How can urban transportation improvements in India be accelerated?

In this blog we introduce a new two-year research project, funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council and the Indian Council of Social Science Research. The project is an interdisciplinary collaboration between Greg Marsden (ITS University of Leeds), Louise Reardon (INLOGOV, Birmingham), Sanjay Gupta (SPA, Delhi), Ashish Verma (IISc, Bangalore) and the World Resources Institute and will examine the urban mobility implications of India’s on-going Smart Cities Mission.

The negative outcomes of India’s current urban transport systems are a cause for concern. The World Health Organisation has identified India as home to 10 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, while also experiencing 150,000 road traffic deaths per year (some six times higher per head of population than the UK). There are also major social inequities that directly or indirectly arise from the uneven allocation of transport resources in India’s urban areas. To date, the emphasis in Indian cities has been on expanding mobility through new, large transport infrastructure projects. These projects benefit high income people most but do little to address the existing inequities in delivery of transport services where there has been a decline in the overall coverage of public transport and a rise in private motorised transport. Redesigning urban governance, including transport governance, has therefore been identified as a critical element of progress in delivering more inclusive and sustainable cities in India.

Trafficjamdelhi

Congestion and Pollution in Delhi (source: NOMAD)

Previous research has identified that limited powers, resources and capacity at a local level have contributed to a failure to plan adequately for the exponential growth in vehicular traffic, and to service new formal and informal migrant communities in rapidly growing Indian cities. The need for improvements to transport service quality, innovation and easier access to the financing necessary for such improvements has increased the importance of industry and other private sector actors as key agents of change alongside the state. These processes bring with them new challenges around how best to manage the balance of responsibility and resources between national, regional and local government levels. Moreover, how best to govern through an increasingly complex set of actors and how to effectively steer the competing interests of different stakeholders.

in 2015 the Indian national government sought to address these governance challenges launching the Smart Cities Mission; a competition for funding for 100 cities in India for the period to 2019/20. In the government’s own words, the initiative is ‘bold’, aiming to go beyond what has been achieved before at the local level. The focus of the initiative is on promoting cities that provide core infrastructure, a good quality of life and a clean and sustainable environment, through the application of ‘Smart’ Solutions. Urban mobility is one aspect of the Smart Cities Mission (alongside water supply, electricity supply, sanitation, affordable housing, safety and security and health and education). In relation to transport specifically, Smart Cities aim to promote a variety of transport options including Transit Orientated Development, public transport, last mile para-transport connectivity and ‘walkable localities’. There is certainly a broad range of options from what might be seen as basic essentials to ‘smart’ and the tone set by the branding of the initiative is itself an interesting question.

Whilst the interpretation of what policy mix might achieve these features and at what scale (pan-city, new development, retrofit or redevelopment) is to be decided on by each City, the implementation of the Smart Cities Mission at the City level must be done by an organisational arrangement called a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) created for the purpose. The SPV will ‘plan, appraise, approve, release funds, implement, manage, operate, monitor and evaluate the Smart City development projects’. Within this context then, the Smart Cities Mission provides a major opportunity to understand the aims and processes of governance reform and contribute knowledge on the extent to which these reforms impact transport governance and in turn are capable of achieving a significant improvement in the mobility system to promote more sustainable and inclusive development.

The project will undertake a comparative analysis of four case study sites: Bangalore, Jaipur, Ranchi and Bhubaneshwar, each of which have their own history or previous urban transport governance reform. The project, will trace the impacts of transport governance reforms through to the impacts on the economic prosperity and quality of life of citizens both through changing processes and outcomes. It will also critically develop the multi-level governance framework approach in an Indian context, particularly understanding the evolving role of Special Purpose Vehicles in urban reforms. The project has a strong emphasis on engagement with practitioners and academics from across India and the UK and we would be pleased to hear from anyone who has an interest in these themes and in making a difference to urban transport reform in India.

Interested in what you have read here? We have a two-year post doctoral position available based at the University of Leeds to conduct the primary research (see here for details). There will also be shorter posts available in Delhi and Bangalore.

Greg Marsden & Louise Reardon

See here for further details on related ESRC-ICSSR projects and here for other ESRC projects relating to Urban Transformations.

Image Source: NOMAD [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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