Ease of living and the urban dweller
Cities in India need a makeover. For a long time now, they’ve been crying out for attention. Civic infrastructure has frayed beyond redemption. Coupled with a lack of renewals and rising population, there are signs of environmental, architectural and aesthetic decay all around. How did we get here? Years of neglect and apathy in city management has adversely affected the rate of progress in every which way possible, leaving large segments of the population on the margins. The lack of clean drinking water, an absence of waste treatment plants, high levels of pollution, unplanned urban sprawls and no universal access to basics amenities have slowed our cities down.
Can our cities and collateral urban spaces be resurrected into vibrant and livable spaces conducive to economic and cultural rejuvenation? If yes, who will lead this change of emphasis and execute the giant demons that stand in the way? The demons are both structural and attitudinal. The functioning of a city municipality is impaired as a result of its relationship with the State capital’s power calculus. The municipality neither possesses the financial muscle nor is it a performing institutional body. Entrusting it with creating, maintaining and sustaining the civic infrastructure is like hoping to see elephants fly! This conundrum is further knotted up by the deep-seated political attitudes prevalent. In other words, patronage for my set of voters and brickbats of every shape for the opponents. Like it or not, this is how the politics of managing our national and local ambitions is played out.
The futility of expectations from such impaired instruments of delivery is all too evident. Change has to be coerced by the circumstances of efficient functionality. The challenge is to generate this coercion. A municipal rating system even on limited parameters is the need of the hour. It is a human need to be either judged favorably or not at all. By a concurrent system of ratings through a non-government agency with grades being placed in the public domain every three months, the pressure to perform is created. This score will make heroes or zeroes of the political groups that have been happy to manipulate caste or creed numbers to further their careers in acquiring positions of public office. Indeed, would it be too much to suggest that every public service dispensed by the government should have a rating system. Leastways, for a municipal government, it is the need of the hour to enforce performance and call it, “The Ease of Living Index”.
It is not by itself a magic solution because to achieve a respectable index, a series of structural-functional changes will have to be introduced. Besides tireless work ethics, municipalities need a cadre of professionals and a financial architecture with assured inflows. Unless these sound elements are embedded into the city management profile, urban life will continue its downward spiral. Politics, which is the art of negotiating solutions, has compounded our problems in the urban context to the present state of despair. Yet, the answers will have to be found in the democratic desire for ease of living and those practicing politics helping this urban dweller’s ambition.
As a matter of fact, once the arena of performance is centered in the city, political ambitions get a wider ground to fulfill their goals. A city has enormous potential for growth if managed well. And for that reason, it also offers a great opportunity for political talent to bloom and be recognised. It is high time we realised that urban spaces are not the playground for speculators and property dealers. The resurgence of economic and cultural energies rest on the way we navigate the advantages offered by the lure of urbanisation. Our leadership must accept the credibility of this phenomenon which has transformed countries that respect this paradigm.
At one level the urban dweller has a list of fairly easy needs to fulfill. Most importantly, he wants to be left alone to pursue his dreams of a good and prosperous life. To this end, he needs access to schools, colleges, and economic opportunities. He needs a safe environment for business, his womenfolk, his children and the elders in his family. He needs affordable healthcare and access to hospitals. He needs decent transport to move him from one place to another. At home, he needs clean water, regular power supply and waste removal and disposal. In the common spaces, he wants equal access, cleanliness and ease of exit, irrespective of what time it is. Put together, this is a formidable list of wants and our supply side is woefully inadequate for a number of reasons. Suffice it to outline only one failure of our policies: that is the volume of needs far exceeds the ability and volume of supply in every Indian city. Herein lies the rub because to enhance supply a whole range of processes need to kick in on a continuous basis and have to be led by the politics of performance, not promises.
Improving the ease of living in our cities will drive economic activity. If we are going to struggle with the fundamentals of decent civic amenities, security for ourselves and our children, we can only live in mediocrity. Give us the ease of living and we will find the art of living, distinct and enviable, with no help from any messengers of God.
(The writer is a former Director, India Habitat Centre. The views expressed are strictly personal.)