Where various cohorts of the United Nations, such as UN- HABITAT, the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF), and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), are battling hard at the multilateral level, multiple government organisations at various scales of governance are committed to ensuring urban resilience in the cities of the world’s most populous country – Bharat. To ensure collective growth and recovery at the national level, cities are an extremely important scale of political economy with respect to undertaking efficient efforts towards the implementation of national policies, achieving global targets, and aligning with local aspirations. However, these efforts need to be more robust and multifaceted to tackle the new forms of social inequalities arising due to the megatrend of the century – urbanisation.
Whether it’s urban floods or abrupt rainfalls, record-high traffic congestions, or air pollution levels, multiple issues arising on various contours have been posing a great threat to the capacity and competence of cities to attain resilience and ultimately perform as the drivers of growth and recovery. In order to comprehensively and sustainably address the ‘planning’ and ‘management’ problems of cities, there is a need to bring about a paradigm shift in the way we handle cities.
Firstly, the fundamental tool to plan for the future of cities in Bharat – master plans – should be released from the shackles of rigid judicial and bureaucratic complexities. The horizon period of these plans is a questionable aspect, leaving no space to review/ revise it on a periodic basis and thereby undertake measures of course correction if needed. Further, once published, it is extremely complicated to make any changes, especially changing the strategy adopted in accordance with sudden disasters or disruptions that the city may be subjected to. COVID-19 is the latest exposure of this fact as the plans of many major cities went to waste because despite the heavy turmoil brought by COVID-19, city plans had no ‘backup plans’ or any ‘plan B’ in place.
There is a pressing need to radically revolutionise the process, method, and the entire idea of the ‘city master plan’ for the cities to frame tailor-made strategies to ensure climate resilience and sustainable growth adhering to their own context. The latest decision of the government to form a high-level expert committee and the budgetary provisions made by the Union Finance Minister in 2022 aimed at bringing radical changes in the urban planning process bring a positive ray of hope in support of this argument.
Secondly, it is crucial to acknowledge that urban climate policies are not isolated; instead, they have interconnected effects that span various geographical locations and scales. Climate change policies are seldom developed within a single location but rather emerge through the dissemination of social, technological, and institutional progressions across local, regional, national, and global contexts. They evolve and adjust to suit diverse situations. In these settings, urban climate action plans made at differing scales should clearly emphasise their engagement and interplay with the ecological, economic, political, and technological dimensions at both the state and national levels. Moreover, they should elucidate how these agendas contribute to international negotiations and agreements that Bharat adheres to, such as those made during COP, the World Economic Forum, UNGA, etc. The ‘Majhi Vasundhara’ mission of the Govt. of Maharashtra, which makes it compulsory for the ULBs to develop carbon-neutrality strategies and climate action plans, is a classic example in support of the above argument. Moreover, initiatives of the state Govt. of Odisha to establish a separate Ministry for Climate Change are also laudable approaches in synergy with this cause.
Thirdly, urban climate policies should explicitly acknowledge the pivotal role of Nature-Based Solutions, encompassing green and blue spaces, as well as ecosystem restoration, in mitigating climate risks within urban areas. These policies should extend beyond mere suggestions of tree planting and urban green initiatives and should instead comprehend the significance of ecosystem processes and functions. Urban plans must pinpoint deteriorated ecosystems within the city that can be revitalised to serve as natural carbon sinks, offer vital ecosystem services, and function as regulators of microclimates and biodiversity.
These policies need to be customised to encompass strategies that leverage these spaces while ensuring their sustainable and equitable maintenance over time. Additionally, it is essential to note that existing city plans have limited engagement with local knowledge systems. Community involvement in current policies is primarily limited to gathering information about prevailing issues and situating them within the framework of existing infrastructure deficits. This approach tends to view communities solely as beneficiaries of infrastructure improvements, rather than as active participants in generating context- specific solutions.
Finally, city plans should extend their focus beyond technological, ecological, and financial aspects and instead embed climate action within the unique social and cultural contexts of each urban area. This entails addressing issues related to gender, inclusivity, justice, and equity. It’s important to recognize that the impact of climate change is often experienced differently by various demographic groups. For instance, women may disproportionately bear the burden of climate vulnerabilities due to societal gender roles that may require them to undertake long journeys for essentials like water. Similarly, climate change can lead to water scarcity and extreme heat impacts on livelihoods tied to resources, such as livestock rearing and agriculture. These heightened vulnerabilities exacerbate existing inequalities and marginalization, underscoring the necessity for climate policies to explicitly incorporate these concerns.
In a nutshell, Indian cities represent a pivotal frontier for climate action and intervention, where a multitude of stakeholders collaboratively shape and transform urban infrastructure, thereby redefining the daily lives and lifestyles of millions. This is especially crucial in India, a country in the global south, where climate change challenges intersect with pre-existing issues. Local governments in Indian cities play a paramount role in addressing climate change. They have the potential to mold urban futures that are both low-carbon and resilient while navigating through the contextual vulnerabilities and diverse stakeholder groups unique to the region. Understanding the dynamics of climate action discourse not only influences urban governance but also generates innovative approaches to addressing urban climate issues.
Regrettably, many climate plans in Indian cities primarily focus on risk mitigation, often overlooking the substantial co-benefits that effective climate mitigation strategies can bring to citizens. These benefits span across various dimensions of urban life, including economic growth, public health, and overall well-being. Emphasising these broader societal advantages over the long term has the potential to ignite greater enthusiasm for participation from civic organisations, the public, corporate entities, industries, and other critical urban stakeholders. In summary, Indian cities are dynamic hubs where climate action can have far-reaching positive impacts. By recognizing and promoting the multiple benefits of climate mitigation strategies, local governments and stakeholders can drive meaningful change and create more sustainable and resilient urban environments for India’s rapidly growing population.
Views expressed by Piyush S. Girgaonkar, Head of Urban Affairs and Advocacy, BNCA, Pune
Piyush is a PhD Scholar in Development Studies, Lisbon School of Economics and Management, Portugal. He is also Founder, Planogram; Youth Ambassador, Earth Day Network; and Convener, IMF, Spain.