Towards green cities

Published : Apr 22, 2005 00:00 IST

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. - V. GANESAN

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. - V. GANESAN

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.

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.

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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