Cities Must Be Empowered To Balance Economic Prosperity And Environmental Impact: Hitesh Vaidya Of NIUA

By Naina Gautam March 04, 2023

India’s G20 Presidency and the Urban 20 (U20) Engagement Group are opportunities to emphasise that actions at city level can drive lasting positive outcomes for the world, underscoring the interconnectedness of the world and our shared future

Cities Must Be Empowered To Balance Economic Prosperity And Environmental Impact: Hitesh Vaidya Of NIUA
NIUA as the technical secretariat for U20 engagement group for G20 leads the effort to draft a roadmap for global development change driven by cities.

Hitesh Vaidya is Director, National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA), which is the technical secretariat for U20 engagement group for G20. A seasoned urban development expert, Vaidya is a former country representative of UN-Habitat India. In an interview with Naina Gautam, Vaidya talks about how U20 is making efforts to draft a roadmap for global development change driven by cities. Edited excerpts:     
NIUA has been designated as the technical secretariat for U20 engagement group in the G20 scheme. How is the opportunity being used as an opportunity to highlight the contribution of cities in achieving global development agenda? 
India’s G20 Presidency and the Urban 20 (U20) Engagement Group are opportunities to emphasise that actions at city level can drive lasting positive outcomes for the world, underscoring the interconnectedness of the world and our shared future.

Six major priority areas have been identified for grounding complex global urban agendas into actionable city level initiatives: Ensuring Water Security, Encouraging Environmentally Responsible Behaviours, Accelerating Climate Finance, Championing ‘Local’ Identity, Reinventing Frameworks for the Urban Governance and Planning, and Catalysing Digital Urban Future.

The effort of the sixth U20 is to continue moving from intention to action and to draft a roadmap for global change driven by cities. Cities must be empowered to balance economic prosperity and environmental impact; increasing densities and sprawl; diversity and social cohesion; technological advancements and digital divide, and other contradictions urban areas face.

There is a lot of thrust on sustainable cities, including using technology, but why are these not seen as people centric? 
It is incorrect to say that urban initiatives are not people centric. Cities are for the people, so they have to be built around the principles of inclusiveness. The use of technology is no different. For example, all 100 Smart cities have developed Integrated Command Control Centres (ICCCs), helping municipalities in multiple dimensions, each of which is people centric.

Today most of the cameras installed in cities are helping to provide valuable information for solving crime in towns. The night fatalities in cities have been reduced since the cities are issuing e-challans for rash driving even at night. Free wi-fi implementation has shown enhancement in citizen experience in using public transport.

Door-to- door waste collection has improved and, similarly, many cities are using Supervisory Control & Data Acquisition SCADA to save water, and optimise water distribution. All these efforts are towards better public safety, providing better traffic and transport, a cleaner city with efficient solid waste management and equitable water supply.   

You have a lot of focus on using data. How robust is it?  
With technology playing a significant role today, the importance of data generated in cities via a network of intelligent devices and systems has become more pronounced.

NIUA has been engaged in data initiatives since the ideation process of the DataSmart Cities Strategy in 2019. We are also involved in dialogue with the relevant cities and national authorities to promote digital transformation and provide handhold support for imbibing a data culture in cities. This has led to creation of a robust data ecosystem.

Also, NIUA played a catalyst in designing the Urban Outcome Framework (UOF), a transparent, comprehensive and robust database based on cross-city outcomes across various vital sectors. It is a step towards democratising data by making it accessible to all urban stakeholders in the government, academic institutions, citizenry and industry.
To promote climate-informed decision-making across Indian cities, NIUA hosts India’s most significant climate data ecosystem titled Climate Data Observatory (CDoT), which acts as a one-stop data solution for strengthening on-ground climate resilience in cities.
The various measures undertaken by NIUA to strengthen the cities’ technology and data governance capabilities provide agility and create a favourable ecosystem for local-level data-driven governance. 

To institutionalise change and ensure the transformation is sustainable and scalable, cities and authorities must invest in people and processes. This can generate the transformational impact of data across all cities in India and eventually facilitate sustainable development and improve socioeconomic progress. 
Financing is and will continue to be a challenge. How is the issue being addressed? 
Finance is the backbone for any city. While urban India accounts for 35 per cent of India’s population and contributes 63 per cent of India’s GDP, municipal revenue accounts for merely around 1 per cent of GDP. As per RBI analysis, the municipal budget, using coverage and collection, is about 59 per cent. The rest of the city funding is obtained from State and Central Government grants. However, to be self-sustained, the city budget must be managed through innovative financing mechanisms such as municipal bonds, pooled finance, private sector participation, etc.

The announcement of the establishment of the Urban Infrastructure Development Fund in this year’s budget is a great move, which will provide much-needed impetus for urban infrastructure growth, particularly in tier 2 and tier 3 cities. However, more policy actions are needed to enhance the power of cities to improve own-source revenues, rationalise intergovernmental transfers and provide regulations for alternative financing frameworks in an integrated manner.
Universal accessibility is going to be a growing issue in the years to come. How are cities preparing for it? 
NIUA has facilitated evidence-based planning and investments for inclusive development to improve urban productivity and quality of life in Indian cities. We believe universal accessibility has to become a norm rather than a choice.
We collaborated with IIT-Roorkee to develop Harmonised Guidelines and Standards for Universal Accessibility in India - 2021 for Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. The guidelines shift the paradigm from a barrier-free environment to universal accessibility. The standards have been incorporated in sectoral guidelines (WASH, mobility etc.) and ongoing infrastructure projects of cities like Varanasi, Bhubaneswar, Chennai, etc. Cities and states are encouraged to include these guidelines in their building byelaws, development plans/ master plans and other statutory systems. Further, the ABLE-India framework, one of the first accessibility accreditation frameworks worldwide, has been developed for quality assurance and recognised best practices. Under the Good Governance for Urban Inclusion through Data and Empowerment of persons with disabilities (GUIDE) initiative, in collaboration with UNESCO, NIUA is exploring innovative and effective ways of developing an accessible decision support system in pilot cities.  
The future challenges of cities are diverse and vary from climate change to loss of demographic dividend by mid-fifties. How are Indian cities preparing? 
The current challenges that cities face today will determine their future planning. There are four main areas that we want the cities to focus on:

Sustainability and Resilience: We encourage cities to prioritise sustainability and resilience, and develop plans and policies that promote green infrastructure, renewable energy, sustainable transportation, and disaster response and recovery plans to address challenges like climate change and environmental degradation.
Technology and Innovation: We help cities stay ahead of the curve by embracing new technologies, fostering innovation, and supporting the development of new products and services, including data analytics and smart city solutions, and new transportation technologies.
Inclusion and Diversity: We prioritise inclusion and diversity by helping the government develop tools and policies that allow all citizens, including people with disabilities, access all aspects of the city. We also support initiatives that foster community engagement and social cohesion.
Economic Development: Recognising that solid and sustainable economic growth is critical to the future of cities, we work to help cities plan their economic development with appropriate policies and initiatives that promote entrepreneurship, innovation, and job creation, along with social and economic diversity.