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Infrastructure in Indian urban settlements is inadequate in comparison to the needs of the citizens, as the Census of India 2011 showed that 17.24 per cent or 65 million population of the country lived in slums.
Urban India is important to the Indian economy, society, polity and the environment in more ways than one. For instance, nearly 600 million Indians would be living in cities by 2030, while cities would generate nearly 70 per cent of new jobs by 2030 and also produce more than 70 per cent of India´s gross domestic product. Most important of all cities would propel a fourfold increase in per capital income (McKinsey Global Institute, 2012). Some estimates go as far as saying that by 2050, half of India´s population is expected to live in urban areas, and it is also expected that over two third of the gross national product will be produced in these areas. Concentration of people, capital and infrastructure to service people and capital have huge implications for cities as well as people apart from the physical environment. The trend of cities and towns becoming the storehouse of demographic advantage in the form of most skilled and creative labour living in urban areas and propelling economic growth of the country. Urbanization and economic advancement will become synonymous, reinforcing and contradicting each other (masking each others´ limitations).
While cities and towns present momentous opportunity for future economic growth, they also pose several foundational challenges due to lack of critical urban infrastructure including inadequate provision and maintenance of infrastructure, lack of finances for investment in infrastructure, uneven development and low quality of infrastructure, and governance of infrastructure.
Infrastructure in Indian urban settlements is inadequate in comparison to the needs of the citizens is a well-known fact. Some people remain out of the orbit of decent infrastructure throughout their lives. As the Census of India showed 17.24 per cent or 65 million population of the country lived in slums in 2011. This represents not only injustice of global proportions; it also does not help in the reproduction of skilled labour, which is essential to creating economic wealth today and in the future. Not only the urban poor, but the middle classes also struggle for securing access to basic infrastructure in our towns and cities. Struggles to access basic infrastructure become critical in small and medium towns in comparison to large metropolitan cities, particularly in relation to urban sanitation as sewerage systems are either not laid out or only provided for a small percent of the population. In order to obtain better economic and social security for all Indian urbanites, inadequacies of infrastructure must be addressed on a priority basis.
Provided adequate urban infrastructure of good quality requires huge amounts of financial resources. Several prominent committees have made estimates about investments in urban infrastructure. Rakesh Mohan and Isher Judge Ahluwalia led committees are well known for their excellent work on urban infrastructure financing. According to the Twelfth Five Year Plan: 2012-2017, Rs 108,168 crore is required just to provide potable water in urban areas. Another Rs 50,780 crore is needed for laying out sewerage systems and treatment of sewage. Urban transport requires an outlay of Rs 100,000 crore for 20 years (Planning Commission, 2013). The Final Report of the Working Group on Financing Urban Infrastructure have noted that investment in the urban sector for building critical infrastructure in the next 20 years from 2012-2013 to 2031-2032 is projected at Rs 39,20,000 crore. Out of the total projected investment, 44 per cent is to be invested on urban roads and 11.5 on mass transit, and putting together investments in the transport sector, this would exceed the half mark of all investments in the urban sector. Another 14.39 per cent investments is required to be made in water supply and sewerage. In other words, water supply, sewerage, solid waste management, storm water drains, urban roads, urban transport, street lighting and traffic support infrastructure would amount to Rs 31 lakh crore out of Rs 39 lakh crore spent over the 20 year period. This means nearly 80 per cent of all investments in the city infrastructure would be made in the above mentioned 8 core sectors as per the Twelfth Five Year Plan´s Steering Committee on Urban Development and Management (Planning Commission, 2011: 9-10). Most committees on infrastructure finance are unanimous about enhancing spending on urban infrastructure as per cent of the GDP. Chaired by Dr Isher Judge Ahluwalia, the High Powered Expert Committee (HPEC) for estimating the investment requirements for urban infrastructure services proposes to increasing investment in urban infrastructure from 0.7 per cent of GDP in 2011-2012 to 1.1 per cent by 2031-2032 (Ministry of Urban Development, 2011: XXI). Agreeing with HPEC report McKinsey Global Institute (2013: 4) in its own report titled ´Infrastructure Productivity: How to save $1 trillion a year´ argues that an increase in infrastructure investment of 1 per cent of GDP would ´translate into an additional 3.4 million direct and indirect jobs in India ...´.
Inadequate investment in infrastructure has two immediate consequences. First, the majority urban poor living in slums and unauthorized colonies suffer from sever lack of critical services such as water, sanitation, education and health causing ill health and income deprivation. Second, inadequate infrastructure negatIvely impacts India´s economic growth by reducing of India´s gross domestic product by 1-2 per cent annually. Social and spatial inequality of infrastructure becomes a barrier in the reproduction of labor power as well as becomes a major hindrance in achieving right to the city for the urban poor.
The second challenge is urban governance. Governance of infrastructure, in the first instance, critically depends on the capacity of urban local bodies to raise taxes. In India urban local bodies largely depend on grants from government. Over the decades, municipalities have been regarded agencies responsible for provision and maintenance of services. But political leaders in the municipalities have not taken upon themselves the responsibility of steering city development as a whole. Dependence upon state and central government funds could reduce if urban local bodies proactively look for generating funds additional and exclusive taxes and levies. Although the 74th amendment to the Constitution of India has facilitated decentralized urban local government throughout the country, political devolution with executive powers in the hands of elected representatives has not yet happened. Urban local bodies still implement policies framed at central and state levels, they do not make policies, a critical element of any autonomous urban local government. Financial dependence of three municipalities on Government of Delhi and resulting conflict between the two levels of governments only highlights this point. A good beginning has been made by decentralization of urban local government throughout the country, attempts are required to be made now to make these bodies autonomous with clear leadership roles assigned to elected politicians. A system of directly elected mayors entitled to appointing groups of professionals is required to be set up for efficiently running our cities and towns.
The third and most important challenge of urban infrastructure is the use of appropriate technologies for the provision and maintenance of physical infrastructure, more particularly sanitation. Use of technology becomes even more important if people responsible for providing certain kind of infrastructure such as sanitation are treated badly by the society as a result of their involvement in these activities. Here two problems should be highlighted: the issue of open defecation, and the dreadful social practice of manual scavenging.
According to the Census of India 2011 nearly 13 per cent of urban households resort to open defecation and another 8 per cent use shared toilet facilities. It is disappointing to see that India has over 47 per cent of the world´s population practicing open defecation (Mehta, 2014). In smaller cities 22 per cent households practice open defecation. In parts of the mega cities like Mumbai, the condition is much worse, we call these areas slums. For example, in Dharavi there is only 1 toilet after 800 persons and people are compelled to start a movement called the Right to Pee. Sanitation specifically poses serious risks to the safety and health of women and the girl child. As a result tensions between middle class aspirations for a clean and orderly city and bodily needs of the urban poor with no access to toilets repeatedly manifest themselves in parks, playgrounds and other public open spaces. Urban India with global aspirations simply could not afford open defecation in its cities and towns.
Those of us do not know, let me point out that manual scavenging in Indian cities is still practiced. There are about 13 lakh manual scavengers in India according to Prof Vimal Thorat as quoted in The Indian Express of 8 October 2013. Delhi alone had 14,479 scavengers in 2013. Delhi also had over 10,000 dry latrines in 2013. Indian Railways engages manual scavengers on its 14,300 trains transporting 25 million passengers across its 65,000 kilometres of tracks. Human shit goes straight to railway tracks and 1,72,000 open discharge toilets (Roy, 2014: 35-36). This inhuman and degrading social practice can be easily stopped by use of appropriate sanitation technologies. The colonial rulers deployed humans for collection and transportation of human excreta from large cities like Delhi and Mumbai because they found it cheaper to dispose of.