What 2018 held for Urban India

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2018 was (yet another) year of cities, big and small. It was in continuation of the many previous years through which cities (and citizens) have been resurging as a dominant political, economic and social unit, independent of their regional, state and national level identities. This has been a slow and steady but a definite process with various planned and unplanned factors contributing to the resurgence. These include political and constitutional provisions that gave greater powers to cities and citizens; evolution of government programs, their funding mechanisms and institutional structures; an increased sense of civic participation from citizens; limited capacity of centralised governance institutions to monitor and deliver; technological enablers such as internet and mobile phones. Bottomline-Cities are here to stay! Pun intended.     
In the past, various ex-post-facto policies on important urban issues have been framed by Union government, such as transit oriented development policy, metro rail policy, policy on faecal sludge management among others. This year discussions and action on a national level ‘urban policy’ gained traction. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) is undertaking its preparation through a group of experts and organisations. The policy is said to be aligned with New Urban Agenda that was adopted at Quito, Ecuador during the Habitat III Summit.

In the last year, many state governments also formulated state level policies pertinent to urban issues. There were various policies issued by the relevant state urban depts (as listed below) along with policies of other departments, that had a direct bearing on the cities such as ban on use of plastics, use of electric vehicles among others.

  • Gujarat Government notified a sanitation policy to streamline collection and disposal of all kinds of waste in urban areas. Bihar Government also notified a solid waste management policy.

  • Maharashtra Government notified a green building policy for promotion of environmental friendly buildings. It also has revised regulations for integrated townships in the state through which developers can get 3 to 3.6 times the existing building rights on green belts.

  • Tamil Nadu is finalising its Urban Housing and Habitat Policy while also working on Development Regulation and Building RulesPunjab also came up with a new set of building rules to boost construction activity. A land pooling policy was notified and approved, for Delhi under the Master Plan 2021, which allows private sector and landowners to pool their land for development. Haryana government notified a policy for regularisation of illegal buildings and land use

  • Madhya PradeshHaryana and Bihar (for Patna) drafted policies on Transit Oriented development. This is not an entirely new development, especially since urban development is a state subject. However, their formulation reflects the fact that states are adopting a policy lens to address critical urban issues, either in the form of creating new policy processes for their regulation or revising the existing ones.

Modes of financing in Indian cities continued to evolve in the last year. In the beginning of 2018, National Urban Housing Fund was set up, to provide extra budgetary resources (EBRs) especially for the affordable housing program. EBRs are government borrowings from state owned enterprises/institutions such as, Housing and Urban Development Company (HUDCO), National Social Security Fund (NSSF) among others. It also includes grants and loans from multilateral and bilateral agencies. The use of EBRs for capital expenditure especially for cities, was a visible trend in the last year. Mexico and few other cities have used non-bank, social security funds as a way to finance housing, though in the form of mortgage finance directly to (prospective) homeowners.
Project funding for cities under Smart Cities was converted into a challenge process last year. An all India challenge process (CITIIS) was launched where smart cities are applying and competing for project funding supported by French Development Agency (AFD) and European Union (EU),
2018 also put cities of India in stark contrast with its villages, further highlighting the rural-urban divide. This divide had both a real and a digital version. It was manifested in real terms through multiple farmers' protests across the country including the almost 200 km long march of farmers between Nashik and Mumbai. There was an organised farmer strikeacross 10 states (though call was for a nationwide strike), which restricted supply of essential items such as vegetables and milk to the cities. The digital version of this rural-urban divide was also prominent in the last year. A company’s expansion plans seem to be based on this alleged divide between urban ‘India’ and rural ‘Bharat. Also, not only was there a wide gap assessed between urban and rural populations in terms of mobile ownership (even larger gap than Pakistan, Bangladesh and Kenya), rural areas also seemed to have much lesser share of Internet users. However, the rural counterpart consumed a lot more TV entertainment and bought lot more automobiles than the urban. 

2018 was a year of many surveys and rankings. Indian cities are now getting used to being pitted against each other. Till a few years ago, lay citizen only heard of India as a country being ranked under various rankings- e.g. India’s rank in corruption, HDI etc. In last decade, governments began efforts to undertake city based competitions and rankings. However, these rankings were created internally by government departments. It was a competition between different (levels and regions) of government with little or no citizen feedback. Now the competition has opened to the public. Some of the city rankings in recent years have factored the voices of citizens. Consequently, citizens relate with the rankings as well. For e.g. Swachh Survekshan gives almost 1/3rd weight to feedback by citizens. That these rankings are taken seriously, can be inferred from the efforts of multiple cities to perform better in the upcoming rankings. For e.g. efforts of ChennaiPuneBhopalGuwahatiThoubalAurangabadKozhikode and many others. All these cities are making efforts to engage with citizens and other stakeholders to create awareness about the survey and achieve a better ranking.
Indian cities have also started making to various global rankings where they have been evaluated along with other international cities. In a recent ranking of global cities, the top ten fastest growing cities are from India. Another ranking where Indian cities held majority of top slots was the global ranking in bad air quality where India had 14 out of 15 most polluted cities in terms of PM 2.5.
Year 2018 also saw multiple international partnerships in the domain of urban development. There was also a Memorandum of Understanding that was approved between India and Singapore for cooperation in urban planning and other city level services. A partnership was signed between India and Germany in the field of sustainable urban development. Another pact was made with France to help cut greenhouse gas emissions in urban transport and a Memorandum of Cooperation was signed with Japan in areas of technology, railways and urban transport projects. Many of these agreements were bilateral, between the national governments. 
While the cities stayed at the forefront, citizens also made themselves heard last year through various citizen led initiatives. A citizen led effort in Delhi ensured that almost 16,000 trees were saved from felling.  A Managaluru based civic group filed a writ petition in Karnataka High Court to hold the state's urban local bodies accountable for not forming ward committees as per the 74th Amendment. Another win for a citizen led initiative was the inclusion of Mumbai's Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Ensembles of Mumbai in the UNESCO's world heritage list. Out of the 37 heritage sites in India, this is the first where nomination process was led by citizens and citizen groups. Some citizens of Pune also came together and launched a movement for a green Pune. 

There were many more such initiatives that saw citizens take up an active role in matters of city's infrastructure, environment and to a certain extent, in governance. 2019 is ahead of us and we hope that it will be another year where cities and citizens will continue to build stronger relationships with each other.