Urban Stories 2017: India’s Top Issues to Watch in the Year Ahead
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In 2017, India Will Enhance its Public Bicycling Infrastructure as a part of the Ministry of Urban Development’s Smart Cities Mission. Photo by Benoit Colin / EMBARQ / Flickr

As the year comes to an end, Urban Stories explores the emerging trends, key decisions and major changes on the horizon for cities around the world in 2017. With a new installment each day from India, Brazil and Washington, D.C., our series will provide an insightful overview of what’s happening in cities globally.

Public Outcry Grows in Response to Local Problems

Over the last year, Indian cities have witnessed growing conflict over issues related to urban growth, development, transport and the delivery of other public services. Poor service delivery, inadequate access, deteriorating urban infrastructure and ineffective decision making have resulted in public outcry in several cities.

For instance, in Bangalore, the government’s decision to construct a 6.72 km, INR 1791 crore (4.18 mile, USD 263 million) steel flyover was met with intense public opposition. Tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets in protest, mobilized online campaigns and demanded that the local authorities rethink the project. In Delhi, air quality has been a much-discussed issue, with pollution readings hitting hazardous levels. Various citizens’ groups, supported by celebrities, staged protests demanding that the government take immediate and effective measures to curb the rising pollution levels. And in Mumbai, questions around open public spaces and affordable housing were triggered by the new proposed city Development Plan, forcing the city government to order a revision of that plan.

India’s politics and administrative structures are undergoing a significant transformation with growing urban populations. Experts in the field, academics and the general public have recognized that current governance structures and the resulting decisions are not adequately addressing the issues cities are facing. The debates and discussion of significant issues, like devolution of power to local governments, housing and tenure for new immigrants and the adoption of participatory planning approaches, will take another decade or two to fully resolve. In the meantime, we will continue to see more conflict as we go into 2017.

100 Smart Cities: From Good Proposals to Great Projects

In early 2016, the Government of India’s Ministry of Urban Development launched the Smart Cities Mission, inviting applications from cities to participate in a competitive process that would award INR 100 crore (USD 14.7 million) in funding for urban transformation projects. The Mission is aimed at improving governance, promoting equitable growth and access to services and ensuring public participation in urban development, resulting in an enhanced quality of life for residents.

Several innovative proposals were submitted for projects, ranging from public bicycling, pedestrian-friendly streets, public spaces, e-governance, use of technology to improve transportation systems, water and waste management and others. Many of the winning cities are tier 2 cities—cities with populations between 1 and 10 million. In 2017, we will see several of these proposals starting to get implemented into projects that have the potential to improve lives. Ahmedabad’s transit-oriented zone project in Wadaj, a fully automated public bicycling system in Bhopal and Kochi’s redevelopment of its heritage district are some excellent examples.

What Do Indian Cities Need to Succeed in 2017?

So, what do cities need to do in order to leverage investment and ensure change on the ground in the coming year in a way that is equitable and sustainable? One, there needs to be a focus on capacity building; two, governments should leverage private sector investment and innovation; and three, cities need platforms to share learnings from pilot projects and ensure a transfer of knowledge.

Greater Capacity Building

There is a growing need for capacity building across several layers, including the political classes, bureaucrats, practitioners and implementation bodies. The entire process of public service delivery, including planning, financing, tendering, implementation and gaining public support requires specific intervention and capacity at different stages. It is important that Indian governments have a current, common understanding of how things have evolved in this space around the world, and how Indian cities can localize and adopt global best practices.

Improving Private Sector Involvement

Secondly, the private sector needs to be more effectively engaged. Although private sector involvement in public services has been growing over the last five years or so, there have been several challenges. Most importantly, the private players haven’t been able to fully meet the requirements that cities need. Indian decision makers need to actively think of ways in which the public sector and the private sector are not competing but complementing each other, and that risks taken on either side are safeguarded. On the other hand, it is important for these private sector leaders to adequately equip themselves to participate in discussions with civil society and government leaders. This participatory approach will allow cities to grow with a focus on catering to the needs of all groups of people.

After all, India has witnessed private sector-supported innovations at various levels and the development of alternative service delivery models to better meet people’s needs. For instance, through public-private partnerships, in Indore, the bus rapid transit (BRT) system has changed the way people commute. In Surat, renewable energy production and distribution has been transformed, and in Pune, the city has successfully piloted a waste-to-energy project. These projects have tremendous potential. Regulatory and legislative changes will be required, and new models of financing are needed, which will afford an enabling environment for the scaling-up of these projects.

Shared Learning

Cities need to learn from one another. Through national-level convenings and platforms that allow for the exchange of best practices, the successes and lessons learned from innovative projects, like effective public transport operations, urban governance structures, building efficiency, waste management and the development of safe public spaces, can be shared. Since 2012, WRI India’s Bus Karo initiative has brought together representatives from public bus operators from around the country, resulting in the transfer of best practices across cities. For instance, an event in Visakapatnam in 2012, which showcased the city agency’s work around driver training and fuel efficiency, resulted in this training being transferred to 14 other cities over the next two years. Cities would benefit from similar platforms in other sectors, such as water and waste management, urban infrastructure, electricity planning and distribution and other areas of public service delivery.

The Year Ahead

While the cities of 2016 have witnessed the start of positive changes, in the form of the Smart Cities Mission and greater public voice in matters concerning urban planning and development, 2017 will be the year when cities will take concrete steps towards realizing those changes. Growth and expansion are inevitable, and it is now time for local governments, the private sector and citizens to make deliberate and concerted efforts towards sustainable and equitable growth.

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