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Love him or hate him, it is undeniable that Narendra Modi, chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat, is the man with the ideas. In his recent speech to the Bharatiya Janata Party National Council in Delhi, Modi outlined his breathtaking vision for India. He promised bullet trains, a hundred new smart cities, advanced research centres, and national broadband coverage among other things. The last time an Indian leader had such a transformative vision for the subcontinent was in the 19th century when someone thought that a politically united and independent India was a good idea.

As inspiring as Modi’s vision for a 21st century compliant India may be, the chief minister must take caution not to repeat the 20th century disasters of urban planning. Worldwide, urban dreams have become nightmares as megacities like Bombay, Sao Paolo, Lagos, Manila, Calcutta, and Mexico City are little more than concrete jungles. Poor air quality, traffic, bad sanitation, and cramped housing have made life more tiring and stressful. The idea of producing a hundred cities worth of cement must give every environmentalist irregular heart palpitations.

With a growing population making more demands on scarcer resources, sustainability and sound design must be the core principles around which construction takes place. Provisions for water, electricity, clean air, traffic amelioration, and open spaces must be intrinsic to Modi’s urban planning.

It is unlikely that each of these one hundred cities will be built from scratch – memories of Amarna and Fatehpur Sikri are not so far lost in history yet. Most probably, villages and hamlets close to larger cities or resources will be developed into small cities. The first thing to be considered in choosing the site of the new city centre is the lay of the land. Wind analysis and solar orientation for maximum gain can reduce energy consumption for cooling and permit the most efficient use of solar panels on rooftops. Building spacing and placement in the layout must be carefully considered – proper spacing between buildings and open spaces such as small gardens and parks will form micro-climates and naturally keep structures cooler.

Second, construction material and techniques must be carefully considered. Producing cement takes its toll on the environment in terms of carbon dioxide emission, heavy metals, and high energy consumption. New construction materials like geo-polymers, mineral admixtures, and nano-materials which are both high-performing and durable have revolutionised the concrete industry and must be suitably put to use. Conventional methodologies of construction must be done away with for a fast-track approach that does not sacrifice quality. Since not all buildings will be high-rises, cheaper materials available locally such as wood or rammed earth might be used. These remain cooler than regular houses and given the generally warm climate in most parts of the country, will require less energy to regulate temperature.

Third, the difference between avenues, streets, and lanes must be acknowledged. Vehicles can move at different speeds along these motorways and they can accordingly be broad or narrow. This will also inform the number of traffic lights, duration of signals, and speed bumps along each road. Inter-city highways should be provided bypasses to reduce unnecessary traffic within the city limits, particularly of foul, smoke-emitting heavy vehicles. Self-selective sorting of vehicular traffic thus will avoid busy roads been jammed by trucks unloading produce to a local supermarket or public transport buses chugging through narrower residential lanes. This may even encourage those living closer to work or school to walk or use a bicycle; reduced traffic in lanes will make it safer to do so. Furthermore, intra-city transportation must be planned underground so that space above may be conserved for future projects such as monorail.

Fourth, public spaces and trees are essential to communities. Parks for children to play, for the elderly to walk in, for the fitness freaks to exercise in, increase the quality of life significantly. Trees provide shade, help with cooling, and some even resist pollution. Tree cover should also be planned for in urban development and not sacrificed for ill-advised flyovers, monorail, or metro stations. While parks and trees may seem like luxuries to some, they contribute to the health and well-being of a community. Infrastructure for sports must also be given due attention as athletes can hardly rely on parks to practice.

Fifth, municipal policies should encourage renewable living. It is impractical for bureaucrats in Delhi to formulate uniform policies for the entire country, so local municipal corporations must be given the power to provide incentives for schemes such as blue roofs, rooftop solar panels, the use of hyperseal paints and coating, green roofs and/or walls, and other efforts that will conserve energy and reduce the cost of living. Waste management must form a core function of municipalities in terms of recycling as well as biogas energy.

Municipal policies may also guide work hours – rather than all businesses starting at the same time and creating rush hour traffic nightmares and stress, office hours could be staggered voluntarily or as per the situation. If some businesses start at 08 00, others at 09 00, and yet others at 10 00, end of business will also be similarly staggered and the traffic distributed over time.

Municipal policies must also aim at virtually no creation of slums in the new cities; through low-cost alternative housing materials, efficient transportation around the city, and protection against squatting, this urban eyesore may be mitigated.

Sixth, any city development plan must look ahead for at least 50 years. India’s population growth is showing no signs of abating, and by 2050, the country is expected to have about the same number of people as China and the United States put together. What is today a youth dividend will turn India into an old age home by 2050; any urban development must be sensitive to this unique challenge, leaving room for handicap access, wheelchair ramps, and other amenities for senior citizens. With expansion of present cities a foregone conclusion, water supply, electricity, urban transport, and inter-city connectivity for freight as well as for people must be envisaged. Bombay’s water system is a great example – set up in the late 1800s, many pumping stations have managed to keep up with the city’s growth until recently. The establishment of new cities must be based on current and projected densities of population rather than the quantum of population alone, so as to ease out the problems faced by today’s congested cities.

At a broader level, desalination plants coupled with nuclear power plants, drip irrigation, water treatment facilities, and other such measures will reduce the human pressure on local ecology. Combined with efficient energy use via cooler materials and rooftop solar panels, a larger swathe of the Indian population might have access to living conditions that does not make one cringe.

Unfortunately for India, environmentalism has acquired a bad name due to the domination of shriller voices that make extreme demands and provide no solutions to concerns about employment and development. On the other side of the divide lies the ignorant position of sticking it to the goras over climate change and not taking any measures that may impact industrial efficiency. However, one can hardly deny that cleaner air and water is to our own benefit, that living in environmentally conscious housing and communities will reduce health and energy costs and increase productivity by saving time via good transportation.

Anyone can have big dreams; some may even be able to deliver on them, but very few leave behind legacies. If Modi can spearhead growth in India and do it while promoting sustainable living, he will have done well to prepare India for the 21st century. Water is becoming scarcer, there are severe energy shortages, and a burgeoning population is making greater calls on natural resources via food, clothing, housing, and other amenities. A hundred green cities will spare Indians from the 20th century hubris of modernity and be the golden legacy of a colossus among men.

I owe much thanks to @ThejasMysore for his valuable input to this post.