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IIHS-UC Berkeley Conference | Building Urban Infrastructure in India

Water | Civil Society | Mar 26, 2013

The “urban” economy plays an increasingly vital role in India’s economic development. The joint two day conference hosted by IIHS and the University of California, Berkeley on 26th and 27th March, 2013, brought together leading scholars from India and globally to discuss the many critical questions relating to the effective and equitable functioning of the economy of Indian towns, cities and metros. Discussions focused on real estate markets, agglomeration economies, new modes of urbanization and structural problems of urban governance as well as ways to help promote sound policies for a developed urban infrastructure, growth in job creation, increased access to affordable housing, developing transparent mechanisms of governance, generating new sources of urban finance, and constructing viable social welfare systems for the urban poor.

Rohini Nilekani concluded the panel with a focus on water, advocating that we entirely reconceptualize our approach to water management and sanitation. Water, she said, was once an organizing principle for human settlement; now, water has to be brought to people at high energy costs. How can we imagine water supply for more than 6,000 towns? One approach is to recognize informal sector innovation that is already taking place. Such innovations do not fit into the imagination of planners, but are quite effective. She suggested that we build from these informal arrangements rather than imposing a master vision of water planning. She argued for a basic principle in water management: using local water first. She also suggested organizing rainwater supply at the community level rather than the household level, and integrating planning around wastewater and other water. Costs of water, and questions of who should pay them, also need to be addressed carefully. Finally, on the “demand side,” collective action needs greater thought: more civil society activism is urgently needed. Ms. Nilekani highlighted the gap between the lack of imagination of planners and what she called the overactive imagination of activists. Whose imagination, she asked, is playing out around water? Is it possible to work within existing structures at a small scale, while building up demand at a larger scale?

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