Let’s salvage our cities
Cities are meant to be centres of innovation and job creation. But in India we are staring at an urban apocalypse if we continue the way we are with collapsing infrastructure and weak leadership. Rajaji, Bose, Patel, Nehru, Rajendra Prasad. What did they have in common? They all cut their teeth as city leaders before becoming political titans. Post-independence we have allowed our cities to sink into neglect. The 74th Amendment, the JNNURM (Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission), AMRUT (Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation) and now the Smart Cities programme have barely made a dent.
There is a widening trust deficit between citizens and the government. With urban projects characterised by poor planning, lousy execution and corruption, citizens avoid paying their fair share of taxes, particularly property tax whose compliance across Indian cities is below 50 percent. And the spectacle we see in our legislative assemblies and outside do not help build confidence either. There is no easy fix and unless the leadership leads by example and builds credibility, citizens will be unwilling to be led by the pied pipers of the State that lord over the city. There is a need for a mix of bottoms up responsibility coupled with top down authority and respect for one rule of law for all.
We will need a modified game theory approach to align city desired outcomes with the differing stakeholders’ agenda. For instance, one reason the Tender SURE roads in Bengaluru built around the pedestrian and higher upfront investments got traction was the increased project outlays that appealed to the system which has mastered financial extraction from contracts; the city benefits by pedestrians getting wider footpaths, no pothole formation and uniform traffic flow. This is the ‘North by Northwest’ approach — the best route is fly true north, but in the real world one must be pragmatic and take the necessary deviations to reach the destination.
We need to embrace a simple vision that captures public imagination, rallies the troops and acts as the basis for decision-making. My personal favourite in this regard is, ‘One day we will swim in our lakes and rivers’. Imagine doing that in the context of a Bellandur lake, a Cooum river or the Yamuna. All city decisions use the ‘will it help swimming’ criteria for green signalling a decision or red pencilling it. This will drive initiatives like 100 percent sewerage connections, higher investment in sewage treatment plants, buffer zone planning with more public spaces, focus on public transport, encouraging walking and cycling as mobility modes, infrastructure provisioning preceding building permissions, better garbage management and so on.
We need guiding principles that aid decision-making. For instance, in the area of mobility, it has to be a focus on moving people over moving vehicles; pedestrians first on our streets; in garbage management, segregation and local processing are imperative; emphasis on demand management to be as important as supply side focus when it comes to water and energy; a strategic projects focus can drive a long tail of smaller improvements across the board; public spaces, arts and culture as soft infrastructure are as important as fixing hard infrastructure; heritage potential for job creation and enhancing revenues and the like.
It is too much to expect our current city administrative set-up to be able to fix its growing problems. There is negligible human resource capacity and a need for multiple skills which are absent in government. Collaborative partnerships between civil society, industry and government will be needed. For starters, committed external stakeholders can help the authorities think through alternative options based on citizen needs to address a civic problem and draw up a cogent, unbiased Request for Proposal that can act as the guide for tendering the right kind of project. Currently, we are badly executing poorly conceived projects. Consequently, they are doomed to fail at the outset. Just better project conception could assist in the journey to a better city.
There are a host of other measures that should be considered including reimagining the city’s governance and administrative architecture. The ward level, as the smallest unit of governance, should be allowed to be the ‘oral democracy’ voicing problems and aspirations at the grassroots level. It is also a place where we can experiment with proportional representation — let half the seats in a ward committee be reserved based on percentage vote shares in the ward for the city corporation elections. This way, opposition voices will find play at the local level.
The city corporation should focus on decentralisation measures. This could be through multiple corporations or decentralised zonal councils so that the elected representatives are closer to their constituents. One missing piece in the puzzle is integration across multiple agencies who need to come together to make music. Currently they march to their own tunes, resulting in overall ‘noise’ in the system. There is no alignment of goals. An apex-level body with an integration focus is needed for all cities with a population of over a million. Finally, sans a regional development focus, individual cities improving their quality of life will be a distant dream.
Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) are active in many cities. This augurs well since the road to a better city starts by fixing road by road, neighbourhood by neighbourhood. While lip sympathy is given to the concept of citizen participation, there is increased pushback from citizens wanting their voices heard. This pressure needs to be maintained. Citizen activism needs to be coupled with an acceptance of what it means to be good citizens. Their responsibility needs to manifest itself in respect for the laws of the land, not littering, driving discipline, care for fellow citizens and the like. While we can blame the government for coming up short in making our lives livable, citizens too cannot shirk their role in improving the quality of life for all. Sustainable development is an oft-repeated phrase — it needs to be a lived experience. The warning signs in the climate emergency around us are an early signal to heed the message or face the consequences.
V. Ravichandar, urbanist, is a self-described patron saint of lost causes.