Indian Smart Cities and urban planning drowns under repeated floods

India needs to climate proof its urban planning

Politics

August 9, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Indian Smart Cities and urban planning drowns under repeated floods

Studies estimate that between now and 2030, another 500 million persons are expected to migrate to cities for better economic opportunities (MIG photos: Aman Kanojiya)

On June 25, 2015, amidst much fanfare, Narendra Modi launched the “100 Smart Cities Mission” to transform urban India and bring it at par with developed nations. The mission also includes rejuvenation of 500 other cities. Six years later, despite rankings released each year, India’s ‘Smart Cities’ continue to suffer from high pollution, poor waste management and repeated floods as climate vagaries repeatedly drown smart cities.

India has been undergoing rapid urbanisation as millions of people continue to migrate to the nearest city in search of better opportunities. This has already pushed the ratio of urban population higher in the country. Studies estimate that between now and 2030, another 500 million persons are expected to migrate to cities for better economic opportunities.

Little wonder then that three of the world’s 10 largest cities which are Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata along with the world’s fastest growing cities Ghaziabad, Surat and Faridabad in line are all in India. There are close to 300 cities in India, as per the 2011 census, and of which 50 cities are home to more than a million people each.

Despite the rapid growth in urban population and despite the Smart City tags, every Indian city, large or small, suffers from significant problems cutting across domains – waste management, drinking water, sewage, education, pollution, green, open spaces, to name just a few.

Underneath the Smart City tags, heaps of untreated garbage, highly polluted and rapidly shrinking water bodies, disappearing open spaces and world’s most unbreathable air have become landmarks of each city. And come Monsoon each year, practically the cities see their streets turn into knee-deep rivers and narrow lanes with buildings on both sides into rivulets as drains overflow. Unplanned and mindless construction in the name of development and urbanisation that involves the eating away of natural rivers, ponds and lakes shrinks the outlets where the excessive rainwater can be drained. The debilitating floods of 2015 in Chennai is one stark example and also Mumbai, the commercial capital of India, a well as Delhi where monsoon floods have increasingly become an annual phenomenon.

Experts say that flooding in the country’s so called smart cities is because of a lack of holistic planning and sheer neglect of urban ecosystems. Other than the immense inconvenience caused to citizens, the issue also holds serious economic setbacks. It can lead to a decline in the nation’s GDP as much as 3 pc annually, as per the report of the United Nations Environment Programme.

Urbanisation in India has been on the rise since Independence. In 1950, only around 17 pc of the population lived in cities. Currently, more than a third live in urban areas. The lack of effective planning behind cities can be attributed to the sudden population explosion. Say, Chandigarh, known to be one of the most beautiful and well-planned urban areas in the country was meant for half a million people. But over the years more than a million and half people have sought residence. This has forced the city to expand haphazardly in order to meet the rise in population thus, in similar cases of growing cities like Ghaziabad and Surat the situation gets even worse.

As per the study by the NGO Seeds and Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters based in the University of Louvain School of Public Health, Brussels, 56 pc of smart cities in India are said to be prone to floods that account for 77 pc of all disasters in India. The report was based on the disaster data between the period 2000 and 2017. It also observed that India has experienced over 11 flood events per district in the last 18 years. The study goes on to say that 98 pc of India’s 642 districts have experienced at least one flood event.

This data brings to light the vulnerability of Indian cities while tackling climate change. Dharamshala, a designated smart city under the central government’s Smart City Mission saw flash floods in the month of July. Varanasi too, that was going through a lot of redevelopment work, experienced immense floods a few months back. The capital, Delhi’s Chandni Chowk area too was flooded last month even though there was hardly any rainfall. This shows the poor planning, implementation and management on the part of the government which is planning to invest almost INR 2 trillion or USD 30 billion on Smart City projects.

And already INR 1.4 trillion or USD 20 billion worth projects have been completed or nearing completion under the mission, as per the government, though citizens continue to wonder if all that investment did not get washed away in the annual floods.

Data-smart City Solutions, an institute for democratic governance and innovation based in Chicago has been working on green infrastructure projects as a cost-effective approach to limit as well as mitigate the harmful effects of storm-water runoff. In their study, they have established examples such as permeably paved roads built with water-pervious materials that help in limiting storm-water runoff. Green roofs and rain gardens that act as natural absorbers of stormwater and bioswales that are curved landscape masses with sloped sides found near parking lots that help in removing pollutants from automobiles in rainwater.

India Climate Dialogue, an organisation that initiates studies and research on climate change, explains, “Climate resilience has failed to find expression in Smart City proposals in India because of which rising instances of flooding are regularly bringing cities to a standstill, often causing significant damage to life and property. Therefore, transformation needs to take place from 100 smart cities to 100 resilient cities that involves detailed city-level planning and preparedness for climate induced events.”

It calls upon the government and urban planners must pay heed to the limitations behind the development of smart cities that are being increasingly revealed by the changes in climatic conditions. The planners and city authorities also need to look around the world and adopt solutions that other metropolises have used or are deploying to become climate resilient.

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