India is urbanising rapidly. According to the World Bank, approximately 35 percent of the country’s population lives in urban areas. This figure is expected to increase—projections by the UN indicate that by 2050 more than 50 percent of India’s population will be urban. However, contemporary Indian cities are plagued by problems such as inadequate housing, unequal access to sanitation and water services, and poor public health. If we expect our cities to adequately serve their residents, they need much better infrastructure. The pandemic has made this abundantly clear.

But when we talk about better infrastructure and better facilities, what do we mean? Who takes the decisions about what infrastructure gets prioritised, and how are these decisions taken? And, finally, what sort of infrastructure do India’s cities really need?

On our podcast On the Contrary by IDR, host Arun Maira spoke with Sheela Patel and Ireena Vittal on what it takes to plan and run a well-functioning city, where Indian cities stand, and what they need. Sheela is the director of SPARC, an Indian nonprofit that works with the urban poor so they can get access to housing and other amenities. Sheela has experience both at the grassroots level as well as at the level of national and global policy. Ireena is one of India’s most respected independent consultants and advisers on emerging markets, agriculture, and urban development.

What makes a city liveable?

Ireena: I think I would put the following six [factors]. The first is jobs. A city is investment meeting talent to create economic and social outcomes. So, jobs, [that is,] number of jobs, quality of jobs [is an important indicator]. [The] second is inclusion. [For instance], a city [should] have place for both sides of Gurgaon divided by the highway, for Dharavi and South Bombay. And we need inclusion not as a cool thing to talk about in nonprofit conferences, but as a recognition that the most valuable contribution to society comes from some of our most ill-paid people, whether they are sweepers, or cleaners, or biomedical waste collectors, or peons, or delivery boys.

[The] third is safety and amity. If you’re a person in India—woman or man—you value safety. Amity [is important] because, unfortunately, the whole world seems to be going through some kind of a manthan (agitation). The fourth one would be provision of basic services, whether it’s water, schools, ICU rooms, maybe now even oxygen, sanitation.

I would add two more. One of them is resilience and green…You see what’s happening even in Bombay—the number of days Bombay comes to a stop now every year because of climate change is astonishing. So we need resilience and green. And finally, culture. [It is good] if we are able to feed our stomachs, but there’s something beyond that. And culture is not Bolshoi Ballet; culture is street plays and music and Ganesh Chaturthi. And if a city doesn’t have culture, it doesn’t have soul. So, to me, these would be the six metrics that I would put for liveability in the Indian context.

Read the full article about liveable cities at India Development Review.