Cities Sustainability

India’s Urban Awakening

Warren Karlenzig at Green Flow makes some very valid points for India cities as they grow both in number and size. Some of the comparisons with China are pretty interesting, especially the one about planned phases of growth in national cities.

Making the Cities of India More Sustainable

Article by Warren Karlenzig at Green Flow

With Mumbai, one of the largest cities of the world, treating only 30-40 percent of its sewage, experiencing five-hour traffic delays and hosting massively expanding unplanned slums, urban sustainability needs to be viewed through a different lens than elsewhere.

India will add an additional 26 cities of one million or more by 2030 to its 42 one million+ cities today. The 2008 population in cities of 340 million in 2008 will soar to 590 million by 2030. The need for much improved urban housing and health services, let alone better planning, governance and carbon management, threatens the nation’s and thus the world’s economic stability: India’s population by 2030 is forecast to overtake China’s


A report released this month by the McKinsey Global Institute, " India’s Urban Awakening," provides a rich and thorough analysis of the challenges faced by Indian cities, while also providing a clear agenda for future improvements. Changes will need to occur at the local, state and national level, and will require the active participation of the international business community through public-private partnerships.

First the bad news.

As a contrast to China, which has staged much of its recent urban growth in nationally planned phases targeted at geographies, economies and infrastructure, Indian cities are experiencing rapid unplanned growth. Major financial investment, to the tune of $1.2 trillion over the next 20 years, will be needed to address how Indian cities are falling short of meeting even a basic standard of living in:

Water supply: will need to increase 3.5 times current supply to meet basic demand by 2030

Sewage: treatment will need to increase two times current levels to meet demand by 2030

Solid waste: will need to increase six times today’s treatment levels by 2030 because of consumption expected by an emerging middle class.

Public transit access and service: 20 times the capacity of metros and subways will need to be added over what has been provided in the past ten years

Affordable housing: will need to increase 10 times by 2030 to meet expected needs.

Slum populations that now comprise 24% of India’s urban population will need to be addressed with formal affordable housing programs and housing structures.

Oddly, no forecasts were made in "India’s Urban Awakening" regarding the amount or mix of energy that will be needed to meet the needs of India’s cities. With massive growth in electricity use for buildings (at least 40% of India currently is not connected to the power grid), large increases in personal auto ownership, and volatile global energy supplies and pricing, India is faced with urban growth-associated issues that if unaddressed threaten the very core of its existence as a nation.

According to the McKinsey report, however, India has sufficient time and the means (with international financial, business and humanitarian partners) by which to address many of these pressing or devastating issues. The McKinsey Institute report also presented a framework for a plan by which India can meet the financial need to increase spending on cities from its current rate of 0.5% to 2% of GDP.

On a per-capita basis, India now spends 14% of what China spends on its cities and only 4% of what the United Kingdom spends on its cities.

The key elements of the report plan outlined five strategies for meeting its urban financial obligations, most of which India currently ranks "poor" in:

1. Monetize land assets.

2. Maximize property taxes and usage charges.

3. Establish a formula-based grants systems from state and central government.

4. Use appropriate debt and private-sector participation (i.e., public-private partnerships).

5. Create enabling systems and city development funds to facilitate use of revenue sources.

The report also outlined four significant "dimensions" besides funding, on which Indian cities need to concentrate improvements in order to successfully transform urban economies and sustainability opportunities:

1. Shape: Where people live. Unlike China, India has made no real attempt to plan where growth of cities will occur, or to determine where new cities will be most needed, and as a result unplanned urban sprawl is increasingly common.

2. Governance: How cities in particular are governed. Develop executive leadership at city level in mid-sized to large cities. India is currently the only G20 nation lacking such leadership. Cities in India are currently governed by their host states from a considerable distance in many cases. The report does cite the success of Kolkata’s (Calcutta) mayor-commission model as a potential national model for executive power combined with administrative-technical support.

3. Sectoral policies: These include economic development, sustainability management, and housing management. India does not plan enough for affordable housing, providing 200,000 units a year versus needed minimum of 2 million units. The number of people living in slums in 2008 was some 82 million, a number that could double by 2030. Recommendations are to establish funding, draw upon external expert advice and hire dedicated managers to focus on these areas.

4. Urban Planning: Change from ad hoc and sporadic planning. Develop longer-term plans (40-50 year) with nested 20-year master plans designating land uses, transportation services, infrastructure and building typologies that are actionable on the ground with transparent public processes. Use modeling and "fly-overs" to educate stakeholders of planning options (Singapore, London and New York are cited for best practices). India’s current urban planning processes exist as documents only, and are not executed or followed in reality.

The report in its introduction observes: "The speed of urbanization poses an unprecedented managerial and policy challenge–yet India has barely engaged in a discussion about how to handle this seismic shift in the makeup of the nation."

From my experience, I would dispute the assertion that the country is barely engaged in such discussions. My firm Common Current and our partners have been involved in a lively series of exchanges with high-level officials from national ministries and planning bodies in India regarding the future of its cities, with sustainability focused approaches in renewable energy, water and transportation infrastructure being key points of discussion.

How India’s national urban planning plays out on localized levels in actual cities, though, remains to be seen. Whatever may transpire, "India’s Urban Awakening" is an invaluable resource for determining just how the path forward can be understood and, hopefully, navigated.

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability strategy consultancy. He is author of How Green is Your City? The SustainLane US City Rankings and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.