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NIUA, Leveraging SDG For Enhancing Urban Resilience, Poverty Eradication

“Over the years, the Institute has emerged as a thought leader and knowledge hub for urban development in India, sought out by Indian and International organisations for collaboration, and for upscaling research and development in areas crucial to creating sustainable, inclusive, and productive cities”, asserted Hitesh Vaidya in conversation with Poulami Chakraborty of BW Businessworld. Excerpts below:

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“Over the years, the Institute has emerged as a thought leader and knowledge hub for urban development in India, sought out by Indian and International organisations for collaboration, and for upscaling research and development in areas crucial to creating sustainable, inclusive, and productive cities”, asserted Hitesh Vaidya in conversation with Poulami Chakraborty of BW Businessworld. Excerpts below:

Being into existence much before the Central Government’s Smart City Mission or any other, NIUA is a 45-year veteran think tank for urban development in the country. Would you share with us your journey since inception in an urban landscape transformation format to enable our readers to have a broader view?

The National Institute of Urban Affairs was established in 1976 as an autonomous organisation of the Ministry of Works and Housing. There was a need for a research body that could bridge the gap between researchers and practitioners in the field of urban a nd regional development, and provide guidance on informed decision-making to the policymakers in dealing with practical issues and problems of urban and rural areas. The Institute took up the immediate tasks of policy and programme orientation for urban research, undertaking research studies, providing necessary forum for urban dialogues, and the development of platform for the information exchange on urban knowledge. 

In the initial years, the research was conducted by way of consultations with the pool of expertise from academic institutions, field agencies, and individual specialist in the field of urban and regional development. The Study Panels and Working Groups were constituted to ensure high-level scrutiny, advice, and objectivity in the Institute’s work. The most notable among the achievements of NIUA are its contribution to the National Commission on Urbanisation, and in the drafting of the 74th Constitutional Amendment of 1992.

The research conducted at the Institute addresses the pressing issues of urban development in the country. The areas of focus include urbanization, urban governance and policy, municipal finance, land economics, urban planning and built environment, environment, climate change and resilience, ease of doing business, urban data and information systems and knowledge networks, smart cities, water and sanitation, urban livelihoods, and liveable cities among others. 

For 45 years now, the Institute has been paving a way towards India’s urban transformation in diverse  areas of works under five new centres—Climate Centre for Cities, Centre for Digital Governance, Centre for Municipal Finance and Governance, Centre for Inclusive Development, and Centre for Urbanization and Economic Growth. The centres provide support to the states and cities by virtue of the institute’s five key instruments—Policy & Planning, Action Research & Advocacy, Knowledge Management & Capacity Building, Technology, Data Solution & Innovation, and Partnerships.

One of the key aspects to Urban landscape transformation for sustainability, resilience and safety is Sustainability Development Goals (SDG). Would you elaborate on India’s stand on SDGs and what measures are being adopted for Urban Transformation scenario in India?

India’s stand on SDGs demonstrates its commitment to the goals of eradication of poverty, inclusive urban development and opportunities for all, enhancing productivity, increasing competitiveness and innovation, technological advancements, and urban resilience. The set of reforms which are integral to the Government of India’s mission includes improving governance, making municipalities fiscally robust, bringing in optimal use of land, and building capacities of the urban local body officials.

Committed to implement global agenda—the Sustainable Development Goals and New Urban Agenda—requires the cities to work towards greater productivity, inclusion, sustainability, and rural-urban linkages. The task requires coordinated and strategic efforts to fulfil these commitments at all levels of government, national to local. The country values its role as a responsible global actor and has adopted action strategies for localising SDGs from global to local levels through planning, implementing, and monitoring frameworks.

India ranks 117 and has an overall score index of 66 percent on the SDGs. The country has impressively progressed on the SDGs since its adoption in the year 2015. As per the NITI Aayog’s SDG Index Report 2021, the country has made a significant progress especially in SDG 1(no poverty), SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth), SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities), and SDG 13 (climate action) between 2019 and 2020. 

Apart from the missions and schemes, the NITI Aayog has also prepared National Indicator Framework (NIF) to monitor and measure the progress of SDGs in India. The NIF consists of 17 Goals, and 297 indicators which are aligned as per the national goals. It is designed to function as a tool to highlight the gaps in the monitoring of SDGs at state and city levels, collection of relevant data, and to promote policy formulation and implement action strategies for achieving the overarching purpose of SDGs. 

It is important to understand that for the city transformation to take place, economic restructuring, infrastructure investments, and regulation of industries for environmental and social sustainability have to be strategically thought about at all levels of government.

Covid -19 has certainly poised out to be one of the very prominent challenges that has affected us in the past two years almost. What has been your key take-away from this and how has NIUA engaged itself for pandemic monitoring and management? What are your opinions of ideal resilient cities when it comes to Future Sustainable Cities?

COVID-19 reinforces the urgency and significance of self-reliance. After more than half a century of fostering the concept, self-reliance is critical to make Indian cities liveable and sustainable. The Prime Minister of India lays emphasis on Five I’s towards achieving self-reliance: intent, inclusion, investment, infrastructure and innovation. In order to facilitate self-reliance, cities can help create an enabling environment that promotes vibrancy and innovation. 

In my opinion, ideal resilient cities must focus on: People, Processes, Physical frameworks, and Technology and Data. A large part towards self-reliance can be realised by focusing on the welfare of citizens, local economic development, unified governance and management of the built environment with increasing urban growth. There is a growing awareness in the use of emerging technologies, such as the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, remote sensing with space technology and drones, 5G robotics, blockchain, virtual and augmented reality. The building of integrated urban systems by utilising innovative digital technology for intelligent management and efficient delivery of urban services is needed. The vision of self-reliance can only be achieved if cities are capacitated to work with technology to capture, manage and utilise data for decision making and planning. The integration of technology to understand and improve our urban environment, create jobs, deliver basic services, and address societal issues is significant in realising the self-reliant India.

India is a land of heritage and monuments across its length and breadth. Is NIUA taking any strides for conservation of Heritage sites? Please share with us a glimpse of similar measures if any. What are the other major projects that are under work in progress status? Any major timelines set for completion?

National Institute of Urban Affairs is the National Coordinator for the PEARL Initiative. One of the themes highlighted is ‘Cultural Heritage’ which includes practices, projects and innovations in the preservation, conservation, management, restoration and regeneration of valuable heritage in Indian cities. This theme while focuses on heritage structures and monuments, also includes regeneration and renewal of heritage areas and precincts. 

Two other projects that are under progress include: 

  1. NIUA is preparing the Heritage Conservation Plan/LAP for the walled city of Ahmedabad for Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation and Ahmedabad World Heritage City Trust. The objective of the Heritage Conservation Plan is to safeguard the physical, social, cultural and economic fabric of the city, its tangible and intangible heritage with particular emphasis on the preservation of the Outstanding Universal Values (OUVs). The Conservation Plan is a significant document that can materialise into a statutory instrument through a Local Area Plan (LAP) for the walled city, to be eventually integrated in the city’s Development Plan. 
  2. NIUA is also collaborating with the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) for preparation of the next Master Plan for Delhi (plan period 2021-41) as an Enabling Strategic Plan. It will address all critical aspects including natural and cultural heritage. 

 As a major urban think-tank, what strategies do you adopt for gross implementation and transformation of Indian urban landscape? What prime challenges you face while you take actions in this sphere and how do you mitigate them?

India is one of the fastest emerging economies among the developing countries. The country is undergoing an urban revolution. Its cities are experiencing a massive population growth. When it comes to urban transformation several challenges surround the Indian cities at multiple levels, such as those related to housing, transport, electricity, water supply, pollution, social exclusion, and crime. 

The urban landscape of India is dominated by a few large cities and metropolitan areas, with huge implications for balanced regional development. Large cities control a significant share of the propulsive industries and new economic opportunities, as a result of which the economic development of smaller cities and towns is side-lined 

India of course has its own urban development trajectory. There are many opportunities inside the cities which can be harnessed by enabling a strong policy and institutional framework. Through its various centres, NIUA is working on a few key strategic approaches for transformation of Indian urban landscape, which include:

  • Funding urban infrastructure: Financing of urban infrastructure is very important as it is one of the key drivers leading to higher economic growth trajectories and sustainable development in cities. It is noteworthy that Indian cities contribute to 60% of the GDP to India’s economy. Still, many cities in India are unable to finance necessary investments for growth-inducing infrastructure such as roads and transport systems, waste management, and water and sanitation. The gap in urban infrastructure investment in India is estimated to be 827 US billion dollar (Rs. 613171 crore) in the next 20 years. Cities struggle to meet their current operational needs due to pressures from population growth and migration, and financial and political risks which includes, lack of strong administration, weak institutional structures, insufficient returns from user fees and revenue-generating assets. 
  • Improved governance and fiscal decentralization: Fiscal decentralization is meant to correct imbalances between the functions performed by the urban local bodies and their revenue generating potential. The 74th Constitutional Amendment Act gives devolution of powers, functions, and finances from the states to cities. To improve governance, it is important to understand, for both states and cities administration, the corrective measures that could have greatest impact in improving the quality of urban services delivery and better quality of life to the citizens. 
  • Achieving balanced urban-regional development: Presently, the urban population is unevenly distributed in the settlements of different class sizes.  Around 70 percent of the urban population resides in large cities and metropolitan areas mainly due to the availability of better economic opportunities and a decent standard of living.  In the lower settlement hierarchy—consisting of small and medium towns—the problems such as unplanned growth, weak administration, poverty, lack of employment, poor availability of basic services makes an unfavourable situation for the people to reside in these settlements, ultimately causing and leading to migration to cities. The Urban and Regional Development Plans Formulation and Implementation Guidelines (URDPFI) of 2014 lays emphasis on the “Regional Planning Approach” as a guide for future development of cities and their regions. 
  • Inclusive development: The COVID-19 pandemic has ubiquitous impacts on people across the globe. The vulnerable segments of the population—women, migrants, urban poor, unemployed, old age, children, PwDs—have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic in India. The experiences of the vulnerable population in pandemic crisis is a serious concern due to health crisis and loss of livelihoods. NIUA has recently launched the Handbook of Urban Statistics-2020: Ensuring Visibility of Persons with Different Abilities in Indian Cities, is the first of its kind document with a special focus on persons with disabilities (PwDs). It captures the data related to the nature and cause of disability, the socio-economic condition of PwDs and their access to various physical and social infrastructure, along with recent data on India’s demography and socio-economic conditions of the people, access to basic amenities and housing. The handbook provides a holistic understanding of the ground reality of PwDs in urban India, and serves as a ready reckoner for policy-makers and urban planners in evidence-based decision making for design and policy leading to more inclusive and accessible cities.

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