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Pace of India’s urban boom poses challenges for municipal services

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post / July 17, 2011

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HUBLI, India - Over the past two decades, this old trading town in southern India has transformed into a bustling business city as software companies, call centers, and factories set up here. Dozens of colleges, air-conditioned shopping malls, and international gyms dot its leafy lanes.

But like many emerging Indian cities, Hubli is ill-equipped to cope with the growth. Piles of garbage lie uncollected on street corners, and vehicles clog the narrow roads. Most residents have access to clean water for just a few hours a week.

By 2030, more than 600 million Indians will live in cities, compared with 350 million today, and about 70 percent of new jobs will be created in cities, fueling the national economy like never before.

But the government says India’s infrastructure is inadequate for the massive urban growth. Only 20 percent of the country’s urban sewage is treated before disposal, and few cities have sanitary landfills for solid waste. Out of 85 cities with more than a half-million people, only 20 have local bus service.

India must invest more than $860 billion in urban infrastructure over the next 20 years, officials say. “Our cities are bursting at their seams with people, but urban services are lacking. We don’t have enough trained town planners. Our cities are growing without any plan,’’ said Kamal Nath, the federal urban development minister.

Hubli, which has more than 900,000 people, is emerging as an example of the problems and the promise accompanying India’s urban boom as cities of its size look for ways to prepare for additional growth.

Two decades ago, Hubli was a cotton and chili trading town, connected to the rest of India only by train. But it began to grow as businesses seeking to expand looked for places beyond expensive and clogged large cities and as the number of college-educated young people began swelling in small towns. Two large, national highways also were constructed through Hubli.

Its small airport, which began functioning in 2006 by handling propeller planes, is expanding its runway to make room for wide-bodied Boeing 737s to land. Officials are trying to combat the rising number of private cars and encourage public transportation by building dedicated lanes for buses.

But one of Hubli’s most dramatic projects focuses on overhauling the city’s water supply model to keep up with its residents’ growing aspirations. With a $39 million grant from the World Bank, the water department began a pioneering experiment in 2008 to deliver water to five neighborhoods 24 hours a day. The project’s success has triggered a clamor for similar programs not only in other neighborhoods across Hubli but also other Indian cities.

Until recently, Hubli residents used to skip work and school to line up for water, delivered by the city every eight days.

“Sometimes they supplied water in the middle of the night, and everybody would run to the taps. Fights would break out. It was like living in a village, not in a city,’’ said Saleema Sattar, 41, an accountant who lives in a low-income neighborhood.

At first, round-the-clock water supply was unimaginable for the residents here. They thought the city would quickly run out and feared that their bills would be too high. The city council’s waterworks employees thought that the French company called in to manage the water supply would fire them. But now, residents pay for their water, and officials say there is less waste and fewer cases of waterborne diseases.

“This has been a miracle. We can turn the tap on any time of the day and there is water,’’ said Girija Manjunath, 31, who lives in a blue-collar area that now receives 24-hour water supply. “It has freed me from water worries. My children are cleaner and go to school. Others in the city envy my destiny now.’’

The success of the 24-hour water supply program in Hubli has fueled other aspirations as well - for better public parks, wider roads, traffic management, and street lights.

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