Need for Liveable and Accessible Cities in Northeast India

By Sagarmoy Phukan

Cities are not ‘dead!’ They have an ecosystem of their own, it is living and vibrant. The post-modern world with its relative economic stability has seen unprecedented urbanization with cities and urban areas becoming the economic hub of local regions. Since 2007 half of the world’s population is residing in urban areas while more than 2/3rd shall reside within this decade.

Over the years, cities have evolved and we have seen how unplanned urbanization has led to environmental degradation and discomfort in our daily life, especially in postindustrialization. Such discomforts are not merely current features of cities from developing countries but were past features of developed countries. Since urbanization is a newly emerging trend in Northeast India, we have been blessed with a chance to progressively think about our urban areas and turn them into sustainable and healthy ecosystems.

Northeast India remains one of the least urbanised regions of India. About 20% of the region resides in different urban areas of variable sizes. The largest number of urban areas have a population of about 5000-10,000. Many of these towns have a statutory status as a town which makes them ineligible to fulfil the conditions prescribed by the Census of India, and also do not have an economic base to sustain a local self-body. As per the Census of India (2011), the entire Northeast region boasts nine cities with a population above 1 lac. Guwahati is the largest and far exceeds the other seven capital cities of the Northeast region in terms of total population and urbanization. Guwahati in urbanization is followed by Agartala, Aizawl and Imphal.  The pattern of urbanisation observed in Guwahati is unfortunately no different than any other existing urban areas in India. It is no wonder Guwahati today embroils itself in a familiar environmental degradation, bad quality of life and mental and physical wellbeing associated with most urban environments and lifestyles in India.

In 2021 Guwahati had a mean temperature rise by almost 6°C. Two decades ago October evenings used to be chilly and Durga Puja meant at least a flannel shirt. Rising temperature due to climate change has become a serious issue in our region. It is imperative and perhaps we all understand it as well; ‘the ecosystem of Northeast India is fragile and vulnerable hence, conversion of land and land-use changes (LULUC) needs to be planned and responsibly executed.’ Impervious and unplanned built-ups can put significant impacts on the ecosystem, thus affecting the hydrogeologic system, biodiversity and climate and consequently have negative phenomena such as the urban heat island and urban flash floods, etc.

Since urbanization is an unavoidable process, efforts can be made to direct urban land use planning to protect the natural resources as well as the natural flow of abiotic elements such as air, water, etc. along with safeguarding the needs and rights of the people. Northeast India therefore shall not repeat the urban mistakes made by the existing urban areas in India since this could prove disastrous for the people, local culture and the biodiversity of the region.

We have experienced issues and problems with unplanned built-up urban areas. Usually, a core phenomenon which we see daily is traffic congestion. Most Indian urban areas do not have good traffic planning integrated into their city planning from the beginning.  Traffic jams are not a mere phenomenon in Guwahati but have spread to other cities like Itanagar, Shillong, Dimapur as well as Tier 3 cities and Nagar Palika. Itanagar is a newly formed city (established in 1978) and has planned sectors, however, the planning was not carried out and the city chokes itself in traffic every day.

Traffic congestion exposes us to air and noise pollution as well as other discomforts such as heat, stress and mental fatigue, affecting our mental and physical health and wellbeing and in turn, it affects our work and its quality. One of the most important factors which we need to incorporate into our city planning and management is liveability.

Liveability talks about providing a decent life for all inhabitants of cities, regions and communities including their physical and mental well-being while keeping the sensitive nature in mind. Liveability accounts for the physical, cultural and social dimensions of communities. The Global Liveability Index by The Economist Intelligent Unit (EIU) 2019 has 5 categories and several sub-categories to indicate the liveability in global cities around the world. However, research into growing and small cities has always been borderline. Most researches point toward mega-cities and global cities (metro-centricity) however, not enough attention is paid to emerging urban areas which require more engaged citizen-centric participatory approaches and this cannot be done from afar. Recent urbanization in the Northeastern states was foreseen but has remained unchecked and unbalanced to accommodate the growing number of migrations into cities.

Another important factor of a living city is its accessibility. In summers and monsoons, most of our urban areas are prone to flash floods and urban floods. Water overflows from most drains which intrude into our homes, walking space and market. Transportation usually comes to a standstill. In a way the city losses its accessibility.

While designing and planning cities it is of utmost importance to understand the transportation and accessibility needs of a population with economical outputs from a project undertaken. The majority of footpaths in our cities are unwalkable. They are several feet high from the road, uneven and undulated with open manholes. No wonder people prefer to walk on the streets rather than on the footpath. There are no proper crossing and signals in most urban areas which results in many accidents. However, as a developing region, we should plan ahead well and try to wisely invest in infrastructure development. For instance, the foot-overbridge at Dispur was made at an expense of ₹13 Crores. If we look at it retrospectively, a foot-overbridge with so much investment just to decorate will have a lower return on investment (ROI) rather than a plain foot-overbridge. Some amount of the fund could have been set aside for the repair and maintenance of the bridge in the imminent future. A low cost but quality alternative would have sufficed. In a way, minimalism is a big contributor to sustainability. Critical plannings and investments improve ROIs over the years as it does not require repeated funding on the same problem.

Accessibility is not just limited to infrastructure development in a city or urban area but also takes into account the ease of accessing necessary services and goods. For example; accessibility to health care, grocery stores, education, public space, etc. When I look at Dibrugarh, I can find 15 full-fledged hospitals on the road to Assam Medical College (AMC) which is also known as Bordoloi Avenue after Assam’s first Chief Minister; these 15 hospitals constitute the 20 private hospitals in the town. This is within an area of 0.43sq km. Besides them, there are numerous pharmacies, diagnostic centres and other related activities in the area. During peak hours, the road to AMC is congested with high traffic which ultimately causes problems for patients being brought to these hospitals. The congestion sometimes leads to more than 40 minutes of waiting which can be fatal for a person in critical condition. Moreover, most of the residents in Dibrugarh have to travel to the other end of the city to avail health benefits. Hence, in a way, these unplanned allotments in the built-up areas by the local planning body reduce accessibility to health.

Another instance that comes to mind of unplanned allotment is, that Guwahati Authorities have recently promised to provide allotments to the residents of the hills. A thoughtful rehabilitation package would have been better than calling upon disasters. Removing vegetation from these hills will result in landslides, flash floods and casualties in the near future. It might create havoc within the metropolitan area.

As mentioned earlier, Northeast India has a golden opportunity to develop and plan sustainable urban areas. Developing planned urban centres shall reduce future investments, and provide a healthy ecosystem for its citizens and the possibility of growth. It will also help us in accessing safe-drinking water, increase the standard of living and better care for the geriatric population. It is high time that our planners and developers look into these aspects as they plan and develop Master Plans for our urban areas. In India’s aim towards achieving carbon neutrality by 2070, such planning will help in reducing its overall carbon emissions from urban areas. If we increase our accessibility through walking and cycling it will reduce vehicular emissions. If we integrate nature within the urbanscape, it will increase liveability while reducing the use of air-conditioners during summer which is also financially beneficial. Urban space moulds our mental and physical health and it is an integral part of our identity. It influences how our lives are shaped. Hence, we should consider these important aspects as we develop our urban areas from census towns to cities.

This article was originally published in The Assam Tribune on 20th April 2022 (page 4)

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