Cities are critical for development as they generate about two-thirds of the economic output. With an average age of 29, India is both young and aspirational. This demographic shift means that an increasing number of aspirational youths will continue to be drawn to cities. Thus, transforming cities is pivotal to realizing India’s demographic dividend. The evolving consumer expectations also offer an opportunity to channel aspirations into positive action. India’s demography and entrepreneurial spirit indicate a high potential for scaling economic momentum in cities.
However, there’s a marked deficiency in infrastructure and the quality of utility services across cities. Our cities fall behind in quality-of-life metrics compared to international counterparts. Moreover, urban planning and infrastructure delivery remain disjointed.
The prevailing infrastructure delivery approach is fragmented across organizations at various government levels. Major utility functions, such as electricity supply, drinking water, sewerage facilities, and major roads, are predominantly provided by State Government agencies. Conversely, services like metro rails involve joint efforts between Central Government agencies and state entities.
To harness the economic and cultural potential of cities, many of these hierarchical and compartmentalized approaches must be overhauled. Future cities can’t be fashioned on nineteenth- century technologies and governance systems. Thus, urban planning objectives, institutions, and processes warrant reevaluation and extensive modification.
While achieving full-scale departmental or organizational integration might be challenging, utility services integration in urban planning can be accomplished through a fusion of policy, technology, and administrative actions. The necessity to converge electricity, transport, and sustainability in urban planning implies that municipalities must play a role in utilities such as electricity, gas, and telecom planning and distribution at the city level. Such configurations are standard globally, including in the United States and Europe. Limited evidence within India (e.g., Chandigarh, BEST, CIDCO, GIFT City) also suggests the merits of city-level integration. Isolating the urban utility from the state as a whole paves the way for enhanced governance and consistent technical standards.
Infrastructure integration is paramount for sustainability, especially as cities shift their focus towards climate mitigation and resilience. Beginning with the adoption of Net Zero Targets at the city level might be pivotal. Some cities, like Visakhapatnam, have already commenced these efforts by establishing dedicated units focusing on sustainability and resilience.
Promoting decentralized clean energy options is integral to a net-zero mandate. Urban areas can be architecturally optimized to maximize solar energy capture. Equally, locations with significant wind velocity might be better employed for wind power generation rather than conventional infrastructural developments.
Currently, rooftop solar mandates in most cities are restricted to new buildings with ample plot sizes. These parameters need broadening, and addressing financial barriers can facilitate private sector participation in rooftop solar initiatives. This involves innovative financial solutions and the introduction of Renewable Energy Service Companies.
Power distribution needs rethinking to scale rooftop solar initiatives. Technological integration across power, transport, and smart tech is both technically appealing and economically viable. An urban underground infrastructure system encompassing power distribution and other utilities like telecom, gas, and water is an advantageous approach.
Multi-Utility Tunnels (MUTs) are gaining traction globally due to their myriad benefits. In light of the increasing frequency of natural disasters, MUTs are indispensable for protecting critical infrastructure. They not only conserve urban land but also rejuvenate public spaces for diverse civic engagements.
Additionally, MUTs reduce the need for valuable urban land and enable the reclamation of public spaces for sharing, connecting, bonding, and innovating. This is especially relevant in India where land availability is a major bottleneck due to high population density. This shortage is the primary reason for infrastructure encroaching upon streets and footpaths. Transmission towers, distribution transformers, parking facilities, bus stops, metro stations, etc., require land that is often neither planned nor provided. Consequently, encroachments are frequent in areas that should serve as open public spaces and streets. The absence of clearly demarcated pedestrian spaces, footpaths, and cycle tracks renders our cities unsustainable, prone to accidents, and non-inclusive.
Furthermore, MUTs can enable and accelerate the net-zero transition. First, they present an opportunity to decarbonize by replacing outdated power networks responsible for high distribution losses. Second, they allow for a greater penetration of decentralized energy options such as solar. Third, underground networks improve supply quality by minimizing interference from weather conditions and human activities. Lastly, they are aesthetically pleasing and diminish the public hazard of electrocution.
MUTs are especially pertinent for coastal cities like Visakhapatnam due to their vulnerability to cyclonic storms, which are becoming more frequent because of global climate change. The Hudhud cyclone in 2014 resulted in significant loss of life and property. In AP, 61 human casualties were reported, with 1,12,850 houses damaged in the Visakhapatnam district alone. Total damages were estimated by the NDMA to be around ₹13,263 crores. Land inundation, intense cyclonic winds, and river flooding were the primary causes of the cyclone-induced damages in the city.
Based on this experience, Visakhapatnam developed a pilot common underground infrastructure duct along a stretch of about 10 km in central Visakhapatnam in 2008. The duct measures approximately 7 X 7 feet and houses multiple utilities including 11kv and 33kV power lines, telecommunication wires, and drinking water pipelines. Personnel can enter the ducts for repairs and maintenance (refer to below figure).
Ownership of the duct lies with the Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation (GVMC). Any utility wishing to utilize the duct must obtain approval. The duct’s design and performance have proven effective, with the network within the duct found to be robust. Various departments have confirmed that, compared to external networks, underground systems seldom require attention.
GVMC is now eager to expand its utility ducts. A more compact duct system is currently under construction.
However, several factors need consideration when scaling up utility ducts. First, a specific policy or regulation addressing integrated planning is absent, resulting in overhead networks even in areas where the large pilot duct exists. The pilot may have been introduced due to a specific political or judicial directive, without comprehensive planning. Hence, guidelines for its utilization and expansion are lacking. Second, in the absence of clear policies and regulations, there’s no evident business model for revenue recovery. It seems GVMC provides a service without charging the benefiting utilities. This represents a missed financial opportunity for GVMC, especially since utility providers clearly save on operation and maintenance costs. Third, a detailed cost-benefit analysis for future expansion is essential, encompassing both economic and financial standpoints to determine investment viability.
The plan focuses on expanding ducts in high-density areas that are more susceptible to threats. The timing aligns with a proposed gas grid for Visakhapatnam. Moreover, the Andhra Pradesh Eastern Power Distribution Company Ltd. is considering an underground power cable proposal.
Initially, a feasibility study and cost- benefit analysis are slated for execution. This study will cover routing plans, technological options, financial strategies, and business models. If the feasibility results are promising, a detailed project report will be essential for obtaining the requisite approvals, funds, and procurements. A public- private partnership model might be explored to tap into private expertise and capital.
Effective coordination and planning across departments, agencies, and sectors, both public and private, are pivotal for these integrated models. Hence, an inter-departmental coordination committee has been proposed. This committee, besides facilitating discussion and decision- making among various departments, will play a vital role in implementing the common underground infrastructure system. It will also champion climate action, mitigation, adaptation, and resilience in the planning, operation, and management of infrastructure projects.
Proposed to be chaired by the Collector of Visakhapatnam, the committee will convene regularly, incorporating external experts as necessary.
Empowering Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) and promoting their autonomous operation can lead to improved service convergence at the city level. Urban planning is prioritized in the political and developmental arenas. Last year, the Prime Minister underscored the urgency of refined urban planning, given inevitable urbanization. This presents a golden opportunity for states and cities to revolutionize urban planning, transitioning to integrated and sustainable infrastructure development.
Views expressed by Gaurav Bhatiani, Director – Energy and Environment, RTI India