Fixing India’s cities needs cutting the Gordian Knot: Failure, inaction are roadblocks to leveraging urbanisation for good

  • Indian cities must beware of the costs of failure and the costs of inaction.

  • The Government of India needs to build whole-of-system capacity for urban transformation, ensuring that all urban actors learn about complexity and understand the city as a ‘system of systems’.

  • City governments must realise that all citizens – sentient beings – require peace and repose as much as they need work and that these basics of ‘quality of life’ can be created only through improved planning and governance.

Editor's note: As India heads into the 2020s, there’s reason to believe we are heading into a new age of anxiety. Economic growth has been crippled; many economists argue recovery will take years of painful reform. Ethnic and religious tensions have sharpened. Even India’s core Constitutional values and institutions, many commentators have argued, are besieged.

In this series, Firstpost examines what the 2020s will mean for India: for everything from politics and the economy, to our culture and communities.

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When the next Census of India reveals its findings two years from now, we can expect corroboration of a familiar and mundane reality: the seemingly inexorable growth of haphazard urban sprawl around all cities and transportation networks. Census 2011 had already revealed an alarming increase in urbanisation during the previous decade, an almost doubling of the spatial footprint of cities; straining public delivery systems, causing damage to environment and health, and forcing most urban residents into wasteful hours of commuting with little time remaining for the self, family or community. Significantly, the increase in built up area has exceeded the increase in local population, revealing the speculation that threatens to make this form of urbanisation — described by the World Bank in 2016 as “messy” and “hidden” — wholly unsustainable.

The reasons for the mess are multifarious, but they can all be traced to three main causes. The first is the inappropriate style and insufficient coverage of urban planning. India’s “urban awakening,” to borrow the phrase used by the McKinsey Global Institute in 2010 to describe the country’s new-found urban mojo, came after half a century of Soviet-style expansion of modern agriculture, industry, core infrastructure, healthcare and education. While all Five-Year Plans (1951 onwards) tinkered with the urban sector, a radical shift had been made in 1948, when the new Ministry of Health, acting on the recommendations of the ‘Health Survey & Development Committee’ of 1943 chaired by Sir Joseph Bhore, promoted the preparation of ‘master plans’ as a means to improve public health in India’s cities. It is tragic that an instrument chosen more than 70 years ago for improving public health is producing negative public health consequences today.

Statist planning at the national level translated at the level of the city into the dogmatic perpetuation of master plans: formulaic schemas for segregated land uses, with only grudging acknowledgement of existing economic activity, history, geography and lifestyle. In 1948, India had a vast network of diverse urban centres, connecting large entrepots such as Calcutta, Bombay and Madras to district headquarters, railheads, market towns and cantonments in the mofussil, and a vast array of pilgrimage sites with roots in antiquity. While most cities already had municipal administrations and improvement trusts, new ‘development authorities’ were established for the purpose of acquiring ‘land banks’, planning them and disposing them through allotment. ‘Ivory-tower’ planners happily demonstrated their spatial determinism in new green-field cities like Chandigarh, Bhubaneswar and Gandhinagar and numerous urban ‘colonies’, ‘layouts’ and ‘schemes’, but they abjectly failed to deal with existing urban areas that required renewal and redevelopment. As a result, the historical city that produced wealth and sustained livelihoods was neglected, killing the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs.

 Fixing India’s cities needs cutting the Gordian Knot: Failure, inaction are roadblocks to leveraging urbanisation for good

Cities are the crucibles of democracy but they cannot produce desirable outcomes if they are occupied by alienated, complacent and uninterested citizens. Representational image/Wikimedia Commons (VtTN)

Despite the existence of development authorities created in the public interest, the actual supply of urban land seldom kept pace with demand, allowing unscrupulous officials and politicians to extract rents from patronage and discretionary access while simultaneously influencing and pre-empting future development through acquisition of cheap farmlands in the unregulated ‘peri-urban’ areas. While master plans were meant to be regulatory instruments, enforcement was notoriously weak. The conspicuous consumption of land forced a corresponding demand for supporting infrastructure, which was inevitably supplied first to the elites and thereafter, if at all, to others. Space and infrastructure, which in the socialist imagination of the country should have been the great equalisers, became the definers of inequity, resulting in ghettoes of the rich and poor alike. Urbanisation became a ‘game’ for speculators rather than an enabler of economic development.

The second cause of messy urbanisation was a consequence of the first. The lack of integration between spatial, physical, social and economic planning meant that in most cities, systems like water supply and sanitation continued to be planned and governed as they were under the colonial administration, and others, such as land records and revenue, continued with practices founded in the Mughal era! Deficiencies in planning combined with deficiencies in management, which were exacerbated by the severe shortage of professional municipal cadres, and archaic and opaque systems and procedures.

A vicious cycle was created: Because city governments could not build and maintain infrastructure and deliver services, the public refused to pay taxes and service charges. Because revenues were inadequate, cities could neither maintain nor augment their infrastructure and services.

Indian cities have been crippled by structural failures and systemic inefficiency, delivering the peculiar travesty that after almost 30 years of economic liberalisation, the cities that famously produce two-thirds of the GDP are struggling to attract private investment. The dependence on grants and transfers from the state and central governments has increased. Excepting a few states such as Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha, we are far from achieving the much-needed urban reforms promoted by the Government of India, first with the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) of 2005, and more recently, through the Atal Mission for Regeneration and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) of 2015. We can only hope that the 15th Finance Commission, which has been advised to create a results-based and incentive-driven system for transferring grants to municipalities, will find ways to create the autonomous and self-reliant cities that are imagined by the 74th Amendment to the Constitution of India.

The third and perhaps most critical cause is the confusion of means for ends. Cities have been spending public funds on ‘inputs’ such as new roads, new pipelines and new buildings, without bothering to monitor the ‘outcomes’, such as the number of people traveling on the roads, the volume of water or sewerage flowing through the pipes and the productivity of those who occupy the buildings. Impacts and externalities like congestion, theft and pollution were completely disregarded. The situation improved after the Government of India introduced reforms and Results Frameworks and, post-2014, the outcome and performance measurement and monitoring of Sustainable Development Goals, but city administrations are mostly unable to translate the results of monitoring into policy and programme.

Throughout history, cities could promise an improved quality of life and opportunity to all because they used city planning as a process for establishing universal standards. The improved standards of living and access to jobs, education, healthcare and municipal services helped the city to retain its indigent talent and benefit from the entrepreneurial migrant. Cities leveraged the economies of scale and density and the agglomeration of diverse economic activities to produce wealth and human self-actualisation in surpluses that could sustain entire nations. But Indian cities are struggling to provide decent accommodation to migrants and the deteriorating public health and increasing violent crime, especially against women and children, are imposing a heavy burden – social, psychological, environmental and political – on scarce public resources.

Indian cities must beware of the costs of failure and the costs of inaction. Improved planning and implementation can mitigate the former, while improved policy can obviate the latter. Now that the ignominious label of ‘reluctant urbaniser’ has been forever removed, India must leverage urbanisation as a force for good. The Government of India needs to build whole-of-system capacity for urban transformation, ensuring that all urban actors learn about complexity and understand the city as a ‘system of systems’. They must also understand the significance of the ‘commons’ and the ‘public’ domain, and the fact that the ‘rule of law’ is a necessary condition for enabling efficient flows of people, goods and capital. City governments must realise that all citizens – sentient beings – require peace and repose as much as they need work and that these basics of ‘quality of life’ can be created only through improved planning and governance.

Let us hope that the development pathways chosen by our cities in the new decade will be grounded in at least the following principles. Firstly, all policy, planning, implementation and monitoring should be based on feedback loops that engage the public in a variety of ways. The goal should be to activate each resident in a massive co-creation of their own city and neighbourhood. Second, city governments must unhesitatingly use new science & technology – especially environmental, behavioural and material sciences and geospatial, imaging and communications technologies – to deliver standards-compliant infrastructure, services and housing. City simulations and decision-support systems must be used to make a paradigm shift away from business-as-usual planning and management to a real-time activity involving all stakeholders.

Third, city governments must utilise the professional manpower available in local institutions, business and industry associations and NGOs, while safeguarding public interest through full disclosure of conflict, appropriate and enforceable contracts, transparent reporting of results and routine public audit. Costs of services and overheads should be established through schedules of rates based on fiscal intelligence. Profit-making service providers should be procured only when they own the IPR or have demonstrably unique command over either knowledge or technique – cities are routinely sold rocket science when they only need a little crafting!

Lastly, we must realise that cities are the crucibles of democracy but they cannot produce desirable outcomes if they are occupied by alienated, complacent and uninterested citizens. It is imperative that we work collectively to cut the Gordian Knot – abandon the dogmas that confuse and confound us – and secure a sustainable, just and equitable urban future for all.

Jagan Shah is Senior Infrastructure Adviser in the Department of International Development (India), Government of UK. From 2013 to 2019, he served as Director of the National Institute of Urban Affairs.

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Updated Date: Jan 11, 2020 12:26:11 IST