Much of the general validation for development work comes from a sense of everyone having access to basic amenities.
A more austere wording for this type of sensibility would be…equity.
I have an affection for this word, I admit; likely because I have an affection for a balanced world in every respect. Which might explain why I choose to validate “development” goals by bringing in the “equity” clause. That’s not to say that equity goals won’t find their fair share of complications- not in the least of which is the kind of terminology misuse that is characteristic of the words green, sustainability, and development– but “equity” has at least a more definitive domain than “development”.
The example and stats I use are, again, from the National Capital Territory (NCT) (New Delhi and surrounding cities) in India just as a case in point.
Stormwater(-cum-Wastewater?!) Infrastructure in the NCT
Most of the NCT’s informal settlements are nestled adjacent to the city’s centuries-old uncovered stormwater network that drains into the river Yamuna. They have no access to sewage infrastructure, let alone latrines. The open drain network is clogged with surfactants, metal leachates, organic pollutants, and solid waste like rubber, plastic and glass, flouting even treated sewage quality standards. The city is planning to spend about USD$ 388.2 million on the required sewage infrastructure. They’ve already spent USD$ 13.1 million in covering less than 1% of the 200 miles of open drains that are as much of a health risk as an eyesore and rental rate sink. These covered drains are already facing siltation and destabilization problems. The Delhi Development Authority (DDA), desperate to absolve Delhi’s standing amongst the world’s most polluted cities, plans to spend USD$ 122.2 million this fiscal year on the creation and maintenance of green spaces.
What’s concerning about all these numbers?
1. The inadequacy and futility of the sewerage infrastructure: only 53% of the discharge gets collected, and only 68% of that collection gets successfully treated, only to be dumped into an open drain network that is further polluted downstream by nearly half of the city’s population because they do not have sewer network access.
2. The project completion date of 2036 for the new infrastructure is also worrisome. A date that is 23 years away means that an entirely new generation of youth gets exposed to the same sorry conditions. The issue is that there is nothing planned for the interim years, and no in-situ, scalable, low-carbon treatment alternatives have been instituted. This is likely in order to divert all financial, technological, and human resources on the hard engineering intervention that will bear fruit over two decades from now.
3. The astounding amount of money to be spent setting things up is a critical concern. Contentions that roughly half the designated funds for the wastewater treatment infrastructure to be set up by 2036 has already been exhausted are flaring, meaning that the budget will be grossly inadequate. In essence, solution efficiency, duration of implementation, and judicious budgeting are the critical concerns.
All three are manifestations of equity concerns.
There is no doubt that the city’s plan for hard engineering-based wastewater treatment is essential to cope with rapid urbanization. And it is important in reducing the public health issues in the short term as well as in the long-term scheme of salvaging the dead stretch of the river Yamuna that goes further downstream into the city of Agra, thronged by tourists visiting the Taj Mahal. Besides the social and environmental reasons, there is an economic reason for not dwelling on the shortfalls of the long-term planning intervention. Implementing interim measures requires a lot of effort to gain the collaboration of affected local communities, efficiently coordinate between six of the NCT’s municipal agencies, and consistently test, redesign, and launch the measure in a manner in which it works for every site in question. The diversion of a lot of resources into an interim measure is obviously a serious economic consideration before taking on its implementation.
This is the kind of long-term planning that the NCT desperately needs. But even with Delhi’s current plans for new wastewater treatment infrastructure, there’s 23 years of waste to be piled up. This is exacerbated by the unforeseen dynamics of informal settlements that are not accommodated into plans for reasons ranging from inefficient ‘slum regularisation’ and fluctuating land tenure programs for urban poor (as explained in this book on secure land tenure for the urban poor in developing countries), to sporadic judicial interventions (as explained in this article by Gautam Bhan). And it is a critical failing if a planning approach discounts the needs of the current generation for future ones, especially when carried out without comprehensive attention to additional problems that might not even allow for the achievement of those future outcomes for which the situation of the current generation is being dismissed or overridden. Isn’t it repeatedly iterated in planning literature (see Susan Fainstein’s entry on ‘urban planning’ in the Encyclopedia Britannica for a summary) that the main objective of planning- or any bureaucratic process for that matter- is overcoming inequity in the populace in terms of access to basic amenities for a good-quality life?
Modernism & Postmodernism, and Planning Solutions to Urban Problems
In essence, long-term, hard engineering-based plans for adequate, efficient wastewater treatment and river revitalization are necessary in the NCT. And given the unpredictability of the rapidly urbanizing landscape of the NCT, so are interim solutions. Since Indian planning tradition is an inheritance of the British rule, the tussle between modernism and postmodernism (again, refer to Susan Fainstein’s Encyclopedia Britannica entry for a brief on these concepts) faced by planners in the West is relevant here.
The biggest risk from high modernist thinking (as outlined by James C. Scott) by planners lies in the building of large-scale plans for the future. Incremental growth is the only natural evolution of any city. It is rare to find blank slates upon which an urban blueprint can be executed. And given the multiple variables in urban design and related activities, it is difficult to predict future scenarios, making it necessary to think about solutions that work now and are flexible enough to be moulded when future scenarios demand a change in plans. Planners should not try to create order amidst the dynamism of social change to “minimize the friction of progress”. Planning interventions must be akin to sails shifting with changing wind direction. This is closely tied to the ineptitude of adopting one-size-fits-all solutions that leaves a “functional and unitary notion of urban development” as unjustifiable, especially for the goal of achieving conflict-free modernist society.
Equity for the Future. Equity Now.
Interim interventions be tied in to long-term planning interventions. This can ensure that the concerns of solution efficiency, duration of implementation, and judicious budgeting raised previously can be addressed. But how exactly can this be visualized for the NCT example of stormwater/wastewater infrastructure? First, the diverse municipal budgets for environmental health and public hygiene- green spaces, wastewater treatment, solid waste management, etcetera- overlap, so coordinating interim measures that progressively add towards the final goal reduces budgets. Secondly, conducting progressive interventions allow for testing alternatives that may be less costly, and is also a tactic to monitor infrastructure so that it doesn’t collapse and render the capital investment moot. This is a serious shortcoming of the DDA, particularly in its dismal history of implementing green infrastructure. And finally, the process of incremental interventions ensures that the focus of planning is not purely on ensuring equity for the future generation, but for the current generation as well.
This simultaneous long and short-term planning also has the potential to facilitate public participation. Going beyond India’s 74th Constitutional Amendment Act, a policy measure to coax public participation in decision-making, there are many cases of cooperatives and community interest groups that have successfully been involved in local-scale decision-making. There is hefty research by Elinor Ostrom on forestry groups in Northeast India, but a case more resonant with the NCT’s stormwater/wastewater infrastructure is that of a wetland-for-wastewater treatment in an informal settlement in Agra. The project was financed by USAID, implemented by an NGO and the urban local body, and is monitored by the community and the NGO.
As I mentioned earlier, it is my opinion that theoretically, planning operates at the right scale to address these equity issues. But it is only planning for both long and short-term equitable resource distribution simultaneously that can prevent potential shortcomings of the profession- misjudgements in budgeting and/or solution efficiency, delays in implementation, and overlooking public participation.
Everyone. Access. Basics.