Sustainability, Urban Concerns, and the Indian Elections
from Asia Unbound

Sustainability, Urban Concerns, and the Indian Elections

People wait to cast their vote at a Sirohi district polling station in the Indian state of Rajasthan, India on April 29, 2019.
People wait to cast their vote at a Sirohi district polling station in the Indian state of Rajasthan, India on April 29, 2019. Amit Dave/Reuters

General elections for India’s lower house of parliament began on April 11 and will last through May 19, with all ballots counted on May 23. This is the world’s largest democratic exercise. I had the chance to ask Dr. Jessica Seddon, director of integrated urban strategy at the World Resources Institute’s WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities and non-resident fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, about infrastructure, the environment, sustainability, and the role that nongovernmental policy ideas play in India. Our exchange, the third of a series of Q & As on the Indian elections, appears below. The first is herethe second here, and the fourth here.

You have advised state and national development initiatives in India. One of the policy areas you have written about is the new role of nongovernmental policy coalitions in pressing for specific development improvements. To what extent do you see nongovernment policy advice making its way into the public debate in India and affecting election priorities? Think tanks are still a relatively small sector in India, for example. 

Election priorities are shaped as much by citizens’ experiences and aspirations as anything else. I would not say that nongovernment policy coalitions are setting that agenda. They are, however, contributing to election offerings – the response to these priorities. I wrote earlier about the role of nongovernment policy coalitions in developing solutions to the kinds of urban problems that show up as election and political priorities. The emphasis then was on the “Do” part of DIY, or the fact that nongovernment organizations were not just writing up recommendations and blueprints (the think tank model) but actually working with governments to see them through to implementation. This approach remains influential in urban policy, and seems poised to grow as platforms like World Resources Institute’s CityFix LabsTata Trusts’ Quest for Urban Livability, and IIT Madras’s Centre on Urbanisation, Buildings, and the Environment enable more formal partnerships between city officials and entrepreneurs, academics, and civic groups who can help address key infrastructure and service gaps.

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Some of the solutions that come from these local engagements are also increasingly percolating up into national policy agendas as leaders at that level search for ready examples of “better” urbanization. The Smart Cities Mission has also been somewhat of a conduit for the migration of nongovernment-origin ideas across cities. The current government and contenders have also relied heavily on nongovernment sources of data and analysis of priorities. It’s one thing for a government to contract a private provider to collect a dataset or do a report – many do – but it’s another for a nongovernment organization to frame the question and gather the data that defines a good part of the reality policymakers respond to. India has a number of large-scale nongovernment initiatives that do just that. Some of these are quite public: Skymet’s weather service and monsoon forecasts, which run in parallel to and in some ways compete with the Indian Meteorological Department; ASER’s survey of educational attainment; and CEEW’s Access Survey on household energy use and gaps, for example. Sometime these influences are acknowledged; as part of its description of the urban agenda, the Ministry of Finance’s 2017 Economic Survey included analysis of “actual” urbanization based on remote sensing of built-up areas in addition to the official census figures. More often they’re not as openly mentioned. 

Finally, on think tanks. Yes, this is a small sector, but I think increasingly influential for the same reasons that nongovernmental policy coalitions have been a force in cities. Policymakers need well-grounded solutions, and there is not as much of an infrastructure within the government to produce the analyses that help take an idea to an implementable stage. The Niti Aayog has not yet grown into its intended role as the nation’s strategic think-tank. The top level of experienced civil servants includes some brilliant individuals, but is stretched thin by today’s pressing problems. 

You’ve also done a lot of work on environmental policy, specifically on air quality. At a time when India’s deteriorating air quality has become a subject of increased awareness and demand for change, how much do you see this priority reflected in the general election?  

I don’t see air pollution as a headline issue in the general election. It is on peoples’ minds, but has neither risen to the level of, say, jobs, infrastructure, or services in terms of demand, nor has it in any way trumped national pride, group loyalty, or party affiliation as a motivator to vote one way or another. 

But to be fair, it’s not really an election-type issue. The visible part of the problem – the haze people can see, the sickness they might attribute to pollution – is small relative to the empirical size of the problem. Air pollution reduces crop yields, changes local and global climate, limits solar power production, and probably affects the monsoon. The crop yield loss numbers are astounding: annual pollution-related losses in India could feed 94 million people. And Indian varieties of staple crops may be more vulnerable than previously assumed: a more detailed study in Mohali found that yield losses were double those of American and European crop varieties. But these impacts are not so visible in an everyday sense. 

Still, it is on peoples’ minds. A 2017 survey of people in 11 cities around India commissioned by Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation found that 30-40% (and more than half in Delhi) were “aware” of air pollution and thought it a problem. About 40% of respondents didn’t think that the air quality was acceptable. This proportion seems to be growing. Forty-four percent of adults surveyed in the Spring 2018 Pew Global Attitudes Survey thought that air pollution was a “very big problem” even though the time period wasn’t peak (visible) pollution season. More than half of respondents though the air was getting worse. Even in smaller towns and rural areas, the smoke during burning season and in the winter is something people generally recognize as related to childrens’ coughs, etc. So it’s an issue – but still, not at the level of jobs, which 76% of respondents in the same Pew Survey rated as a “very big problem.”

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Elections and Voting

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Air quality has also appeared in party manifestos, which is a change from 2014. The proposals are a little haphazard – tightening standards, moving deadlines forward, doubling down on electric vehicles, setting up new and overarching authorities. But they are there, and the proposals cover both sectoral action and governance changes, which is great. 

So we’ll see. Some thoughtful proposals on strengthening regulators, improving monitoring, and thinking through sector emission reduction are circulating within the various Ministries and Finance Commission, and it would be great if some of these could see the light of day. 

Every Indian government says it prioritizes infrastructure, but some are able to implement better than others. What do you see as the major infrastructure hurdles for the five years ahead, and are we seeing a realistic discussion about those challenges in this year’s campaigning? 

Implementation. Implementation. Implementation. This has always been the challenge: getting from a will to a way. To be honest, I haven’t seen too much variation in the rate of implementation across the administrations I’ve been watching or working with since the Vajpayee years. Nor do I think that a political change, whether at the state or national level, would fundamentally change the pace at which projects can be rolled out, since so much of the challenge has to do with the administrative structure of too many agencies, too little data for advance planning and risk mitigation, and not enough clarity or consistency in the various frameworks for approvals of everything from environmental permissions to land allocations. Even when the policy seems clear, the details of its application are often vague enough to give all parties enough confidence to test their own interpretation – and end up in court. My husband is an infrastructure lawyer in Delhi and sees a lot of this end of the implementation friction. Someday I’ll figure out how to tally the anecdotes more systematically. 

I think that regional climate change is a big, often ignored issue for infrastructure. Regional environmental change – temperature increases, new precipitation patterns, more severe storms, higher sea levels and storm surges, and other new normals – is altering both the need for infrastructure and the nature of risk and requirements for project viability. This may not be as much of an issue for a five year horizon as it is for a 10 year or more view, but it is certainly worthy of more attention than it’s getting. The infrastructure built today is expected to contribute to development well into the future, but it may not do so unless the nature of the next few decades is considered more systematically. We are already seeing signs of stress. Ninety percent of India’s thermal power plants – which provide the country with most of its electricity – rely on freshwater for cooling, and 40 percent already experience high water stress. This will only increase. The environment for near-coastal infrastructure from roads to tunnels to ports is changing quickly, yet few projects are working with updated projections for sea levels and their implications for drainage requirements. India’s wind power ambitions may not be realistic in light of future wind levels – where’s the electricity that will still be needed going to come from? 

I’m not seeing a realistic discussion in campaigning about the need to build infrastructure for a future that will be different than today. That’s not so surprising, though. Election season is a time when the operative word is “more.” I would love to see (or hear about, if it’s happening) mo re of a conversation about how infrastructure planning and procurement could be updated to account for the need to buy redundancy, to accommodate what might seem like overbuilding today, and to allocate climate-related risk between all parties. This shift to resilience-thinking rather than efficiency-focus is hard, though. It’s not just India. 

The growing awareness of India’s urban needs is one of the most interesting policy developments in India. The UPA government had its national urban mission; the BJP created the Smart Cities Mission, and this year the Congress Party’s manifesto promised governance reforms at the urban level. What would you assess are the top development issues for the next Indian government as India increasingly urbanizes? 

I would say that the top urbanization issue is just to recognize it. All of it. India’s census says that the country is 31% urban, but this is a well-known underestimate of the amount of territory with an urban-like built environment, the number of local governments that are under pressure to meet the needs of urban-size populations, and the percentage of people who live at urban-like density. India’s official definition of “urban” has an odd quirk of being related to the nature of adult employment (75% nonagricultural) in addition to population size and density, and its system for declaring a local government “urban” rather than “rural” (they have different powers) lags behind reality. This is well known and even sort of officially recognized – see the Economic Survey 2017. It’s just not actually built into public investment planning or the version of reality that shapes urban strategy. 

The fact that India is probably about half or more urban right now creates both new opportunities and challenges. On the challenges side, there’s the fact that higher density populations need different and more extensive infrastructure than low density. Pit latrines or even septic systems don’t work; you need to do drainage and sewage treatment. Low-capacity distribution transformers meant for a village are not going to power a town, much less a town that has more gadgets, electric stoves that operate in unison, and (hopefully) increasing productive use. You could do the same analysis across a number of sectors – and it should be done. On the opportunities side, there’s a real chance to invest in emerging population centers to make them more attractive and productive – places where people want to stay rather than migrate to the already-straining and growing metropolitan regions. Strategic investment to create conditions for a more uniform distribution of population could be a game-changer for India.   

What will you be watching most closely during India’s 2019 general election? 

The numbers, like everybody else! Well, I’m waiting for the numbers; it’s actually excruciating to see the voting unfold in slow motion over this month. I’ll be particularly curious to see what happens in Tamil Nadu, because it was home for so long and hopefully will be again. I’m also watching Odisha, because it’s such a pitched fight between a long-standing regional party and the BJP. I think the period right after the election will really be the part to watch because of the role regional parties will probably play in the configuration that emerges. I’ve always been fascinated by the elusive “third front” in Indian politics, and it seems like we may see a kind of “intrapreneurial” version of one emerge later this year.  

My book about India’s rise on the world stage, Our Time Has Come: How India Is Making Its Place in the World, was published by Oxford University Press in January 2018. Follow me on Twitter: @AyresAlyssa. Or like me on Facebook ( or Instagram (

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