India needs a new urban deal

The future of Indian cities has played out in horrifying detail over the past 48 hours. Unprecedented rainfall has inundated one poorly planned neighbourhood after another in Bengaluru, forcing authorities in India’s information technology capital to use rafts, tractors, and dinghies to help people wading through waist-high sheets of slush and water. The civic administration appears to have been caught unawares. Unfortunately, Bengaluru is not an outlier. The toxic combination of poor urban planning, rampant flouting of rules, lax governance hindered further by red tape, and intensifying effects of the climate crisis has brought our cities to their knees. India has been here several times before — in Mumbai in 2005, Chennai in 2015, Gurugram in 2016, Hyderabad in 2020, Kolkata in 2021, and Delhi in 2021 — with authorities blaming the climate crisis each time.

India’s cities are drivers of commerce and the nodes of economic activity. Rapid urbanisation is likely to drive more people into the country’s already stretched cities, which are estimated to hold four of every 10 Indians in another decade. In earlier times, untrammelled development would be the response of administrators to house people and set up more industrial units. But repeated flooding and increasing vagaries in climate patterns mean that the cities of tomorrow will not only have to balance development with environmental protection, but also implement robust climate protection plans. Indian cities, irrespective of where they are located, need to plan and invest more in climate resilience for their survival, also because disruptions will have a domino effect on other cities too in the form of migration. To do so, first, cities must reduce their carbon footprint, strengthen natural defences (such as mangroves and wetlands), audit drainage networks — in many cities, stormwater pipes and sewers are from the colonial era — focus on creating transport and urban infrastructure that adapt to a changing climate, and protect natural water bodies and run-offs instead of choking them with debris. Policymakers will also need to look at safeguarding poor and marginalised communities, which bear the brunt of climate vagaries but are seldom taken into account while drawing up master plans.

For Indian cities to transition to a climate-secure future, they must shed the maze of administrative red tape that has come to define urban governance. Instead of agencies squabbling over jurisdiction, cities need clear, elected, and accountable governance. It is only if cities become self-sufficient, well-governed units can India hope to navigate a more uncertain future.

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