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Towards Green Cities


By B.S. Padmanabhan
India's National Magazine
March 12, 2005


As the global trend of increasing urban population lends urgency to
the task of making cities greener, the Ministry of Environment and
Forests draws up plans to address urban environmental concerns.

Amid a cloud of fumes emitted by a bus, in Chennai. The Central Pollution
Control Board has established a national network of 295 stations to
monitor air quality in 90 cities and towns across the country.

The inevitable process of urbanisation has brought with it environmental
degradation, affecting the quality of life and striking at the root of
sustainable development of cities and towns. This is more pronounced in
developing countries than the developed countries. In this context, there
could be no better theme for the World Environment Day 2005 to be hosted
in San Francisco on June 5 than "Green Cities: Plan for the Planet". Half
of the world population of six billion lives in cities and by 2030 the
share will go up to 60 per cent. Hence, society's future largely depends
on how urban environmental problems are addressed.

As Klaus Toepfer, Director-General of the United Nations Environment
Programme (UNEP), points out in his message for the World Environment Day,
too many of today's cities are breeding grounds of pollution, poverty,
disease and despair and, with careful planning, they can be turned into
flagships of sustainable development. The theme for the occasion is thus
both a warning and a declaration of faith in the ability of nations to
turn the expansion of urban centres into an effort that would benefit all.

More than a billion people in the developing world live in poverty and
ill-health because they are denied clean water, basic sanitation and
adequate shelter that people in the developed world often take for
granted. In this context, Toepfer rightly argues that easing the burden of
the world's poorest people will yield a double dividend - giving them a
foothold on the ladder to a better life and helping to protect the environment.

He points out that providing improved sanitation to the slums will protect
freshwater resources and the sea into which all rivers flow, besides
helping to save the lives of many of the 6,000 children who die every day
from preventable diseases associated with the lack of safe water and poor
hygiene. Replacing wood fires with more sustainable energy sources will
not only help preserve forests but also reduce air pollution, which causes
respiratory diseases. Air pollution can be checked by cleaning up vehicle
exhausts and preventing the release of toxic fumes from burning plastic
and other refuse by promoting appropriate waste collection and disposal
systems and methods.

The UNEP is working in all these areas. Its energy and sustainable
transport programmes aim at addressing the environmental consequences of
energy production and use. It is working to promote environmentally sound
technological solutions to problems associated with freshwater use and
waste disposal. Its Sustainable Cities Programme in partnership with
UN-Habitat, is designed to help cities to plan and manage their
environment and share the lessons with local and national governments
worldwide. Admittedly, the challenges presented by growing urbanisation
are daunting but Toepfer feels that they are not insurmountable. His
confidence has a basis. For example, towns and cities - predominantly
those in the developed world - are currently responsible for most of the
greenhouse gas emissions - mostly from cars, trucks and power stations -
that are causing climate change. These emissions, he says, can be
drastically cut by a combination of clean energy technologies coupled with
enlightened city planning.

His concept of the city of future is one where buildings use solar power
and waste less because they use power-saving lighting and are
well-insulated, where public transport is affordable and efficient and
where vehicles pollute less because they are powered by electricity or
hydrogen. With the support of the community, business and, above all,
government, such cities can be created even now. He cites examples of
these three sections working to redesign the metropolis. Traffic-clogged
city centres are being reclaimed for pedestrians, green spaces preserved
and expanded, recycling schemes promoted, environmentally friendly
buildings designed.

"These examples are like seeds. The challenge is to nurture these seeds,
propagate them, and spread them to the furthest reaches of the globe.
Towns and cities are humanity's home - and its future. Making that a
future of peace, dignity and prosperity is the responsibility of all. We
need to look forward with hope. That hope lies in Green Cities," Toepfer says.

Translating this hope into reality calls for a multi-pronged approach
covering a wide range of urban infrastructure sectors, which are bearing
the brunt of the adverse impact of urbanisation. Urban growth as such
cannot be avoided and many view the cities as engines of growth
contributing significantly to the overall economic growth of the country.
In fact, the economist Jeffrey Sachs views the process of urbanisation as
one of the most promising aspects of global economic development. He notes
that urban areas have outperformed rural areas during the last century in
almost every aspect of economic development. He is not blind to the
problems created by urbanisation but attributes them to poor urban
planning, poor development strategies and ineffective urban governance.

Contrary to the popular impression, the pace of urbanisation in developing
countries is actually not accelerating. Experts point out that the annual
growth rates have been declining and the process has similarities with
what happened in industrialised countries between 1920 and 1925. But in
developing countries today the base of urban population growth, that is,
the number of people already in urban areas, is so much bigger than what
it was in the developed countries a century ago that the absolute number
of people living in urban areas will reach levels never seen before.

WHAT is the situation in India? Census 2001 shows that the degree of
urbanisation in India has been the lowest in the world. The urban
population rose to 285 million, representing 27.8 per cent of the total
population as compared to 18 per cent in 1961. The decadal growth in urban
population declined from 46.1 per cent in 1971-81 to 36.4 per cent in
1981-91 to 31.2 per cent in 1991-2001.

K. RAMESH BABU

Waiting for water, at a slum in Hyderabad. Slum-dwellers who constitute
one-third of urban population are the worst-hit by the inequity in water
distribution.

Correspondingly, the average growth in urban areas dropped from 3.8 per
cent to 3.1 per cent and to 2.7 per cent. This indicates that urbanisation
has been taking place at a fairly modest pace. The fact that there has
been no runaway migration from rural to urban areas should not lead to
planner's complacency. While the total population has grown by less than
six times from 238 million to 1,027 million between 1901 and 2001, the
increase in urban population has been more than ten-fold, from 26 million
to 285 million. The number of towns has risen during this period from
1,916 to 5,161 and the number of mega cities having more than one million
population has risen from one to 35 during this period. The mega cities
account for nearly 40 per cent of the urban population. The urban
population is projected to grow at 4 per cent per annum and would account
for 40 per cent of total population by 2010.

Inter-State variation of urban population is wide. For example, in the
National Capital Territory of Delhi, the urban population account for 93
per cent of the total population. At the other end of the spectrum is
Himachal Pradesh with only 9.8 per cent of its population in urban areas.
Among the larger States, Tamil Nadu is the most urbanised with 43.9 per
cent urban population followed by Maharashtra with 42.4 per cent and
Gujarat with 37.4 per cent. Bihar has only 10.5 per cent of its population
in urban areas and this is the lowest among larger States. In terms of
absolute number of persons living in urban areas, Maharashtra tops with 41
million followed by Uttar Pradesh with 36 million and Tamil Nadu with 27 million.

The adverse impact of unregulated growth in urban population on urban
infrastructure and services is evident in worsening water quality,
excessive air and noise pollution and the problems of disposal of solid
wastes and hazardous wastes. According to official figures, 90 per cent of
urban households are provided with water supply but the Tenth Plan
Document notes that these figures hide several realities, such as the
inadequacy of the water supply system in terms of storage, treatment and
distribution arrangements, the irregularity of supply and the poor
quality. Many urban centres reportedly lack treatment facilities and where
they exist, they are not often used or used without quality control. In
most cases, the urban residents have to supplement public supplies with
water obtained from more expensive private sources. The capacity
utilisation of urban water supply systems is found to be less than 50 per
cent in 40 per cent of the towns.

Moreover, there is inequity in distribution and the poorer sections, who
constitute one-fourth of the urban population, and the slum-dwellers who
constitute more than one-third of the urban population in certain cities,
are the worst sufferers. There is also contamination of water supply owing
to poor maintenance and the mixing with drainage and sewerage waters. A
substantial proportion of urban residents is dependent on ground water
supplied through hand pumps. The quality of ground water is found to be
poor. The Central Pollution Control Board under the Ministry of
Environment and Forests has been monitoring water quality at 507 locations
and the results obtained in 1998 showed organic and bacterial
contamination of water sources. The monitoring of water quality in wells
has revealed the presence of dissolved oxygen and total coliform at levels
higher than permissible levels.

Studies by the Central Water Commission on the chemical composition of
ground water have revealed a high concentration of nitrates, potassium and
even phosphates in many places. In quite a few cities the conductivity,
chloride, fluoride and the total coliform content in ground water were
found to be very high. In some places even faecal coliform was present.
Increased abstraction of groundwater has lowered the water table and
increased salinity, fluoride and lead levels in metropolitan areas.
NEXT to water supply, sanitation plays a crucial role in public health.
According to official figures, 43 per cent of urban households are without
latrines or connections to septic tanks or sewerage. Access to excreta
disposal systems in urban areas varies from 48 per cent to 70 per cent.

Out of 300 Class 1 cities about 70 have partial sewerage systems and
treatment facilities. A study by the Central Pollution Control Board in
1994-95 had shown that 15,800 million litres of wastewater is generated in
Class 1 cities every day but treatment facility is available for only
3,750 million litres. Of the total wastewater generated in the metros
hardly 30 per cent is treated before disposal. Most of the cities have
only primary treatment facilities. This is a cause for concern because the
untreated and partially treated municipal waste water finds its way into
water sources like rivers, lakes and ground water leading to pollution.
On the other hand, the programme of Urban Low Cost Sanitation, launched in
1980-81 to convert dry latrines into low-cost pour flush latrines, had
made very little progress. The Planning Commission feels that low cost
sanitation is the appropriate solution not only for the majority of urban
centres but also for places where the costly option of underground
drainage is not feasible. The Tenth Plan document details the measures to
be taken for rejuvenating this programme. The poor sanitary conditions,
particularly in slums, lead to outbreaks of cholera and gastroenteritis.
It is well known that water-borne diseases are a major cause of mortality.
According to a case study, water and sanitation-related diseases account
for 60 per cent of the environmental health burden and over 11 per cent of
total burden of diseases in Andhra Pradesh.

There is sufficient awareness among policymakers and administrators about
the importance and urgency of taking up measures to improve the management
of urban wastewater and solid waste. It is recognised that there is no
proper system of collection, transportation, treatment and disposal of
solid waste in most towns. This has become a cause for concern because the
annual generation of solid waste in cities, which rose from 6 million
tonnes in 1947 to 48 million tonnes in 1997, is projected to touch 300
million tonnes by 2047. Most surveys have revealed 40 per cent organic
component in the waste. The average waste collection in the cities is 72
per cent and only 70 per cent of the cities have adequate waste transport
facilities. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has taken a number of
steps to remedy the situation and improve waste management practices and
systems, particularly the management of hazardous and bio-medical wastes.
AIR pollution in cities has been on the increase thanks to the increasing
number of vehicles and consequent increase in the emission of pollutants.

The Central Pollution Control Board has established a national network of
295 stations to monitor air quality in 90 cities and towns in 29 States
and three Union Territories. Four major air pollutants, namely sulphur
dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, suspended particulate matter and respirable
suspended particulate matter (RSPM), are covered under the monitoring
programme. Critical levels of RSPM were reported in the residential areas
of 16 cities and high levels, exceeding the National Ambient Air Quality
Standards, were noticed in the residential areas of four cities.

To reduce vehicular pollution emission standards have been prescribed and
other steps taken. Some of the mega cities have the dubious distinction of
having the worst air quality in the world. Out of the three million
premature deaths in the world occurring due to outdoor and indoor air
pollution, India accounts for the highest number. With the number of
vehicles increasing the efforts to improve urban air quality have focussed
on limiting vehicular emission levels by curbing the use of vehicles more
than 15 years old and tightening the emission standards.

Inadequate housing stock and increase in the number of slums have added to
environmental concerns in urban areas. The shortage of housing in urban
areas at the beginning of the Tenth Plan is estimated at 8.9 million
units. The 2001 Census shows that the number of slum-dwellers has risen to
40.6 million. The Planning Commission feels the need for an attitudinal
change among policymakers and the general public towards slum-dwellers in
order to bring about slum development and improvement on a sustainable
basis. The Planning Commission has noted that the effort has been more
towards providing some amount of civic amenities in a non-coordinated
fashion than towards devising all-embracing programmes with participation
of slum- dwellers to ensure a decent quality of life for them and make
slums redundant in urban habitations.

Admittedly, tackling the innumerable problems of urbanisation requires
effective urban governance, which is beset by problems such as
fragmentation of responsibility, incomplete devolution of functions and
funds to the elected urban local bodies, unwillingness to progress towards
municipal autonomy, adherence to outmoded methods of property tax and
reluctance to levy user charges. The Planning Commission notes that State
governments lack faith in the capability of urban local bodies to meet
their obligations as institutions of local self-governance. In the present
set-up, initiatives for local developmental activities rarely come from
them. The Tenth Plan document lists the measures required to help ULBs
play their due role in making the urban areas worth living in. If these
are implemented effectively the observance of World Environment Day will
be meaningful.

 

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