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Towards sustainable, intelligent urbanisation: Priorities for India

Towards sustainable, intelligent urbanisation: Priorities for India

by Prabhakar Kumar, Business Head - Urban, Rudrabhishek Enterprises (REPL)

India is undergoing an unprecedented urban transition, with its cities set to absorb an astonishing millions new residents over the next two decades. This poses an enormous challenge – and opportunity – to build habitats that are economically vibrant, environmentally sustainable, and socially inclusive. As we plan and design the urban India of tomorrow, integrating sustainability principles and leveraging frontier technologies will be imperative across urban planning, smart city initiatives, and flagship programs like the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) and affordable housing scheme.

The harsh reality is that many Indian cities are struggling with immense infrastructure deficits, grinding traffic congestion, toxic air pollution levels, and severe lack of affordable housing options resulting into concrete slum conditions. While our discussion largely centers on potential solutions, it's important to acknowledge the diverse perspectives within communities directly impacted by urban development policies. Incorporating the voices of local communities, environmental activists, and urban planners is essential for ensuring that initiatives are inclusive and address the unique needs of different stakeholders.

According to CREDAI’s report, India's urban housing shortage is projected to swell to a staggering 96 million units by 2036, with the economically weaker section bearing the brunt. As urbanization accelerates, these challenges will only intensify unless bold steps are taken towards more sustainable, intelligent development models.

The concept of smart cities provides a powerful framework to usher in this transformative shift. At their core, smart cities leverage cutting-edge technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT), AI/machine learning, big data analytics, and cloud computing to digitize urban services and infrastructure. This catalyzes resource optimization, enhances resilience, reduces emissions, and enriches quality of life. While international case studies offer valuable insights into best practices, we must also draw inspiration from successful sustainable urban development projects within India. Highlighting examples from Indian cities would demonstrate the feasibility and effectiveness of these approaches in our local context.

Crucially, sustainable development must be the overarching guiding principle for smart city interventions. According to a study by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), smart cities employing green solutions across buildings, mobility, energy and governance could reduce emissions by a staggering 20-30%. However, we must also acknowledge the potential challenges and barriers in implementation. Funding constraints, bureaucratic hurdles, and resistance to change are significant obstacles that require practical strategies for overcoming. By addressing these challenges head-on, we can ensure the successful implementation of sustainable urban development initiatives.

Learnings from global examples indicate that smart cities centered on transit-oriented development (TOD), mixed-use development, walkable neighborhoods and green spaces drastically curtail energy demand and resource footprints. Urban planning strategies promoting compact, high-density vertically-oriented growth through sustainable high-rises, rather than sprawling horizontally, will be critical. Stringent green building codes, with incentives for net-zero and positive-energy structures deploying on-site renewables and recycled materials, are vital. Policy frameworks enabling a transition towards a circular economy model with comprehensive waste recycling capabilities are imperative.

Within this sustainable smart city vision, India's PMAY and affordable housing scheme can be a powerful catalyst for systemic transformation. By integrating sustainable design imperatives and smart tech solutions into all PMAY projects from the outset, we can essentially create a network of green, digital urban micro-clusters across India's townships and metropolises. However, it's important to engage with potential criticisms regarding the cost of integrating sustainability principles and technologies into affordable housing projects. While critics may argue that these measures could inflate costs, international case studies demonstrate that incremental green premiums are recovered within a few years through efficiency gains. More critically, the socio-economic-environmental paybacks in terms of resource security, resilience, and public health vastly outweigh upfront expenses over the lifecycle.

The PMAY framework henceforth should mandate all new affordable housing developments to incorporate rooftop solar, smart metering for efficient energy/water use, IoT-enabled monitoring and control systems, eco-friendly construction materials, rainwater harvesting, and decentralized waste recycling capabilities. Common areas and supporting infrastructure like water/sewage treatment plants must be digitally-enabled for optimized, resilient performance. Disaster resilience should be a core priority. PMAY homes need to be engineered to withstand seismic events and extreme weather through appropriate location choices, structural designs conforming to hazard-resistant codes, and smart monitoring systems providing advance early warning. Holistic planning encompassing barrier-free access, green open spaces, integrated multi-modal mobility options, and digital connectivity must be the norm.

Financing these greener, smarter urban solutions necessitates innovative collaborations between government, private sector and civil society. Solutions could include municipal green bonds, sustainability-linked loans whose interest rates are linked to environment impact metrics, and a phased transition reallocating fossil fuel subsidies towards catalyzing renewable energy and sustainable infrastructure investments.

Catalyzing a mindset evolution prioritizing sustainability along with smart urban planning and governance models will be pivotal as for unprecedented urban transition over the next two decades. Only by harmonizing ecology, technology and economics, cities become engines of inclusive, climate-resilient and resource-secure growth propelling our national development ambitions. Making sustainability and smart tech an inextricable fulcrum of programs like PMAY alongside masterplans for India's 100 smart cities can steer this systemic transition – transforming urban habitats into havens of economic dynamism, environmental regeneration and societal wellbeing.


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