Getting ‘Edgy’

Getting ‘Edgy’

Taking a close look at issues in neglected peri urban zones

Multiple Civic Concerns: Urban to Peri-Urban Spaces

By Raj Liberhan

Raj-LiberhanWe are barely coping with the environmental and management issues of our cities. Limited institutional capacity for professional competence and even worse, scarce finances are making our cities progressively un-livable. The physical limits to municipal jurisdictions have made a mockery of planned and managed urban envelopes. The unrelenting population pressures are forcing people to use land as per their immediate needs. As for the future, who knows and who has seen it? The present is right here and needs a solution. The municipality cannot provide, hence let us do it ourselves. It helps, that the writ, such as it is of the municipal body, runs only up to the notified geographical boundary. Beyond the line, it is the possession that matters and the land use is defined by the occupier of the area as per his need. In a sense, the peri-urban territory is free to use, be it a business or industry or residence, poultry or dairy, all of it is fine.

Uncontrolled peri-urban expansion
This is not exactly the best prescription for urban health or happiness but helps to resolve shelter and service deficits of a large city at affordable levels, and also caters to the needs of the urban economy. A win-win for the dwellers on both sides of the fence but a blow for sustainable and planned growth! A cursory look at the numbers will show that the peri-urban expansion is not a minor problem. In 2011, the estimates suggest that there were 377 million people in urban areas. This is projected to nearly double to 600 million people by 2031. The fear is that this number will be overtaken before 2031, given the accelerated pace of migrations which are driven by economic pressures. We cannot argue with the need of the people to improve their lives and livelihoods. We have to anticipate and accommodate the growth, we have to provide for the future before it goes past and expands the problems basket. China has nearly 78% of its population in urban areas, and Brazil has over 80%. In India too, urban areas will have to cater to increasing numbers and no one can stop this phenomenon. If we cannot stop it, we have to provide for the growth in peri-urban settings.

Laws to make or break?
The debate is not that we have to address the urban and peri-urban challenge, it is no longer about when to address them. It is about what to do that will convert the peri-urban spaces into veritable assets for ease of living. It is, therefore, of utmost urgency, that every inch of urban space and beyond is digitally mapped and put in the public domain. Most citizens are unaware as to the types of usage their owned or rented spaces can be employed for. There is no clarity of laws and many times the logic of a law of usage defies common sense. Why a lawyer or an accountant can use his basement for an office space and others are prohibited? For God’s sake, can we have a set of easy to understand and easy to comply with rules. Why an international NGO can run an office in a residential area and an Indian NGO cannot, or an embassy office can function from a residential colony and a corporate office cannot? A law must make sense, otherwise people find ways to twist it and keep law enforcers at bay. With India being ranked as one of the ten most corrupt countries in the world, this surely is not an impossible task.

This leads us to the first most necessary step in the right direction: land use be clearly defined and also FARs guidance, not only within city limits but also in its outgrowth areas. This is needed to be done by each state government and given the status of a sacred commandment and not a notional benchmark. There is no alternative to regulating every inch of land space, be it for public use or private use. But regulation has to be people friendly and not hostile to public necessity. Life will happen and if the laws curb life, then the law will be disobeyed with impunity.

Simple solutions linking peri-urban to urban
Yes, we have almost worshipped rural ambience and life in a village as idyllic. Sure, romantic notions of the village continue to beguile us but the needs of these times are driving young to seek their fortune in cities, where there is a school, a hospital, a college and a chance to earn a decent living, and more often than not, just a living. Sure, creating rural areas into urban-like havens is desirable, but it will take a long time to make it happen. Starting with managing environmental needs to maintaining civic infrastructure which cannot be financed by local revenues, the whole idea is an expensive one. Agro-oriented facilities and connectivity to markets through a rapid transport network is the biggest asset that a state can give to its rural populace. But civic infrastructure is another matter and has to have economic feasibility. Thus, we have to create compatible and complementary assets linking rural to peri-urban to urban civic needs for best advantage to metropolitan cities, both currently saturated ones and the ones that are emerging.

The road to recovery is long and arduous. There are no easy answers, particularly because a huge number of people are preoccupied with the basics of living by putting together two meals in the day and very often, only one. The integrity of public expenditures is not above reproach, hence, the asset creation in public spaces is slow and below acceptable standards. And even if we have one policeman for one person, law enforcement is going to be difficult. The good news is that sensitive local administrations driven by imaginative officials are showing the way. Tiruchirapalli is a success story in exemplary sanitation facilities and waste segregation. The community managed toilet scheme has proved the sustainability of community and NGO partnerships. Above all, a sensitive city authority, conscious of the problems of slum dwellers found ways to devise solutions. There are other places as well. Chandigarh is a success story in managing the growth of peri-urban spaces, although its suburbs of Panchkula and Mohali are not doing well for their outgrowth areas. So, we are not at a total loss for answers, but city after city needs to implement the answers in totality and not in bits and pieces.

A fresh set of priorities have to be prepared by the authorities entrusted with city development. Jurisdictions have to be re-drawn so as to designate an implementer and regulator for all spaces in its assigned geography. Thereafter, the urban story will unfold at a pace that is noticeable.

Raj Liberhan, former Director of India Habitat Centre and a civil servant, lays threadbare, socio-cultural, environmental and policy aspects that plague peri-urban settings in India.