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Pandemic Made SDGs More Relevant Than Ever To Build Back Our Cities For Better: Hitesh Vaidya, NIUA

Our 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, says Hitesh Vaidya

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For 45 years now, the Institute has been paving a way towards India’s urban transformation. The Institute has diversified its 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. “Our 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”, commented Hitesh Vaidya, Director National Institute of Urban Affairs. Poulami Chakraborty of BW Businessworld writes.

India was steadfastly proceeding towards building a strong industrial and economic base for the country in the mid-1970s. In the backdrop of increasing the industrial production, the emphasis of the central government was on economic development, and immediately meeting the basic needs of shelter, housing, and food for the growing population. The urban growth which occurred around the four cities—Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras—was haphazard, unguided, and unplanned. However, the positive impact that the concurrent era drew on urban governance domain, is that an autonomous research organisation about urban and regional development came into being.

Yes, talking about NIUA is an autonomous organisation led under the aegis of Ministry of Works and Housing came into being in 1976, when there was a need for a research body that could bridge the gap between researchers and practitioners in the field of urban and regional development. One of the core areas of service of this body was to 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. 

At the Backdrop

Though in the initial years, the research was conducted by consultations with 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.

In conversation with us, NIUA’s Director, Hitesh Vaidya asserts, “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 up scaling research and development in areas crucial to creating sustainable, inclusive, and productive cities. The research conducted at the Institute addresses the pressing issues of urban development in the country. The areas of focus includes 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.”

In a nutshell, the autonomous body has played a significant role in shaping the outcomes and achieving the goals of the various urban missions and programmes, including Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), Smart Cities Mission, Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation(AMRUT), National Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY), National Urban Livelihood Mission (NULM), Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) and Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). In addition, the Institute is committed towards aligning its efforts towards achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through all its initiatives and programs.

All About Sustainability Development Goals

As a matter of fact, in order to fulfil India’s commitment to implement global agendas like the Sustainable Development Goals and New Urban Agenda, it is needed for 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.

Further validating the facts, Vaidya went on to comment, “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.”

According to him, 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 Government of India’s national policies, missions, and programmes—Smart Cities Mission, Atal Mission for Rejuvenation of Urban Transformation (AMRUT), Swachh Bharat Mission, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, NULM, and Rurban mission—are the key ones consistent with the national goals. The set of reforms which are integral to the GoI’s mission includes: improving governance, making municipalities fiscally robust, bringing in optimal use of land, and building capacities of the urban local body officials.

India has put in significant effort towards the accomplishment of SDGs, but the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown up several challenges: economic lockdown, disproportionate health and economic impact on vulnerable people, high mortality due to lack of health infrastructure, and loss of jobs of lower-skilled and lower-waged labour. Also, the pandemic will have profound implications on India’s progress towards SDGs. The pandemic has made the SDGs more relevant than ever to build back our cities for better, and continuously striving for sustainable urban development.

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- Impacting Livelihood for better

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. 

Hitesh asserted, “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.”

He further asserted that 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.

Funding and Strategizing Urban Transformation

Being one of the fastest emerging economies India’s journey of urban revolution is not only fast but also impacts livelihoods to the grass root. 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 

Vaidya emphasised, “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. He further added, “The gap in urban infrastructure investment in India is estimated to be 827 US billion dollar (Rs. 613171 crores) 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.”

According to him, there are some key aspects that the government may pursue to ensure flow of finances, and attract private investments such as supporting institutional capacity-building of urban local body officials and creating monitoring and reporting frameworks to manage fiscal inefficiencies, supporting the credit enhancement, such as guarantees and risk-sharing, to attract investors in cities, encouraging frameworks for smoother implementation (or planning, construction and management) of infrastructure, and identifying urban sectors’ investment options for leasing or PPP agreements.    

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