Yesterday Once More: Urbanites, you are on your own!

Shankkar aiyAr Author of Aadhaar:  A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and 
Accidental India

Published: 12th November 2017 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 11th November 2017 10:31 PM   |  A+A-

It is yesterday once more. Every few days, residents of one or the other metropolis find themselves stranded between what is and what should be, lamenting about what they pay taxes for and what they get in turn. The lament goes unheard; essentially, urbania is nobody’s child. Those who have the wherewithal to compel change are corralled in compulsive competitive Whataboutery. This week, it is Delhi and air pollution. Some called it the final #blue whale challenge! Others found solace in dark humour renaming parts of the city—“Pollutyens Delhi, Haze Khas, Grey Fort, Chandni Choke, Dhua Kuna” et al. With pollution 20 times WHO limits, schools were shut down, a health emergency declared, the National Green Tribunal halted all construction, and the National Human Rights Commission issued notices to authorities. And all this attention is thanks to the fact that Delhi happens to be the national capital.

Other cities have similar and unique problems. In Mumbai, people are paying more and more for less and less of a life as systems crumble around them. Thanks to poor mass transport systems, they travel between two and three hours to and from work and this is true of most metros—do the math for productive time and life lost in an average working person’s life. Last week, Chennai was once again traumatised by floods. Fear of a repeat of 2015 floods caused hospitals in low lying areas to shift newborns, residents to seek temporary shelter with friends and family. In Bengaluru, the so-called Silicon Valley, the denizens manage systems for the first world and live in third world conditions. 

The concept of quality of life is a far cry. Basic amenities that denizens of other paved economies take for granted are promised as boons, but scarcely delivered. In no city in India—bar the island city of Mumbai—can citizens be assured of 24-hour electricity. In Baner-Hinjewadi belt of Pune, the much-vaunted IT hub, life is dependent on inverter power and water mafia. Barely a third of the tonnes of sewage generated by Indian cities is treated and waste management is essentially dumping of garbage in landfills.

A WHO study of 124 Indian cities revealed that barely eight had breathable air quality, 11 had lethal levels of pollutants and over 50 had alarming particulate matter levels. In the National Capital Region and Bengaluru, apartment owners invest in branded air purifiers. Even the most moderately priced apartments come fitted with multi-purpose water purification systems—in Mumbai, an enterprising person makes available RO-filtered water by tanker.

With no plan for new habitats, cities are expanding in an amoebic fashion around existing cities. Typically, solutions follow problems and post facto ratification is the standard operating practice. Unsurprisingly, developers are enabling those who can pay to secede from dependence on the state by providing for every facility from water to hospitals to schools to malls to business centres—some techies living off gated communities in Bengaluru scarcely leave the premises. In Delhi and Mumbai’s tony areas people pay upwards of $2,000 per square feet of living space—in essence they pay London rates for Bangkok traffic and Lagos-like lifestyle. 

Those living in India’s cities are caught in a grid lock. Technically speaking, cities elect municipal councilors, but are scarcely represented—the cities are lorded over by unelected cabals. State governments wield the veto over urban development—frequently denying resources on the pretext of compulsions in rural India. City budgets are prepared by bureaucrats and the elected bodies have little say. 

Globally, cities cradle and groom, future leadership across continents. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was mayor of Tehran, former French Prime Minister François Hollande and French President Jacques Chirac were both mayors of Paris, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt was mayor of West Berlin, and Indonesian President Joko Widodo was mayor of Surakarta.

Cities are also the crucibles of growth and development. Tokyo has a GDP of over $1.5 trillion, New York and Los Angeles together (both over $1 trillion) have a GDP that is larger than that of India—indeed, the top 10 cities of the US tote up a GDP of over $6.5 trillion. Seoul has a GDP of over $650 billion and London of over $725 billion. 

Unfortunately, in India cities do not figure in the political algorithm. Between them, India’s top 10 cities account for a large chunk of the GDP, host over 70 million persons, but are home to less than 10 per cent of Lok Sabha seats, and therefore do not carry political heft. The political class is wedded to the mythology of India’s urbanisation at around 30 per cent or 377 million—fact is, India is much more urbanised, around 47 per cent as per an IDFC Institute study and the Economic Survey. 

In the electoral calculus rural India scores over urban India. The BJP did well to identify urban India as an important factor in its political strategy and articulated it in its 2014 manifesto. It promised to “look at urbanisation as an opportunity rather than a threat”. That though has largely remained a promise. The idea of 100 New Cities became 100 Smart Cities and was reduced to a merely a smart slogan. 
With over 600 million Indians living in urban agglomerates, India has the opportunity to leverage urbanisation for growth. If urbanisation has to succeed, India must shed the PM-to-CM routine and enable cities to directly elect a mayor and a team who are empowered and can be held accountable. The principle of subsidiarity requires devolving powers to the smallest unit for efficiancy. As of now, a city government neither has the authority nor is it accountable. India needs to dismantle the current system of governance, decentralise form, functions and funds for cities to decide and define their destiny.

This is no easy task. India’s political establishment is invested in scale for power. Whining seasonally—about air pollution, water supply or floods—has scarcely paid dividends. This demands a new narrative—of the embedded opportunity in the challenges. Instead of fighting for crumbs and debating piecemeal solutions, urban India will need to seek to influence a complete political and structural overhaul. The promise and enabling provisions are already in the Constitution since the 1990s.
Till such time, urban Indians work to make this happen they are on their own.

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