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Letter from Mumbai: Messy urbanisation

November 23, 2015
Engineers walk past an under-construction cooling system plant inside the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City at Gandhinagar in the western Indian state of Gujarat.—Reuters file photo
Engineers walk past an under-construction cooling system plant inside the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City at Gandhinagar in the western Indian state of Gujarat.—Reuters file photo

KOCHI, the commercial hub of the southern Indian state of Kerala, is a relatively more liveable place than many other Indian cities. But walking along M.G. Road, a major commercial artery in Ernakulam, which forms part of greater Kochi, a pedestrian has to nowadays walk with her/his eyes on the ground.

A careless step and one could slip and fall, twisting an ankle, or even breaking a bone as the pavements and roads have been dug up for work.

Like many other Indian cities, residents here have also been waiting patiently for a metro rail system, work on which has been proceeding at a snail’s pace. But the agencies executing the multi-billion-rupee project have been doing a shoddy job, tearing up pavements and failing to resurface or level them.

Construction materials — including dangerous rods and bars — jut out from under the elevated bridge on which the metro will operate. At night, the poorly-lit street is a nightmare for any pedestrian, who could trip down and get badly hurt by the metal rods or the dug-up pavements.

Kochi symbolises what is wrong with urban India. A multiplicity of agencies, often working at cross-purposes, the absence of ‘city managers’ responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the city, and corrupt public bodies looting the taxpayer’s funds in league with unscrupulous contractors has made much of urban India unliveable.

A few weeks ago, the World Bank, in a damning indictment, said the country’s urbanisation process has been largely ‘messy and hidden’, resulting in the present crisis. Sri Mulyani Indrawati, the managing director of the World Bank, during her recent visit to the country, called for reforms in the sector to help the lives of millions of poor people living in the cities.

India is witnessing rapid urbanisation, with millions of people migrating from villages to cities and ‘rururban’ areas. According to the World Urbanisation Prospects, a report brought out last year by the United Nations, India is today home to the second-largest urban population at 410m. But between 2014 and 2050, India’s urban areas are expected to add another 400m people.

In the past, especially in the pre-reforms era before the 1990s, most Indian politicians were focussed only on issues relating to farmers and rural dwellers. Cities were neglected and there was hardly any funding for urban areas.

But the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by the Congress began splurging money on urban-focussed projects such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. The current BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime is also pursuing a similar path, allocating billions of rupees for urban projects including one covering 100 ‘smart cities’, and another relating to the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transportation (AMRUT).

Recently, the government allocated more than Rs50bn for another ‘ambitious’ project, the Shyama Prasad Mukherji Rurban Mission (SPMRM), which aims to develop a cluster of ‘smart villages.’

Although the objectives of missions such as JNNURM and SPMRM are indeed good, the fact remains that large resources are handed over by the central government to state governments and local bodies, many of whom misuse the funds.

The JNNURM, for instance, allocated billions of rupees for impractical projects including bus rapid transit systems (BRTS) and cycling paths. In several cities, local politicians squandered away the money on worthless projects, with some mayors and elected officials even criss-crossing the globe on so-called study tours.


WHILE politically the Congress and the BJP are diametrically opposed to each other, economically both believe in huge government spending especially on mega projects that may not necessarily be effective. And they both want the tax payer to shoulder the burden.

Last week, the NDA government quietly followed in the footsteps of its predecessor, imposing a 0.5pc Swachh Bharat cess on taxable services, to fund another high profile project, which had been launched amidst great fanfare by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (The UPA government had introduced an education cess to fund its Right to Education legislation).

The Swachh Bharat initiative did catch the imagination of the nation when it was launched last year by Modi, but expectedly it degenerated into mere symbolism, with ministers and other elected members exploiting it for photo-ops.

Piles of garbage keep mounting in most cities in India, and local bodies scarcely bother to clear them. But ministers, with brooms in their hands, pose for photos, all in the name of rolling out a ‘swachh’ (cleanliness) drive.

The new cess will generate about Rs100bn in revenues in a full year. Much of it would be shared by the centre with the state governments and local elected bodies, but the past track record of government bodies in spending tax money is pathetic.

Politicians generally believe that cities can be transformed — and the urban ugliness washed away — by spending large sums on pet projects of theirs. But unless citizens become aware about the need to maintain cleanliness, no amount of public spending is likely to result in a Swachh Bharat.

The recent Diwali celebrations saw the affluent spending large sums on firecrackers (as they do every year). But on most mornings, the streets of Mumbai (and most other metros) would be seen littered with the shells of exploded firecrackers and other garbage dotting the landscape.

During the Diwali and other vacations, hundreds of thousands of city-dwellers head out to the beaches or mountains to celebrate. But they leave behind a mess (including plastic bags) that remains uncleared for several days, choking water bodies or polluting hilly areas.

Last week, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, together with the BJP-dominated municipal corporations, launched a unique initiative to tackle the sloppiness in cities. The Delhi government, together with the local bodies, launched a Swachh Delhi app, which saw more than 2,000 complaints — relating to uncleared garbage and construction debris.

Published in Dawn, Business & Finance weekly, November 23rd, 2015