Sustainable cities and the challenges of urbanisation in India

By Dr Nafees Meah, Director, RCUK India

India has been described as a ‘reluctant urbaniser’. In 2001, the percentage of the population living in urban areas was estimated to be 28 per cent. Ten years later, it is little more than 30 per cent. This is despite the explosive growth of megacities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. Nonetheless, there is an expectation that in the next decade or so, the rate of urbanisation will increase significantly. This is, in part, because increased urbanisation is a necessary condition for economic growth. Population trends for India show that there will be a substantial increase in working age population over the next 20 years and sustained economic growth will be necessary to generate new jobs in the manufacturing and services sectors.

Construction work in the outskirts of Delhi

Construction work in the outskirts of Delhi

McKinsey’s recent report, India’s urban awakening: Building inclusive cities, sustaining economic growth, presented some startling indicators of the likely changes that will happen over the next 15-20 years:

  • 590 million will live in cities, nearly twice the population of the United States today
  • 270 million people net increase in working-age population
  • 70 per cent of net new employment will be generated in cities
  • 68 cities will have population of 1 million plus, up from 42 cities today
  • $1.2 trillion capital investment is necessary to meet projected demand in India’s cities
  • 700-900 million square meters of commercial and residential space needs to be built – or a new Chicago every year
  • 2.5 billion square meters of roads will have to be paved, 20 times the capacity added in the past decade
  • 7,400 kilometers of metros and subways will need to be constructed – 20 time the capacity.

These figures may appear daunting on first pass. However, we have the recent profound transformational change witnessed in China to hand which has experienced a very similar period of explosive growth of cities and development on a similar scale. Although the challenge is great, provided that it is addressed creatively it can be met.

India’s Planning Commission has observed that the pace of urbanization poses an unprecedented managerial and policy challenge. It noted that demand for key services such as water, transport, sewage treatment; low income housing will increase five to sevenfold in cities of every size and shape.

The unprecedented migration of people across India is resulting in its major cities becoming patchwork quilts of different communities living side by side (see UNICEF’s Overview of Internal Migration in India). According to India’s Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, almost a third of India’s population is made up of internal migrants. The integration of new populations, especially in urban areas, is a major issue, particularly given the lack of low income housing provision and basic services.

There are profound choices to be made in India over the next two decades. The sustainability of cities and/or sustainable urbanisation – whatever the definitions used – is a crucial consideration. Both real time knowledge of the urbanisation transition and knowledge how to manage this transition are going to be vitally important. The unprecedented demographic change also needs to be understood in terms of its cultural and historical impact. These are all areas where the academic community working in partnership with business and civil society groups can play an important part in defining the challenges and crafting the solutions appropriate for India.

India’s urban population will double by 2030

India’s urban population will double by 2030

Over recent years, the UK has become a thought-leader on the sustainability of cities and understanding urbanization transitions around the world. Much of this thought leadership has derived from the research commissioned by the individual Councils which have funded programmes on: ICT and internet of things, low carbon cities, water and energy resource management, urban health, demographic transitions and urban poverty alleviation. Later this year, RCUK India will be organising a roundtable which will bring together leading academics, policy makers and thought leaders from the UK and India to discuss and identify key R&D issues focusing on the areas of:

  • Sustainability and urbanisation
  • Smart cities and the urban ecosystem in India
  • Integrating provision of water, waste and energy services
  • Urbanization and delivery of effective health services
  • Changing idea of the city in Indian culture
  • Achieving inclusivity in the face of rapid demographic change