The 2012-13 edition of UN Habitat’s State of the World’s Cities report, released two weeks ago, measures the prosperity of cities. Reactions thus far refer to the prosperity index and how Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad or Bangalore rank. The merit of this edition, however, is not in the statistics, but the substance of the views offered.
For Indian cities, the paradigms of a new approach to prosperity presented in the report are of particular interest. First, the assertion that as a country becomes more urbanised, both urban and national productivity will increase is supported by the experience of many developing countries. Second, taking urban infrastructure as the bedrock of prosperity, the survey finds that, in many developing countries, sanitation and urban transport are the least developed. Transport infrastructure in India’s major cities is tilted in favour of private transport. The third aspect is linking quality of life to urban prosperity. The failure of many cities to address this issue, and the absence of measurable indicators to reveal progress or decline, are emphasised. Finally, the unequal wealth of cities and the increase in income disparity have a strong impact and is an important determining factor in the prosperity of cities. The report presents compelling data of rising inequality in Asian cities, which exceed the OECD average. In India, in the first four decades after Independence, the co-existence of the rich and the poor was broadly accepted and modest efforts made towards amelioration. But in recent years, city management and planning have become highly exclusive.
Discounting geographical location as a determining factor in a city’s economic growth, it emphasises that many cities around the world have set themselves on the path of prosperity by innovation, sustained vision and good governance. Bangalore and Hyderabad are cases in point, though, unlike Chennai or Kolkata, they do not have the locational advantage of a port.
It is worth considering the organising principles for promoting and managing cities prosperous in the true sense, as set forth in the report. One, individual interest cannot prevail over collective interest in land policy and planning. In the aggressive pursuit of investments and accumulation of private capital, during the past decade, the recognition and upholding of public interest has almost disappeared from the government agenda in most Indian cities. Land is perhaps the most visible example. The process of dilution began during the 1990s in Delhi, by allowing conversion of lease hold into free hold. Initially, it was for small rehabilitation plots. Now, even prime land that has been in the ownership and control of the government is up for private purchase and speculative trading. Since bad practices travel more speedily, the example has been picked up elsewhere.
Public transport is another area that affects the economy. Yet the bulk of public investments in Indian cities has gone in favour of flyovers and expressways. Demand management or restraining the proliferation of the private auto is not talked about. The allocation of existing road space in favour of public transport has been under fire and it has taken the judiciary to remind the executive that where space is limited, public transport has to receive priority.
Most municipal bodies are elaborate shells without substance since their functional domain is heavily circumscribed. This is in contrast to the City Statute of Brazil, 2001. Brazil accepted city governments as distinct political entities and has stipulated, without raising the bogey of capacity, that city planning and most other functions relating to a city’s upkeep should be the responsibility of city governments.
The report is another reminder that the crisis in managing India’s urbanisation is a policy crisis, a crisis of mindset, a crisis aggravated by the approach that throwing money at the problem is the best solution. There is a Planning Commission report from March on the JNNURM II that, notwithstanding its lofty title of “clean bustees, safe communities and people’s cities”, seeks the continuation of the project with an expanded budgetary outlay. As expected, it talks about the capacity of local bodies. It does not recognise that the political spectrum in the country, whether at the parliamentary, state assembly or municipal level, perceives urban development essentially in terms of real estate and its manipulation. This is because the structure of representative democracy envisaged in the existing laws does not ensure accountability but instead encourages interference.
So long as the political spectrum is not engaged in the substantive aspects of city planning, development and equitable growth, Indian cities, barring exceptions, will remain dysfunctional and far removed from the “prosperous city” envisaged in the report.
The writer is research professor and chairman, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi