Urban agriculture can help make cities sustainable and liveable

A premature and punishing summer makes life miserable for many across India, especially in the cities. The souring temperatures adversely affect health, cause a dip in agricultural production, and also dry up rivers. Indeed, the repercussions of climate change are being felt more strongly than ever, especially in climate-vulnerable zones. Cities in India are also feeling the heat due to a combination of factors, including the urban heat island effect, but largely on account of ill-conceived urbanisation.

India is rapidly urbanising and is estimated to host 50 per cent of its population in cities by 2050. But are Indian cities ready to sustain this growth over the long appears haul, especially when urban planning woefully out of step with growth and ill-equipped to deal with the existing gaps, let alone the challenges of climate change?

Our cities already suffer from high population density, unaffordable housing, improper waste disposal, water scarcity most of the year and flooding during the rains, pollution and attendant illnesses, food and nutritional insecurity and urban poverty, among others. They are a far cry from the “centres of sustainable living with opportunities for all” that Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman wishes them to be. Hence, noting the critical need for a paradigm shift in urban planning, her 2022-23 budget speech announced the decision to set up a high-level committee to steer the required changes in urban policy, planning, capacity building and governance. Given the current context and future exigencies, this presents an opportunity to critically engage with urban land-use planning (ULP), especially urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA), as one of the essential elements of sustainable urbanisation.

The role of green infrastructure (GI) in combating pollution and climate mitigation and adaptation is well recognized, as are the health and recreational benefits. The Centre’s 2015 AMRUT programme, for instance, included green spaces and parks as a thrust area. What, however, is often left out in urban planning is agriculture, still seen as a predominantly rural practice and source of livelihood. India’s Urban and Regional Development Plans Formulation and Implementation (URDPFI) guidelines mention Green Cities under the urban planning approach, with prevention of damage to “… [P]roductivity of agricultural land” listed as a key benefit. Yet there is little on how agriculture can be a part of ULP. This stands in contrast to the Food and Agricultural Organization’s (FAO) recognition of UPA as a significant contributor to food security; livelihood generation, especially for women; poverty alleviation; and urban resilience and sustainability. Urban areas already house at least 55 per cent of the world’s population and consume 80 per cent of the food produced globally, thus underlining UPA as key to achieving sustainable food systems. With a current urban population of 481 million, which is expected to double by 2050, this holds true for India as well.

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Hence, to look at GI, specifically UPA, in the context of ULP in NCR, we studied three peri-urban “villages” in Ghaziabad district, representing diverse contexts. The first is an “urbanised village” that falls in official municipal boundaries, receives few urban amenities but has suffered loss of traditional livelihoods (and yet one-third of households rely on agriculture and allied activities to varying extents), loss of natural resources — land, water — to the urban middle class. The second is a peri-urban village that receives urban industrial waste and its health consequences, but with few advantages in terms of livelihoods or even compensation. The third is a “model” urbanising/urbanised village with majority households in agriculture but with domestic water supply, clean paved roads and drains, educational facilities and diversification of livelihoods towards the service sector.

To further explore the actual practice of UPA vis–vis ULP, the project compared three municipal master plans of the Ghaziabad sub-district with actual land-use mapped using satellite imagery. It found that in Ghaziabad city’s masterplan area, total agricultural green space (72 sq km) far exceeded the area designated in the masterplan (41 sq km). In fact, UPA was the most significant type of GI that had been designated for either urban development or formal green spaces (park, city forest, green buffer etc.). In the Loni masterplan area, while total agricultural land-use still surpassed the area earmarked in the masterplan, agriculture underwent a substantial decline by more than half between 2014 and 2018. However, the Modinagar masterplan area, home to the “model” peri- urban village, was found to have 50 per cent of its area covered under UPA, showing little change over years.

If the existing pattern of urbanisation/industrialisation prevails on the third kind of villages, as in other peri-urban areas, how can urban planning now prevent these areas from becoming as and unhealthy as the others?

While our first two study villages reflect the planned expansion of cities into surrounding rural areas, the third reflects endogenous or “subaltern” urbanisation. Expanding cities and “census towns” forming a major substrate of the current process of “urbanisation” and urban growth in India, makes our question relevant for large parts of the country.

While the former needs urgent remediation measures and other correctives, the third kind will benefit from a shift in paradigm for urban planning. ULP for such areas must prioritize estimation of waste management capacity, build infrastructure for it and regulate industrial installations to this capacity. Adequate political will for financial inputs and enforcement of regulations will be essential for often fund-starved urban administrations and for curbing violations of environmental norms. Urgent attention to UPA and its incorporation into ULP with enabling support will also go a long way in achieving urban food security and even a circular bioeconomy. We hope the desired “paradigm change” in urban planning accords UPA due consideration for developing healthy and sustainable cities for all.

Das is a researcher, and Priya and Bisht are professors at the Center of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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