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Building Smart Cities: Are They Liveable?

Rising pollution level, urban flooding, and contaminated water resources are threatening to make our cities unliveable. It needs timely government intervention to fix it

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“People over-produce pollution because they are not paying for the costs of dealing with it” Ha-Joon Chang.

Came August and the residents of Bengaluru, started paying for the pollution as its two water body Varthur Lake and Bellandur lake started spewing toxic foam. It went over 10 feet, kept on hurling the motorists and passer-by and forced people in the close vicinity to stay indoors. The highly toxic and inflammable froth, which has made global headlines, is the result of years of environment negligence from industries, citizens and administrators who made these lakes a dumping ground for their garbage, chemicals and sewage. Several notices were sent by National Green Tribunal to the administrators and the state pollution board, but they kept on passing the bucks and the problem remains unsolved to date.

The problem with our cities is that they are becoming unlivable. If scientist from Indian Institute of Science is to be believed, Bengaluru, which has recently earned the tag of “Smart City, will be “unliveable” by 2025, due to increasing pollution and water scarcity. Fates of other cities are no different. The capital city of Delhi faced worst pollution level in form of dangerous smog making it difficult to breathe.

The situation was so bad that the administration ordered to close schools fearing health risks. The devastation caused by Chennai floods is still fresh and incessant rain in Mumbai and flooding has become an annual affair. Bengaluru recorded huge rainfall this August which flooded most parts of the city and authorities had to use boats to ferry stranded people. With climate change, the incidents of floods droughts and extreme weather conditions will only intensify.

Urbanisation in India has happened at the cost of environment.

Bangalore, in its journey to become IT capital increased its concrete area by 1005 per cent, city’s vegetation declined by 88 per cent its and its water bodies declined by 85 per cent. Chennai flood and perennial flooding in Mumbai and Bengaluru is not just nature’s fury but also due to human intervention. After Srinagar flood, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) noted that in the past 100 years, more than 50 per cent of Srinagar’s lakes, ponds and wetlands have been encroached upon to construct buildings and roads.

“Our policymakers seem to be in a mood of denial when it comes to accepting the deplorable quality of air its citizens are forced to breathe. Water is becoming scarce with a high level of contamination. Cities are sitting on heaps of garbage. It is frightening to think what will happen to our cities if we fail to intervene on time,” said Sunita Narain, Director General of the Delhi based air pollution advocacy group the Centre for Science and Environment.

Barring few environmentalists, there is hardly a public outcry on environmental abuse and the citizens’ rage cools down with receding water levels. As the government is planning to develop 100 smart cities, environmental challenges are mounting and are threatening to make our cities unliveable and unsustainable in future. Are we building cities which are resilient, sustainable and healthy? Experts doubt.

According to Harini Nagendra, professor of sustainability at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru, in conceptualising smart cities mission, the government has ignored the impact of environment and the plan is tilted heavily towards the use of technology.

“Urbanisation does not always require to have a negative relationship with nature. The programme relies too much on technological fixes and partnerships with the private sector, which tends to exclude the poor from urban projects. Mission’s heavy focus on technology to improve efficiency is a one-sided way of looking at a city,” she added.

And our cities have started paying the price of neglecting nature. According to the recent WHO report, ten Indian cities are among the world’s 20 most polluted cities in the world. Surprisingly emerging cities like Gwalior and Allahabad are at second and third in terms of PM2.5 concentrations. Patna and Raipur rank sixth and seventh and Delhi which had earned the tag of the most polluted city in 2014 rankings, was at 11, followed by Ludhiana. Other Indian cities in the list include Kanpur, ranked at 15, followed by Khanna, Firozabad and Lucknow. These seven cities are emerging cities and feature on the list of 100 smart cities. Outdoor (ambient) particulate matter (PM) pollution is estimated to have caused some 1.1 million premature deaths in 2015.

Depleting Resources
As per a Mckinsey report, our urban population will reach over 800 million by 2050. According to Amitabh Kant, Chairman, NITI Aayog, “Our cities are already overcrowded and polluted. Rapid urbanisation is exerting pressure on fresh water supplies, food and energy and In next 20-30 years depleting resources will be a matter of great concern. The challenge will be to manage too little resources with too many people”.

The Department of Economic Affairs has projected that by 2047, India would be producing 260 MT of waste annually needing over 1,400 sq km of landfills. By 2040, India’s electricity demand will be up by 4.5 times over 2012 levels, and about 20 big cities are in danger of running out of the water. The World Economic Forum projects that India’s Upper Ganges basin may be depleted within 25 years. This alarming vulnerability calls for immediate policy action otherwise our cities cannot last for more than 50 years.

Government Initiative 
The government has taken many initiatives in last 3-4 years which include national solar mission, National Energy Policy (NEP) and most recently the promotion of electric vehicle. Currently, almost 33 percent of the country’s total energy comes from non-fossil fuel. The Indian government has set the target of achieving 57 percent of its total electricity capacity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2027—exceeding the Paris Agreement’s target of 40 percent by 2030. The smart city mission has also prescribed that 30 per cent of energy usage in the city must come from the renewable sources.

In the transport sector, the NEP assumes greater significance for promoting electric vehicles. If most of India’s vehicles are powered by electricity by 2030, pollution levels in cities could drop by 80 per cent-90 per cent and India could save $100 billion.

To achieve greater energy efficiency in the construction sector, the Energy Conservation Building Code (ECBC) 2017 has prescribed energy performance standards for new commercial buildings. Government estimation suggests that adoption of the code for all new commercial constructions will bring down energy use by 50 per cent, translating to energy savings of about 300 billion units by 2030 and a peak demand reduction of over 15 GW (gigawatt) annually.

A report by Climate Action Tracker says that India and China are on the pace to “overachieve” their climate goals by 2030, which can help the cities to conserve energy
and resources.

The need of the hour is to develop cities that address the challenges of the 21st century- issues of getting pure water, air and enough green cover. Sustainable development plans, along with technological innovation can help reduce the exploitation of resources. Globally many cities are adopting technology to save energy and environment in terms of recycling waste, saving water and energy requirement and creative use of green cover. Rizhao in China has turned itself into a solar-powered city; Vancouver and Toronto are upgrading their building code to raise flood construction levels. Singapore started roofs with vegetation on them—to slow down the urban heat and add the green cover. India can learn from the global models and can adapt these sustainable practices.

•    Ten Indian cities are among the world’s 20 most polluted cities in the world, according to WHO.
•    Outdoor (ambient) particulate matter (PM) pollution is estimated to have caused some 1.1 million premature deaths in 2015.
•    The major sources of primary PM2.5 emissions in Indian cities are road transport (20–40%), industry (15–30%), power generation (15–20%), brick kilns (10–15%), and diesel-powered backup generators (5–15%).Other sources include waste burning, construction, and dust.
•    Adaptation of the Energy Conservation Building Code (ECBC) 2017will bring down energy use by 50 per cent, translating to energy savings of about 300 billion units by 2030 and a peak demand reduction of over 15 GW (gigawatt) annually.
•    If most of India’s vehicles are powered by electricity by 2030, pollution levels in cities could drop by 80 per cent-90 per cent

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