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 Climate Change

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Published on: Oct. 30, 2020, 10:25 a.m.
Building resilience for an urbanising India
  • File picture of Bangalore. Source: Wikipedia

By Yasar Waheed Khan and Dr. A. Nambi Appadurai

Between 2018-19, India’s urban population grew by over 1.07 crore and by 2046, it has been estimated that there will be more people living in cities than in villages. India ranks fifth in the list of countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In 2018 alone, India suffered economic loss of 37 billion dollars (2nd highest in the world) and 2,081 deaths (the highest in the world) due to climate change. While urban areas have become the centres of growth and innovation today, climate change threatens to derail the process and reverse the progress of the last few decades by pushing millions back into poverty. The challenges of urban India - food security, safe drinking water, air pollution, etc would also be compounded by natural disasters, rise in sea level, changes in monsoon patterns, etc. It is, therefore, safe to say that urbanisation and climate change are likely to be the most pervasive themes of India in 21st century.

SDG-11 outline the imperative of making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. The National and State Action Plan of Climate Change (NAPCC and SAPCC) provide a host of top down measures to reduce the ecological footprint of cities and guide them towards sustainability. Cities like Delhi, Chennai and Bengaluru are part of a global network of megacities under C40 Cities, to collaborate, share knowledge and drive climate actions. 

With the imposition of the pandemic-induced lockdown, unemployment rate in urban India fluctuated from 8.35 per cent on 21 March, 2020 to 25.78 per cent in 20 April, 2020 and back to 9.7 per cent by 1 August, 2020. Subsequently, India witnessed a large-scale urban to rural distress migration owing to the lack of resilience in job markets and absence of social safety nets in cities. At the same time, the sudden loss of labour has also impeded a quick recovery for sectors like agriculture (PB & HA) and construction (KL).

The pandemic is a wake-up call for Indian cities to reassess their capacities to manage disruptions and shocks. While COVID-19 may be an once in a 100-year event,  subsequent climate-induced disasters and losses are likely to be far more frequent and persistent. The gaps in resilience of physical and social infrastructure, ecosystems and communities need prioritised redressal to prevent future shocks from ballooning into disasters.

Local action on climate change

Climate change with its range of impact on regions and geographies, needs participation of communities to better understand risks, manage vulnerabilities and foster innovations. While many Indian cities are beginning to act on climate change, a wider understanding of the interaction between climate and development priorities is lacking. Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) would thus need to formulate and adopt their own vision and actions under City Climate Action Plans (CCAP) for mainstreaming climate action and develop within their Urban Carrying Capacities (UCC).

Planning for the urban continuum

Ecosystems that support sustainability of urban centres often lie beyond their administrative boundaries. Urban centres in India are also rapidly expanding into their rural hinterland, yet rural bodies like panchayats do not have access to urban planning skills. The District Planning Committee (DPC) and the Metropolitan Planning Committee (MPC), had been charged with facilitating this by planning for urban and fast urbanising areas as a whole with a focus on resource endowments, environmental conservation, infrastructure development and spatial planning. But several states are yet to create them and the legal framework under ‘Town and country planning acts’ do not provide formal role to DPC. There is a need to operationalize DPC and enhance their capacities for managing climate risks by climate proofing ongoing projects and incorporating resilience aspects in future projects right from the planning stage. This would reduce the dependence on costlier retro-fitted solutions.

Expanding programmes to reap climate co-benefits

Building resilience and sustainability of cities often needs intelligent tinkering of existing programmes like Kerala’s Ayyankali Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme, which provisions repair of storm water drains as a part of urban livelihood support initiative. These programmes, despite having climate co-benefits like management of urban floods, currently lack adequate financial support to be scaled up.

Climate-smart solutions for climate-smart cities 

There is also a need for designing specific climate smart solutions to urban problems with resilience and mitigation aspects built onto them. While a few of the ongoing projects adopt such technological climate smart solutions like smart street lights and smart grids, ecosystem-based approaches like Nature-based Solutions (NbS) haven’t garnered as much attention. The cross-sectoral interventions under the latter require different sectoral schemes, departments and agencies to work together at the district level both in terms of planning and implementation.

Universal access to urban minimums

There exists a range of programmes at the national level which cater to the essentials of the urban populace, like PDS (for food security), BPL cards (for housing, electricity, etc.), RSBY smart cards (for health). But these initiatives are often of little help to migrants who lack proper documentation and the middle class who lie above their prescribed criteria. Initiatives like ration card inter-state portability, Ayushman Bharat Scheme (PM-JAY), etc. do aim to address a few of these issues. There are, however, even better models of essential service delivery that have been economically adopted in states like Uttarakhand (Atal Ayushman Uttarakhand Yojana, universal healthcare) and Tamil Nadu (universal PDS). These models not only contribute to building resilience of social infrastructure and communities, but are also integral to COVID response.

In the new normal, sustainability and resilience are the driving ideas for economies, communities and cities. These timely actions and investments carry with them long-term benefits for all the stakeholders. This pandemic serves as a wakeup call to plan a resilient urban India by building back better, and is a simple choice that boils down to delay and pay, or plan and prosper. 

Yasar Waheed Khan is Consultant, and Dr. A. Nambi Appadurai is Director, Climate Resilience Practice, World Resources Institute India. Views are personal.


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