India's cities need a smart makeover

India’s cities are unliveable. The India Infrastructure Report (IIR) 2023, released earlier this month, focuses on seven themes of urban challenges: planning and governance, smart initiatives, public-private partnership and financing development projects, housing and migration, public service delivery, integrating infrastructure, and urban redevelopment.

Two points stand out: the basic debilities are problems emerging from the dysfunctional organisations that characterise urban governance with no clear public accountability, and the nature of master plans of cities. Yet, instead of blaming the design and planning errors, everyone blames the rising population. The high population density is forced upon people by planning that promotes highly regulated low FSI, resulting in cramped living spaces or pushing people into slums. Little land is released for urban habitats, leading to extreme inequity in access to land and high unit costs of built-up spaces. The report also mentions that the government alone cannot pay for building infrastructure, and private partnership was a financial necessity.

By 2036, 600 million people will live in cities, representing 40% of the population. This will put additional pressure on the already stretched urban infrastructure and services, with more demand for clean drinking water, reliable power supply and efficient transport. A 2022 World Bank report says that India’s cities require an estimated capital investment of $840 billion in urban infrastructure and municipal services in the 15 years till 2036 (in 2020 prices), equivalent to 1.18% of estimated GDP. India’s urban challenges are not going to disappear. There is no way out of the mess but to invest handsomely in India’s economic engines and shore up the governance structure.