India is a reluctant urbaniser. The Indian city is chaotic, unclean and unsafe. Lothal, Pataliputra and Ujjain were once cosmopolitan centres, planned around commerce and geography. Bad planning and governance scarred our cities, with the middle class driven away by rigid ideology, massive migration and industrial tension. Urban planning remains a farce.

We face a magnified situation today. In 20 years, 590 million of us will live in 5,000 cities and about 400 urban agglomerations, with little institutional and administrative machinery. According to the UN, 309 million internal migrants will swamp these centres working in temporary professions, while facing a denial of basic public services. We lack 19 million urban houses, offering an average water supply of just three hours, with urban sanitation provided to just 37%.

Journey times in our cities could fall to just 6-8 kmph with a concomitant rise in pollution, far beyond WHO standards. The tilt towards tier I cities will lead to bad governance and “elite capture”, with little exposure to state development schemes and private sector investments in tier II and III cities. Agricultural and forest land will continue to be lost to development projects, characterised by poor urban infrastructure and weak democratic institutions. Our polity lies imperilled.

Urbanisation can be managed. According to McKinsey, we need $1.2 trillion of capital investments over the next two decades, with our road and subway network requiring a 20-fold expansion. The rate of job creation needs to be accelerated, reskilling the urban poor with provision of basic public services and financial inclusion. Our urbanisation strategy needs to be focussed on five key elements – inclusive governance, urban planning, local financing, capa-city building and smart cities.

Urban governance is shackled, with limited fiscal autonomy and rampant rent-seeking behaviour. Planning Commission suggested the transfer of all 18 functions identified in the 74th constitutional amendment to urban local bodies (ULBs). An independent utility regulator is needed, to monitor and adjudicate disputes on public service quality and pricing, with a published Citizens’ Charter containing comprehensive information on guaranteed public service quality levels.

An elected and empowered mayor and a metropolitan system with single-point accountability for all urban localities is needed, providing unified authorities for transport, water supply and sanitation. We need Lokayuktas at a locality level to challenge bureaucratic incompetency.

Financing this sounds steep, but need not be. Municipal finance needs to be strengthened, with access to land monetisation and municipal bonds ring-fenced with city development funds. At least 25% of GST and all property taxes should be shared with ULBs – they generate most of the revenue, they ought to keep some of it.

FSI indexes need to be increased, leading to greater land revenue and less environmental pressure. Public services should be indexed to inflation and operating costs, offering a minimal return. Public-private partnerships can help raise investments from the private sector. The JNNURM allocation must be trebled, at least for short-term financing.

We lack efficient capacity in urban management. We need a dedicated municipal civil service, focussed on relevant technical skills, offering lateral entry. JNNURM and NSDC can be tasked with developing an appropriate framework that addresses staffing, training and skill deve-lopment issues. ITIs and ITCs need to be strengthened, with private sponsorship encouraged. The Indian Institute of Public Administration, National Institute of Urban Affairs and a proposed Indian Institute of Urban Management must be encouraged to provide policy advisory services to the urban development ministry and state bodies.

Most city residents can no longer afford housing. The scar-city of land, partially due to regulation-mandated suboptimal land usage and cartelisation, along with stratified house financing options, prevents a step on the housing ladder. At least 25% of new development area should be mandated for affordable housing, with appropriate monitoring. Slum redevelopment can be triggered through partial rezoning, capital grants and interest rate subsidies. A national mortgage fund, akin to Fannie Mae, must be created to spur lending to low-income groups.

Our cities can be smarter. We can experiment with new ideas like the aerotropolis concept, building cities around airports, or Paul Romer’s charter cities, with maximal autonomy in governance.

The overhyped industrial corridors between our metros must be aligned with local urban planning to ensure sustainable development. Inner city transport could be revolutionised using straddling buses (demonstrated in China), cycle rent schemes and elevated monorails. Age-old concepts like ‘baolis’ should be revived to serve as rainwater-harvesting pools. The advent of big data systems implies the potential to utilise effective monitoring systems, adding cachet to local e-governance.

Long the neglected child, with the rural hinterland praised as the civilisational heart, cities are powering our economic build-up and need attention and funding along with autonomy. They create new local businesses, helping foster indirect employment. Our urban citizens put up with political and social neglect, whilst helping to create social value. They struggle amidst an economic slowdown, with rising food prices, uncertainty about their children’s education and a constant shrinkage of public sector opportunities. It’s time we heed them.