Friday, April 11, 2008

Infrastructure: Rural & Urban

Shyam Ponappa / New Delhi October 05, 2006

Let’s begin with Integrated Area Planning - Spatial Planning.

Stop to think of what is really essential: enabling people to live well, be active and productive, by providing the necessary services and facilities... What assumes importance, after goal setting and prioritisation, is pragmatic planning and execution...

There is this view that development means that everyone gets to live in a city, that urbanisation is the ultimate desirable goal. There is also the opposite, railing against the resource-hungry, wasteful cities in India, where the 20 per cent in cars hog 75 per cent of the roads, while buses that transport 60 per cent of the population get only 7 per cent (Business Standard, September 26, 2006: “The future of the city”). There are those who argue that the Metro and urban rail projects are wasteful and unnecessary, because more buses deployed differently would be much more efficient. That big dams or connecting major river systems are anti-people. That nuclear power is bad, because there are alternative ways of getting energy from the sun, wind or tides.

The Essentials

Let us begin with dialogue, not adversarial debate, as Soka Gakai’s President Daisaku Icheda puts it. That is, give your own perspective while accepting with an open mind, the operating criteria being good faith and “right knowledge” in the way that Deming meant it. And if facts and logic indicate that your assumptions or understanding are wrong, allow the facts and logic to prevail.

Town vs Country? Town & Country

The fact is that cities are the engines of civilisation and growth. They enable the agglomeration of talent and resources that can result in synergy through economic and cultural activity and growth. Equally, haphazard development often leads to problems that overwhelm the benefits of efficiency and association. What we need is Smart Growth that fosters vitality in community centres, while transforming the economic structure of our rural working landscape. We have seen other countries do this successfully. Above all, it means providing the basic amenities that make communities viable: apart from law and order, it is infrastructure including sanitation and basic education, which we are unable to get done. Equally, we need to make our rural areas livable, so that all roads don’t lead to urbanisation. PURA (Provision of Urban Facilities in Rural Areas) is what many developed countries have, particularly in Europe.

Economic Viability vs Short-Term Profits

To knock either the Metro or the bus systems in New Delhi is to miss the point entirely. Infrastructure services must necessarily be sustainable, i.e., economically viable in the long term. Let us recognise, however, that for services like transportation, this may take several decades. To expect such services to be profitable in the short or medium term (5-6 years) is simply unrealistic. The essential need is to provide effective and, ultimately, efficient services to people in living and working spaces, starting with sanitation, basic health and education, whether for manufacturing, agriculture, or services.

Area Planning or Spatial Planning

Timothy Beatley’s “Green Urbanism: Learning From European Cities,” published seven years ago, is an in-depth survey of the innovative practices of a number of cities. While we cannot expect to flip a switch to have it all happen here, this is a compendium of so much in terms of process that we could initiate. Consider the National Spatial Strategy of the Netherlands, in its fifth avatar this year. Initiated by the Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning & the Environment, a priority is “area development”, in which all parties involved take joint decisions. The ministry itself is an example of Dutch unitary organisation, like their Ministry of Transport, Public Works, and Water Management (Business Standard, October 6, 2005: “Thinking big: scale, ownership & results”). The ministry encourages provincial governments, local authorities, social organisations, local residents, and businesses to work together to come up with a vision, and then make it happen. The process has taken time to achieve results; the Dutch have been doing this for some 50 years before getting to their Fifth National Policy Document on Spatial Planning.*

Spatial Planning Example: The Randstad

The Randstad in the Netherlands is a group of towns and cities across some 50 km with a largely rural centre. It has excellent living, working, and leisure facilities with the requisite transport and communications. Its “Green Heart” has livestock, agriculture, floriculture, and leisure activities. It has several towns and many villages, giving it a different character from other urban agglomerations. And because it has four major cities—Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, and Utrecht -- it has no “centre”. The transformation of their subsistence use of land is an object lesson in development. It didn’t just happen.

I am not advocating blind replication here. But to paraphrase Gandhi, we can take ideas from many lands without losing our sense of who we are. We can—in fact, we must—learn from everywhere, and adapt as we apply to our context and particular condition.

Dickens’s words about the best and worst of times seem horribly apt, if you think of any of India's urban and rural locales: Cities and towns with exploding economic activity in a vast population on a scale, range, and form that defies description, but unorganised and chaotic. Traffic surging helter-skelter, scads of buildings—whole townships rising from among the green fields around Delhi, and all across the country. Within Delhi, demolitions or sealing as court orders on zoning take effect. The endless cycle of floods and drought with limited irrigation systems, the annual monsoon runoff, alarming groundwater losses because of unbridled pumping, and a precipitous decline in the water table. And the unending difficulties of inappropriate compensation for land acquisition. All the flurry epitomised in Ed Luce’s book, In Spite of the Gods.

Stop to think of what is really essential: enabling people to live well, be active and productive, by providing the necessary services and facilities. Then, if we consider the possibilities based on the real world manifest in real place/s, the need for many systems to coexist comes through. What assumes importance, after goal setting and prioritisation, is pragmatic planning and execution, driven by what is good for people (the public interest). Let’s hope that this week’s conference, 'Building Infrastructure: Challenges & Opportunities', begins to address our need for comprehensive, integrated spatial planning.


May 30, 2014
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