Inspiring and training the next generation of India's urban leaders

Carlin Carr, Bangalore Community Manager
Bangalore, 16 September 2014

One of the first goals in the global push to include an Urban Sustainable Development Goal (USDG) is to educate leaders for the massive challenges ahead. "An urban SDG is needed to educate leaders and the public, and focus their attention on the urgent challenges and opportunities of sustainable urban development from 2015 to 2030, in order to improve the lives of slum dwellers, provide access to basic infrastructure services, protect local and regional ecosystems, and ensure resilience," says the USDG site. Urbanization worldwide has happened at such a rapid pace with such a multitude of challenges that national, state and local leaders have not necessarily been trained to handle the situation at hand.

In India, less than five percent of the top-management leaders in the country have been educated and trained in urban practice. At the middle-management level, including senior municipal officials, senior engineers, and even urban planners, the percentage with urban training is still less than 20 percent. In a step to fill this knowledge gap, in 2011, the Indian Institute of Human Settlements in Bangalore opened its doors to train the next generation of urban leaders. The urban-focused, interdisciplinary institution — the first of its kind in the country — has created partnerships with leading universities and scholars from around the world.

"Our future hinges on this urban transition being handled with wisdom and alacrity. Yet the fundamental constraint in the equitable and orderly growth and transformation of urban India is neither capital nor technology. The chief impediment is the availability of sufficient numbers of well-educated professionals committed to the common good who can play the role of urban change-makers," says the university's site.

Since its inauguration, the university has expanded outside its campus to engage the country — and especially youth — on issues related to an urban future. In 2012, IIHS held a national student challenge called "Transform Urban India," where it solicited innovative ideas for pressing issues. The three winning student teams developed solutions that included an alternate public transport system that will reduce pressure on auto rickshaws, a comprehensive waste collection and recycling system for Kolkata (though designed to be replicated in other cities), and a light, collapsible floor seat for underprivileged students.

This type of innovative thinking is exactly what the university hopes to foster on a grander scale. It says that India has over 5,000 urban centers, but only 350 planners graduate each year, and most of them do not enter public practice. In a presentation by Aromar Revi, director of IIHS, he says that "India's higher education system has no interdisciplinary program of scale to educate enough professionals for the satisfactory planning, development, and management of India's cities, towns, and villages." IIHS plans to have bachelor's, master's, and Ph.D. programs, and has even launched an Urban Practitioners Professionals (UPP) training and capacity-building program for public, private, and civil society organizations and mid-career professionals.

Preparing for an urban future is often discussed in terms of developing and replicating innovative solutions and interventions. Less attention, however, is given to ensuring appropriate training and experience for the people behind these designs, particularly on a public policy and planning management level. IIHS is one university, but the magnitude of the task at hand cannot be handled solely by one institution. The USDG has brought out a key area that deserves greater attention: educating tomorrow's leaders — a focus that goes beyond seeking out a "silver bullet" and, instead, hits at a foundational aspect that is needed to achieve thoughtful, sensible, and creative development in India’s cities.

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