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Last Updated : Jul 18, 2019 08:01 PM IST | Source:

Digging Deeper | How sustainable are India's urban engines?

What constitutes urban growth? Is it synonymous with development? Sustainability? Beyond the headlines, how do the denizens of fast growing cities cope?

Moneycontrol Contributor @moneycontrolcom

Rima M. | Rakesh Sharma

In the celebratory din that followed last year's report by Oxford Economics, that India is now home to all ten of the fastest growing cities in the world, a few questions, remained largely unaddressed. What constitutes urban growth? Is it synonymous with development? Sustainability? Beyond the headlines, how do the denizens of fast growing cities cope?


On this edition of Digging Deeper with Moneycontrol, we will try to answer some of these questions.

Just how do we define urban growth?

Urban growth is defined as the rate at which the population of an urban area increases. It also occurs when the expansion of a metropolitan or suburban area into the surrounding environment takes place and may lead to a rise in the economic development. Urban growth can be considered as an indicator of the state of a country’s economic condition because the growth of metropolitan areas generates employment, stimulates transport and communication and educational facilities and also improves standards of living.

Urbanisation, as is obvious in India's context, is usually caused by the movement of people from rural areas to urban areas.

Before we get down to talking about the challenges of urban growth, let us take another look at the research by Oxford Economics, that all the top 10 fastest-growing cities by GDP between 2019 and 2035 will be in India.

A piece on the WEF website cites the report to state that Surat, the diamond processing and trading centre will have the fastest economic growth in the world. The report, predicts that the city will see an average annual GDP growth rate of 9.2% from 2019 to 2035.

In second place is Agra – home of the Taj Mahal – which will grow by 8.6% year on year.

Bengaluru – known as India’s Silicon Valley because of its booming tech and start-up scene – will grow 8.5% year on year by 2035, putting it in third place.

Hyderabad, another Indian tech hub, is in fourth place with 8.47% growth.

Nagpur, an emerging metropolis with more than 22,000 Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME), Tiruppur, India’s knitwear industry hub, Rajkot, the fourth largest city in Gujarat, Tiruchirappalli or Trichy, an industrial city in Tamil Nadu, Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu and Vijayawada, the second largest city and an important metropolitan of Andhra Pradesh are the other cities in the list.

The study looked at 780 cities and estimated that the world’s major urban economies will grow by 2.8% a year. The point of the report being, that cities will drive the growth of the global economy. Does this list indicate that now economic prowess will tip from West to East considering that the report forecasts that as early as 2027, the combined GDP of all Asian cities will exceed that of North American and European cities together? Maybe, but will the going be rough or a cakewalk?

The unemployment  challenge 

Planning Tank, in a piece earlier this year, talks about the challenges of growing urban economies. Inadequate employment opportunities in the urban informal sector, urban unemployment, and underemployment are some of the inherent issues that any expanding city could face.

As multiple media platforms have already reported and so did The Hindu Data Team in April this year, the draft Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) data has revealed a drastic increase in the number of unemployed people in India.

A comparison of the employment-to-population ratio (EPR) in rural versus urban areas shows significant variations. Rural EPR came down relatively more in 2017-18 compared to urban EPR, according to the PLFS data accessed by The Hindu. This means that by default there will be more pressure on urban areas to provide employment to the inflow of rural migrants.

In May 2019, India Today reported along with many other media outlets that unemployment in the country is at a four-decade-high. The figures released after a log delay by the Ministry of Statistics and Program Implementation (MoSPI) pegged joblessness at 6.1 per cent.

Water scarcity

The water crisis in many metropolitan cities in India has shown us the perils of urbanisation without sustainability.

A non profit organisation has also reported on the issue and stated that though India has taken significant steps to reduce poverty, the number of people who live in poverty is still highly disproportionate to the number of people who are middle-income, with a combined rate of over 52% of both rural and urban poor.

We quote, "Although India has made improvements over the past decades to both the availability and quality of municipal drinking water systems, its large population has stressed planned water resources and rural areas are left out. In addition, rapid growth in India's urban areas has stretched government solutions, which have been compromised by over-privatization. Regardless of improvements to drinking water, many other water sources are contaminated with both bio and chemical pollutants, and over 21% of the country's diseases are water-related. Furthermore, only 33% of the country has access to traditional sanitation."

The piece expresses the concern that India may lack overall long-term availability of replenishable water resources. Writer Shannyn Snyder informs that while India's aquifers are currently associated with replenishing sources, the country is also a major grain producer with a great need for water to support the commodity. As with all countries with large agricultural output, excess water consumption for food production depletes the overall water table.

She says, "Many rural communities in India who are situated on the outskirts of urban sprawl also have little choice but to drill wells to access groundwater sources. However, any water system adds to the overall depletion of water. There is no easy answer for India which must tap into water sources for food and human sustenance, but India's overall water availability is running dry."

Her report attributes India's water crisis to lack of government planning, increased corporate privatization, industrial and human waste and corruption.

She adds, and we quote, "In addition, water scarcity in India is expected to worsen as the overall population is expected to increase to 1.6 billion by year 2050. To that end, global water scarcity is expected to become a leading cause of national political conflict in the future, and the prognosis for India is no different. Whatever the means, India needs solutions now. Children in 100 million homes in the country lack water, and one out of every two children are malnourished. Environmental justice needs to be restored to India so that families can raise their children with dignity, and providing water to communities is one such way to best ensure that chance."

She points out that on a positive note, some areas of India are fortunate to have a relatively wet climate, even in the most arid regions. She however adds that  with no rain catchment programs in place, most of the water is displaced or dried up instead of used. As she says correctly, parched urban areas could benefit vastly if rain harvesting can be mainstreamed and improved filtration practices can be used to reduce water-borne pathogens, and made available for human consumption.

Infrastructural challenges

The Planning Tank piece also outlines that another challenge that modern cities face is the inability of social and physical infrastructure to grow at par with the urban growth resulting in deterioration of the quality of urban life. These problems are visible in most of the cities in India, says the piece.

We quote, "Urbanization can yield positive effects if it takes place up to a desirable limit. Extensive urbanization or indiscriminate growth of cities may result in adverse effects like, the problem of overpopulation, the growth of slums, etc."

The cost of living spirals along with increase in crime rates, pollution and stress levels.

Healthy economic development, says the piece, generally refers to the sustained, concerted actions of policymakers and communities that promote the standard of living and economic health of a specific area.

We quote, "Economic development can also be referred to as the quantitative and qualitative changes in the economy. Such actions can involve multiple areas including development of human capital,  critical infrastructure, regional competitiveness, environmental sustainability, social inclusion, health, safety, literacy, and other initiatives." Unquote.

And Indian cities will need to meet sustainability and social equity standards if they are to remains habitable for citizens across the economic and social spectrum.

Let us now explore what are some of the cities across the world that meet these standards.

The most powerful cities in the world

In January 2019, Sean Fleming reported on the WEF website that London still tops the Global Power City Index (GPCI) for the seventh year running. The piece cites the report of the Mori Memorial Foundation’s Institute for Urban Strategies which has analyzed the relative strengths and weaknesses of 44 of the world’s best-known and best-loved cities. The foundation’s researchers look at their ability to attract capital, businesses and people – what it refers to as the cities’ magnetism.

We quote, "The six factors scrutinized are: economy, research and development, cultural interaction, livability, environment, and accessibility. These six are, in turn, broken down into 70 different indicators which are all given a score. The cumulative score gives the institute its final rankings. The maximum possible score is 2,600 points. Cities that strive to provide an attractive and welcoming urban environment for their people will be best poised to succeed as global power cities.

The 2018 top five remains unchanged from last year – London, New York, Tokyo, Paris and Singapore."

Interestingly, since last year, Beijing has fallen from 13th to 23rd in the rankings due to weaker performance in the accessibility measure, which looks at a city’s connectedness and transport networks. Meanwhile, Shanghai fell from 15th to 26th. This was due to a reduced score for its economy. And what about sustainability?

The world's most sustainable cities

In a January 2019 piece, explained what qualifies cities as sustainable.

We quote, "Sustainable cities work towards creating environmentally, economically, and socially resilient surroundings for their citizens without compromising the needs of the future generation to thrive in the same environment. Greenery can be a major contributor to a city's environmental atmosphere and sustainability.”

According to the Sustainable Cities Index, sustainable cities can be evaluated on three parameters that can be summed up as such and we cite them with minor edits:


The profit factor measures the value of real estate and the ease of starting and running businesses.


The people index focuses on the living standard of the people, literacy, education, and health.


The planet factor focuses on transportation, water, sanitation, air pollution, and carbon emission among other factors.

Among the most sustainable cities is Frankfurt, Germany in the tenth place where 52% of the city is covered by open green spaces like water bodies, woodlands, and parks. The local government has a concrete plan for nature and water conservation, energy efficiency, and climate protection. The city plans to be 100% dependent on renewable energy source by 2050 and reduce the carbon emission by 50% by 2030.

Hong Kong is on the ninth place with its diverse economy but also a large and efficient public transit system, which means that locals do not need access to a vehicle.

On number 8 is Oslo, Norway which is the capital and the largest city in Norway and a leading city in sustainability, thanks to its plan to be a "City of the Future" through focus on cutting down on carbon emissions and waste. The Oslo Airport is home to a Green Terminal, the first of its kind in the world.

On number 7, Munich, Germany which has a concrete strategy for climate protection and nature and water conservation. We quote, "Munich is the economic powerhouse of Germany which hosts most of the major industrial powers who relocated to Munich after WWII. Munich targets to be using 100% clean electricity by 2025. To protect the climate, Munich targets to reduce carbon emission by 10% every five years and become carbon neutral in 2050."

Zurich, Switzerland is on number 6 with its sustainable transport system, and investment in efficient and renewable energies. Zurich wants everyone using 2,000 watts of green-energy by 2050.

On number 5 is Vienna, Austria with a comprehensive climate protection strategy, sustainable business, sustainable procurement, and recycling of bottles. It is also the first city in the world to have a fleet of electric-powered buses throughout the central city which reduce carbon emission while improving citizens' standard of living. These buses recharge at the bus terminal ensuring that they run efficiently all day long.

On number 4, is Singapore with numerous water management innovations including saltwater desalination, recycling of reclaimed water, and rainwater catchment methods. The city, says the piece, also has eco-friendly transport regulations which discourage unnecessary vehicle ownership. We quote, "To lower carbon emission in the city, the BCA (Building and Construction Authority) set up many green living standards which every building in the city must adhere to since 2005. The Zero Energy Building is the greenest in the country and a test subject for future building designs."

Edinburgh, the second largest city in Scotland is on number 3 and enjoys a low crime rate and a relatively small income gap.

Stockholm, Sweden is on number 2 and ranks first in the European Union in organic food consumption, usage of renewable energy, and recycling of bottles and cans. We quote, "Stockholm is recognized for its numerous innovative urban sustainability goals and visions which includes becoming 100% fossil-fuel free by the end of 2050. The city is known for increasing their GDP-growth while lowering carbon dioxide emissions.”

And number 1 is London, England, a great example of a sustainable metropolis. We quote, "In 2003, London introduced taxes on vehicles entering the central city during the weekends as a means of discouraging the overcrowding of cars. The collected revenue funds public transportation and related infrastructures. The local government has implemented numerous strategies including an air quality plan, noise reduction, and waste recycling, among other policies. The city has adopted diesel-electric buses which operate throughout the city to reduce carbon emission. These buses reduce carbon emissions by 40% which helps the city achieves its goal of 60% greenhouse gasses reduction by 2025." Unquote.

A reality check

When it comes to Indian cities, it would be important to refer to Down to Earth,  Asia's premier fortnightly on politics of environment and development assisted by the Centre for Science and Environment and helmed by environmentalist Sunita Narain,  which says that  though the world's economy will continue to be propelled by cities and much of that push will come from Asia, particularly India, there is a downside. With growing economies will come   more migrants and this, in turn, as we said before, will pressure already scarce resources such as land and water. More inhabitants will require more energy, adding to the carbon footprint of these cities.

The report cites Mumbai, as the 10th most populated city in 2035 with 23.1 million people.  The report also reminds us that the once-quaint garrison town of Bengaluru is now bursting at its seams. Its famous lakes now regularly make the headlines for frothing with fire.

Delhi as is well known is battling air pollution and plunging groundwater level (like Bengaluru) while Mumbai has to deal with excessive rainfall. Rapid urbanisation is also expected to stress Kolkata further.

As the report warns, overall, while the prospects of economic growth predicted by the report may be exciting for a large section, the need for careful urban planning to mitigate future woes can’t be ruled out.

Will India heed these words and recalibrate its economic agenda to include sustainable environmental policies is the next big question

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First Published on Jul 18, 2019 08:01 pm
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