towns’ have increased from 1,362 in 2001 to 3,894 now. Unless the ‘Census Towns’ are notified as ‘Statutory Towns’ by the State Governments, the Central schemes for development of urban infrastructure cannot be taken up there. For Census purposes a ‘Census Town’ is one that has a minimum population of 5,000, with 75 per cent of the males engaged in non-farming pursuits, and a density of population of at least 400 persons a sq. km. In the absence of ULBs, no building byelaws can be enforced.

Sanitation

Under the National Urban Sanitation Policy (NUSP), the State Governments have to formulate State Sanitation Strategies and ULBs have to prepare City Sanitation Plans, focusing on 100 per cent sanitation across the cities including construction of public toilets with emphasis on preventing open defecation. But the committee notes with anguish that cities have shown no urgency to improve the situation. For instance, Chennai, which needs about 6,000 public toilets, has only 714 (12 per cent); and Nagpur, which needs more than 3,000 toilets, has only 318 (10 per cent). Even the existing ones are poorly maintained, badly located and hardly used. The situation in other cities is no more encouraging. Curiously, the ULBs are required to provide public toilets in the whole of their area as a prerequisite to avail themselves of funds from the JNNURM for any of their schemes.

Eliminating open defecation is a major goal under the NUSP by laying lay down an integrated citywide sanitation, or in simpler terms a sewerage system with treatment plants. Currently, 81.4 per cent of the urban households (according to the 2011 Census) have toilets within the premises, 12.5 per cent defecate in open spaces and six per cent share public latrines. Of the 81.4 per cent households, 32.7 per cent are connected with sewer lines, 38.2 use septic tanks, 8.80 have pit toilets and 1.70 are either connected to open drains or manually scavenged.

No land for landfills

Management of municipal solid waste (MSW) is considered integral to city sanitation. The committee found it disheartening to note that against the 44 sanctioned projects under JNNURM, only 10 have been completed. The remaining are in various stages of completion. Landfills are identified as a major point of concern. The Ministry stipulates that landfill sites should be at least 500 metres away from a notified habitation area and should have another 500 metre area around the boundary as a non-development buffer zone. Selection of such sites is a major problem. Moreover, landfills require compliance with the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification 2006.

With falling water table and rivers turning dead, India is seen as an environmental basket case. The committee noted that despite spending huge amounts on cleaning the Yamuna, the river was black and polluted. The Committee further observed that 350 to 400 million litres per day (MLD) of sewage generated by Nagpur city is disposed of in Nag river which ultimately pollutes the Gosikhurd Dam. Cities such as Mumbai, Vishakapatnam, Kolkata, and Chennai, situated on the sea coast, dump their MSW in the nearby creeks. Kanpur and Delhi dump their waste near the river banks. Bangalore and Jaipur, which do not have access to any water body, prefer to dump their waste near the highways. These dumping grounds adversely affect the environment by air, water and soil pollution and are thus highly hazardous for health.

As for making the cities sustainable, the model building byelaws make it mandatory for every premises over a plot area of 100 sq. m to have provision for rainwater harvesting. Similarly, any premises discharging 10,000 litres of waste-water a day should have a water recycle system. Though not much headway has been made, 25 States and Union Territories have notified these byelaws.

Social housing out of favour

The attitude of the ULBs towards Cooperative Group Housing Societies (CGHS) has been found to be lackadaisical. The report rather finds the Urban Development Ministry promoting private builders. It was evident from the fact that certain cooperative group housing societies were waiting for the land allotment for the last 30 years in Delhi itself. Completion Certificates were not being issued despite completion of all formalities. This attitude makes it plain that authorities were discouraging social housing.

The committee notes that the Energy Conservation Building Code (ECBC), meant to reduce energy consumption by about 1.7 billion units of electricity a year, was launched in 2007. But till date this code remains a recommendatory provision, not the mandatory one. The Code has not been adopted by the Central or the State Governments.

Among other salient features, the report finds the pace of JNNURM (launched in 2005) tardy and lopsided. Instead of encouraging use of bicycles, the ULBs were found to be interested in uprooting the existing infrastructure for bicycles.

Some cities were provided with a lot of buses, but without any funds for expansion of bus depots, leading to these vehicles being parked on roads and highways.

Some silver lining could be seen in experimentation with waste-to-energy generation in some areas.

Overall, an efficient coordination between the Union Government and States was missing.