Published in Times of India, Pune on 29 November 2018. Lost and found. Posted here for you.
It is quite a paradox that while issues like global warming, the rise of the dollar, and global geopolitics are the staples of our conversations, we look no further than the garbage on the sidewalk to define our city and country – never realizing our key position in the world of today and tomorrow.
There is however, a legend of the Internet, known as the ‘Valeriepieris Circle’, which sets the record straight, getting across its message simply, visually and effectively.
It is essentially the tightest circle which can be drawn on a 2-D map, wherein more people live inside the circle than outside it. To give you an idea of the density of population in the circle, just ONE Metropolitan Region (Greater Tokyo Area) has a population greater by a million, than that of the second largest country in the world – Canada; while the population of Shanghai exceeds the total population of Australia by another million.
Which brings us to another statistic: 21 of the world’s 35 megacities with a population more than 10 million or 1 crore; and 11 of the 15 cities contributing the most to global GDP by 2030, are in this circle. On the negative side, not ONE city in the top 45 cities on the global QOL Index is in this circle, but 9 of the 10 most polluted cities are!
All Asia and Pacific sub-regions are experiencing urban growth at higher rates than overall population growth. By 2050, urban areas will account for nearly two out of three people, and cities in China and India alone will have grown by an additional 696 million – India by 404 million and China by 292 million.
Paradoxically, while the region is home to so many megacities, they only accommodate a little over 10% of the region’s urban dwellers. The bulk of urban dwellers live in small and medium cities, where much of the region’s urban transition is actually unfolding. Yet, despite their increasing significance, most small cities face their future with limited human, financial, and organizational resources – as any visitor to a small town (the ubiquitous Indian ‘native place’) can confirm.
The biggest challenge for governments in Asia and the Pacific remains their growing urban poverty and vulnerability in the face of natural and man-made disasters, often grossly underestimated, and therefore unaddressed. It is estimated that a third of the region’s urban residents lack access to adequate shelter, clean energy, safe drinking water and sanitation. Unless some attempts are made to formalize the informal sectors in both economic activity and housing, poverty and the omnipresent slum will continue to mar the Asian urban story in the foreseeable future.
As the UN-Habitat World Cities Report 2016 clearly pointed out: Cities are operating in economic, social, and cultural ecologies that are radically different from the outmoded urban model of the 20th century, and persistent urban issues include urban growth, changes in family patterns, growing number of urban residents living in informal settlements, and the challenge of providing urban services. Adding to these problems are emerging urban issues like climate change, exclusion, increasing inequality, rising insecurity and social tensions, and an upsurge in internal and international migration.
As regards housing, most government efforts have focused on helping the middle class to achieve home-ownership in a formal sector that only they can afford. The housing policies put in place through the enabling approach have failed to promote adequate and affordable housing for the low-income groups, and slums continue to be one of the most visible faces of poverty in our cities. The spatial concentration of poor and unskilled workers in segregated residential quarters acts as a poverty trap with severe job restrictions, high rates of gender disparities, deteriorated living conditions, social exclusion and marginalization, and a high incidence of crime.
Cities continue to be the generators of economic growth across the region, but only those which have got their act together in terms of infrastructure and services, culturally appropriate planning norms, efficient public transport and mobility, and capitalization of land resources will matter globally in the years to come. Sadly, Indian megacities are tired, old and neglected, and will become national liabilities rather than assets as time goes by.
By 2030, global demand for energy and water is expected to grow by 40 and 50 per cent respectively, and our cities will get more and more polluted, our water more contaminated. In urban areas, climate change impacts like heat waves, heavy rains and droughts can compound one another, making disaster risk management more complex. Just keeping a city clean is becoming more labour intensive and costly every day, and solid waste management dominates municipal annual budgets in low- and middle-income countries, with shares of 30 to 50 per cent.
As we watch our compatriots wearing masks in the thick Delhi smog, as they continue to light crackers to celebrate Diwali, the question we have to ask is do Indians really care? May be if we started realising the immensity of problems facing our cities, we would insist upon political parties providing a workable National Urban Framework to: strengthen and empower local governments, decentralise power, devolve resources, take a more flexible and Indian approach to town planning, provide genuine accountability, and develop the administrative capacity to implement public policies.
Next election let us ask for liveable cities.
Next election let us ask for the moon