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Twenty-First Century Urban Realities

By Rajiv Rawat
Garhwal Post, 6 August 2007

Next year, the world’s urban population will surpass its rural population for the first time in history. While the pessimists foresee a planet of slums coupled with further environmental devastation, optimists including those at the UN highlight the positives despite the daunting challenges facing human civilisation.

The UN Population Fund (UNPFA) paints a particularly bright future in its 2007 State of World Population Report, seeing within the concentration of human beings the seeds of economic growth. Now for those who think this optimism might seem misplaced if not entirely Pollyannaish, UNPFA does outline the steps that will need to be taken almost immediately to ensure a less than bleak future. Whether various national and subnational jurisdictions can enact a revolution in urban governance given that their structural capacities have been eviscerated by privatisation and outstripped by dramatic demographic shifts remains to be seen.

In the case of India, home to a sixth of world’s peoples, census trends forecast an increase in the urban population by 87 percent over the next two decades, bringing India’s urban population up to a staggering 533 million. In the past ten years alone, the number of metropolitan cities has increased by around 50 percent, representing a belated recognition of growth throughout the country. This has meant the surge of new cities engulfing erstwhile rural hinterlands with smaller urban centres mopping up much of the growth as in the rest of the developing world.

The ensuing challenges have taken on many hues. Pressures on land, natural resources, and preexisting physical and administrative infrastructure have combined to stress cities to the breaking point. The depletion of traditional potable water supplies has been one major issue that has sparked international concern. Lack of garbage disposal facilities beyond spot incineration and the increasing use of non-biodegradable packaging, plastic bags, and containers has become a chronic feature of Indian life. Urban sprawl has run up against environmental preservation, as forested and agricultural lands have been gobbled up by uncontrolled growth.

Moreover, new problems associated with growing affluence such as air pollution and traffic congestion have cropped up. Centre for Science and the Environment (1999), a prominent Indian environmental research organization, determined that in the twenty years between 1975 and 1995, vehicular emissions increased eight-fold, far exceeding the Indian GDP increase of only 2.5 percent during the same period. One can only image the increase since 1995! Indeed, air pollution has emerged as a silent killer in urban areas.

An increasingly migrant workforce has also made planning difficult as urban areas continue to draw a steady trickle of the newly dispossessed forced out of their declining agricultural livelihoods. Providing housing, employment, and services for these migrants has only added to the woes of an overburdened urban infrastructure, thus eroding their capacity to control and regulate each additional influx. The cascade affect has in some cases led to a free fall collapse of effective city governance.

From the vantage point of Doonites who have seen the calamitous transformation of Dehradun since independence, optimism as evinced by the UN has quickly become the reserve of only the most intrepid urbanist. Much of this owes to Dehradun’s past character as a colonial town nestled gently in the green vale of the mighty Himalayas. While not entirely gone, the crush and the chaos of population and pollution have nearly submerged its vaunted identity, turning Dehradun into just another town of the UP plains.

Moreover, other regions of Uttarakhand are facing rapid urbanization. The hill districts adjoining Dehradun district have witnessed a four-fold increase in the number of towns between 1901 and 1981. The expanding network of roads has played an important part in this clustering of much of the region’s population, including in the case of Chamba, which emerged from obscurity just two decades ago to become one of the major urban centres of Tehri district. Meanwhile, towns such as Pauri, Gopeshwar, and Joshimath are far exceeding their carrying capacity and facing chronic difficulties with water and sanitation. In Mussoorie and Nainital, two celebrated hill stations, overbuilding, overpopulation, and pollution have seriously eroded their charm and livability. Complicating matters further, these new “concrete jungles” have had to contend with the low carrying capacity and fragility of mountain environments. That these towns will become “typical third world urban nightmares” is a looming possibility if nothing is done to enact basic principles of urban planning.

Thus how could cities in the hills “reduce poverty and promote sustainability” in the words of the UNFPA Report? The answer is both simple and complex. Simple in that it will take the strengthening of local governance structures and their tax base to support the infrastructure necessary for maintaining a decent quality of life. Complex in that a new civic mindedness will need to be inculcated amongst new urban residents so that they can share and contribute to the public life of the city. Either by forming grassroots organizations in their own neighbourhoods or participating in the democratic process at the municipal level, city dwellers can empower themselves to ameliorate their immediate surroundings.

However, beyond all this, the very development model and economic growth paradigm will have to be challenged if cities like Dehradun are to stand a chance of survival in the long term. As noted, this issue is most pressing in ecologically sensitive areas, where urbanisation can have a devastating effect. The anarchic shift to a high consumption, motor vehicle-dependent society, especially in a country where land is scarce and population density is so high, is a dead end that policy makers must reconsider given the twin cataclysmic threats of global oil depletion and climate change. The incredible waste of resources the American model entails must be rejected. In fact, non-mechanized forms of conveyance could go a long way to slowing the pace of the city to within livable means as well as improving the air quality, which has never been worse.

Finally, the existential needs of the poor who will make up an ever-growing portion of the urban population will be a key issue that should be addressed through what UNFPA terms a “new and proactive approach.” What this approach may be will depend on one’s sense of equity and social justice as well as foresight to prevent the type of social unrest that may very well turn the cities of tomorrow into war zones. Managing this with scarce financial and natural resources on the part of urban local bodies will require all the ingenuity and finesse of our political leadership. Are they up to this generational task?