Governance and public sector management, Social development and protection, Urban development

Sustainable urban development in India: Emerging issues and the way forward

This blog is the winner of the Asian Development Bank Institute’s (ADBI) 25th Anniversary Essay Contest. Entrants were asked to share their views on socioeconomic challenges that will significantly impact Asia and the Pacific over the next decade and should be prioritized by think tanks.

There is a crucial but conflicting question that often emerges in various forms in policy discussions and academic research: Would one like to live or set up a business in a city with good transportation and high-quality roads but no pedestrian walkways, poor air quality, parks and community restrooms without a water supply, rooftop rainwater harvesting systems but no recharge pits, or supply networks with contaminated drinking water and no treatment facilities? These issues and others need special attention.

Evidence suggests that more than 80% of city residents worldwide live with air pollution as much as 2.5 times higher than the World Health Organization’s safety criteria (World Health Organization, 2021), and 30% live in filthy slum conditions (Proudman 2016). Around 2 billion people do not have access to lavatories or toilets, and 673 million individuals still urinate in public. Conditions in developing countries like India are even more alarming. Despite several initiatives, 1.96 million urban homes in India have water contaminated with fluoride and arsenic (UNICEF India, n.d.). While only 54% of the urban population has access to improved sanitation (Dkhar and Ali 2018), the country ranks among the top five polluted countries in terms of PM2.5 (IQAir 2021).

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 assures access to clean water and sanitation, while SDG 11 aims to increase the inclusivity, safety, adaptability, and sustainability of cities (United Nations 2015). The circular economic pathway, which involves recuperative or regenerative economic processes and activities, can be instrumental in achieving the SDGs as it marks a shift from prevalent models where resources are extracted, transformed, and discarded. Emerging city development models, including the recent Smart City Mission (SCM) initiative in India, aim at focusing on many of these aspects (Singh 2022; Singh and Mishra 2023). Nevertheless, it is necessary to examine whether developmental plans under the SCM have enough provisions to address these concerns effectively.

An assessment of 24 randomly selected smart city proposals from different parts of India and from various rounds of the city selection challenge shows that the cities in general have extensively emphasized mobility-related infrastructure development. Although 21 of them have proposed building water supply networks, only 16 have plans to integrate these with treatment facilities and 15 intend to use a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system for monitoring purposes. Further, only 14 proposals are in favor of building sewerage and drainage infrastructure, with 12 of them emphasizing rainwater collection and 11 considering the treatment of wastewater for reuse.

Meanwhile, only 4.43% of the total project cost is allocated for the development of sewage and drainage infrastructure, 3.38% for the water supply network, 2.24% for the treatment process, 1.35% for the SCADA system, 1.22% for sewerage treatment, and 0.90% for rainwater collection. Broadly, 90% of the grants or loans are allocated for mobility and connectivity, with only the remaining 10% for health, education, housing, and water supply-related facilities (Asian Development Bank 2021). Hence, given the available resources, aligning the development process with the SDGs requires a more comprehensive approach with special emphasis on water supply and sanitation.

The appropriate design and execution of sustainable tenets of the circular economy framework for resources, i.e., reduce, recycle, and reuse, should be prioritized along with an emphasis on green buildings in future city planning. Charging private water pumps according to capacity and setting up regularly treated water supply networks for drinking and non-drinking purposes separately would reduce extraction and indiscriminate water use. Emphasis should also be placed on both the harvesting of rainwater and the recycling of sewage water. Along with rooftop rainwater harvesting, bio-roofs and green pavements should be added to collect rainwater. The greening of roofs with grasses and plants together with solar panels and pedestrian crossings made of grasses and porous tiles would address the four major aspects of urban sustainability: filtering and recharging groundwater aquifers, reducing water in drainage systems, lessening the heat island effect, and aiding carbon sequestration. In addition, solar panels can be used to cover the walls of buildings.

The sewage water collected from these buildings should be processed at treatment facilities, and this treated water should be used for non-drinking purposes, including meeting the needs of municipal, industrial, and domestic sanitation facilities, as well as for construction works. In either scenario, a properly organized, managed, and controlled water delivery mechanism and treatment system are required. Furthermore, users should pay for the facilities thus created. The possibility of charging different prices based on the nature of water use and rewarding more limited use of this precious resource should be explored. Finally, this should be backed by awareness-building initiatives and a robust feedback system. Initiatives toward promoting green buildings and incentivizing the same will be crucial in this regard.


Asian Development Bank. 2021. ADB Annual Report 2021. Manila: ADB.

Dkhar, N. B., and Q. S. W. Ali. 2018. India’s Rampant Urban Water Issues and Challenges. 28 December. The Energy and Resource Institute.

IQAir. 2021. World Air Quality Report 2021. IQAir.

Proudman, L. 2016. 5 Statistics on Why Sustainable Urban Development Matters. 14 October. United Nations Foundation.

Singh, D. 2022. Linking Sustainability of Smart Cities to Education and Health: A Broad Study of Smart City Mission, India. In Smart Cities for Sustainable Development, edited by R. K. Mishra, C. L. Kumari, S. Chachra, P. S. J. Krishna, A. Dubey, and R. B. Singh. Singapore: Springer.

Singh, D., and P. Mishra. 2023. Smart City Mission and Urban Environmental Sustainability in India. In The Impact of Environmental Emissions and Aggregate Economic Activity on Industry, edited by M. K. Pal.

UNICEF India (n.d.). Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (accessed 4 September 2021).

United Nations. 2015. Cities – United Nations Sustainable Development (accessed 7 August 2021).

World Health Organization. 2021. Water Sanitation and Health (accessed 27 March 2022.

Daisy Singh

About the Author

Daisy Singh is a research scholar at the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, India.
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