Millennium Post

Securing the future of our cities

Indian cities need oxygen. I’ve spoken these words both literally and figuratively because our cities are in fact dying everyday. For far too long, we’ve allowed our cities to grow on their own, often chasing volumes rather than anticipating the need for sustainable growth and regulating planning matrices. Our failure to regulate our cities are too well known and we can endlessly dwell on its reasons, from the land mafia to the ill-fated developer-regulator nexus. Can our hopes for a better city life be fulfilled? Yes, they can if we can start doing things right, beginning 2015.

The only instrument of urban governance is the municipality. It is an organisation that exists with the backing of our constitution and no other body can anchor the ambitions of a city’s prosperity. The politics of municipalities have been positioned in direct conflict with state politics. There is a perceived threat that the pre-eminence of a performing municipal executive will undermine the profile of the State’s political executive and thus lead to its irrelevance. In short, the Chief Minister‘s relevance will be brought down by a notch or two. Hence the travails of our municipal bodies have been replete with supersessions, when manned by groups of different political ideologies. The point at hand is that such hostilities need to end. Otherwise, we can all bid our goodbyes to any decent standard of city life.

The New Year needs to witness a major capacity upgrade in municipal bodies. To create esteem in the psyche of the municipal employees, a well governed service cadre needs to be created and they alone should man these local bodies. Indeed, their training and career aspirations will need to be built into the city management’s architecture, with the mandate to install a set of simple and compliable by-laws in every area of municipal operation.

A well qualified financial team of professionals to revitalize the resource system must be assigned to every municipality. Superseding a municipal body should be as difficult to sustain as the dismissal of an elected state government. The allocation of finances must be mandated through a State Finance Commission and the funds must be directly transferred from the Centre to municipal bodies.

Arguments against each one of these steps will be many. However, these steps are fundamental to any forward movement.

Cities that will survive the next ten years will be the ones that can manage its waste. We neglect this dimension at our own peril. Sadly, this aspect has not received the total attention it deserves today in almost all our cities except for minor initiatives in certain pockets. Waste management is not simply a matter of collection and disposal. It involves building a whole set of working partnerships.

The energy of the voluntary sector needs to be harnessed. It has been demonstrated successfully, but unless the core management is organised in municipal competence, initiatives will remain small and not scalable. The health of our citizenship is dependent on the success of waste management practices. Otherwise we can shave off at least five years from the average life spans of those living the city.

We will need to couple the waste management architecture with water management. Let us take politics out of these civic services and make it a provider-receiver relationship. Pay as per use has to be the norm unless there is a rich municipality that can dispense these services free of cost. The truth is that there is nothing like a rich municipality in India. There are no strict monitoring protocols for ensuring quality supply of drinking water. At any rate, none are followed. Even in our metropolises, the quality is below average world standards. This is because we do not care and there is no one to seek compliance. The citizenship by and large remains grateful that at least basic resources are available. Ground water levels in most cities are at alarmingly low levels in most cities.

Only city planning and a thorough knowledge of geography can address this problem. A city’s growth has to be engineered to ensure that settlements are built around water sources or at least in proximity to these areas. These are not economic locations. In India we need to be conscious of these factors for city growth. Only the municipality is fully empowered and has the capacity to navigate and guide growth. Yes, we know that the present state of its capacities are at an abysmal level. However, the capacity of State governments are no better and urban issues are not on their horizons, except to acquire cheap land under the guise of public service and then sell it at a high price to meet financial deficits of the state exchequer. Essentially, the citizen is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The next on the priority list for any civic body has to be a competent public transport network. Numerous cars and scooters are dependent on fossil fuels. Greater fossil fuel consumption leads to greater pollution levels. Consequently, the air quality has suffered immensely. Indeed, we need to connect the main city with its linkages, in order to maintain downward pressure on prices of our housing stock. For the same reason, social infrastructure structures like colleges, schools, hospitals and cultural spaces must be dispersed throughout linked settlements. In fact they should precede residential and office settlements.

Tramways and electric buses are necessities and no longer last options, due to rising costs. We need to bring in professionals, who have anchored such projects and conceived them ab initio. Road engineering has been mediocre, technically and in terms of execution as well. As a result, we have endangered lives on a daily basis in every city. Despite, laws restricting location of settlements alongside highways, we have allowed this to happen and discounted the safety of its users.

We cannot underestimate the magnitude of the tasks ahead. There are many studies collecting dust in government shelves that state varying figures of the funds required. However, if we have even the remote ambition of initiating, regulating and pacing urban development, we have to work towards a whole gamut of tasks and address them holistically. Quick fixes and half solutions will prove to be even more disastrous.

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