Transforming Indian Cities: Isher just doesn’t get it

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I first briefly review the book, and then I plead to all the mighty – please try to know what a city is and how it works before you go around building infrastructure.  Hope the Modi team get it before they spend large amounts ‘building’ Indian cities.  (Friends Ravi and Sudeshna gave me this book , thanks guys.)

Isher Judge Ahluwalia was born in Indore in MP and she moved out when she was 5 in the early 1950s she says.  This was great, I suddenly felt a connection though I have never really interacted with her.  I too was born in Indore and moved out when I was 6 in the early 1970s.  She starts the book with a fond memory of Naulakha Bag – a public space full of imli and mango trees.  I was born about two decades later, and I do not remember any Naulakha Bag, but I do remember large bargad trees lining the main roads.  Those trees were cut later – in the eighties and nineties.  But back to the book.  When an economist starts a volume on cities with a fond memory of a public space in a second tier city, you suspect they have their hearts and minds in the right place.

There is an introduction, 6 sections, and 38 short chapters. The full spectrum of urban infrastructure and governance issues is covered (but not really as we shall discover later).  Examples of what she calls innovations and feel good stories abound and are in fact the central thesis of the book – good things are happening.  Many will like this style, and initially I did too.  But something started to nag the mind, and the feeling grew and grew until by the end all I could think was – She has missed it! I will concentrate on that key element.

This book is not about building cities but building infrastructure in cities.  And Isher Ahluwalia missed the key point of a city – cities are communities and infrastructure is needed to aid city communities – nothing more.  To repeat, we cannot transform cities in any sustainable manner merely by building infrastructure but if we can build communities building infrastructure will be much easier, will be ground up, will be better maintained and will grow organically.  But communities are best built when they have belief in their own abilities to cooperate and coordinate.  Empowering communities therefore is the only way to transform cities.

Once this central divergence is identified, we can see the book in a new light.  It is a decent log, not a great one.  It logs the great things that are happening, it does not try to take learnings from one place’s failure and see how another improved upon it.  It does not try to figure out why something works in one place and not in another.  It just shows how great ‘provision of infrastructure’ has been in some places.  How powerful Karl Marx is! He has infiltrated the minds of among the most important market oriented thinkers of our country.  Infrastructure is not something you ‘provide’, infrastructure is something that societies build for their own use.  This difference is not just a play of words, it is a difference in identifying what is required to rebuild Indian cities, it is a difference of prioritization, it is a difference of minds.

All Indian cities don’t have enough water, electricity, garbage collection, waste water drainage, sewage collection mechanisms, water recycling, public transport, public health efforts, law and order, public spaces, etc.  On the other hand there is too much of garbage, waste, pollutants in air and water, crime, clutter, disease etc.  In every city you will find many problems and a very few good examples.  By hi-lighting the problems we would not achieve anything (Sen and Dreze recently did that in a different context).  But in hi-lighting the so called successes also you don’t achieve anything but get a short term feel good (As Isher does).

To transform cities, we need to address the core problem.  Which means first identify the problem, and then chip away at it.

To me the key issue is – Why are Indian cities unable to take action to improve themselves?  Therefore the problem of an inability to govern and improve through own efforts is the core problem in India.  If you don’t identify this as the key problem you will recommend flawed solutions – whatever infrastructure you ‘provide’, and whatever e-governance initiatives you ‘fund’ will fall by the wayside.  All these stories that Harper Collins loved to print will simply fade away.

So urban governance is not working because urban governments are not working.  When something does not work well we empower it.  We try and figure out how good people can be attracted to the job.  We try and support those good people with resources in doing what they want to do.  And we try and put up good monitoring mechanisms that help us figure out how good performance can be rewarded.

Why don’t urban governments work?  Experts will give you many reasons, but there aren’t that many, in fact there is only one.  The person who runs a city is a commissioner appointed by the government, and the people we elect to run the city have little or no powers and largely ceremonial positions – mayors and councilors belong to this ilk. Imagine if Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee ran the country for 60 years.  That’s essentially what happened to cities in India.

The Mayoral system has been deliberately kept weak since before independence when the colonial rulers provided some ceremonial power to elected functionaries while their own appointed bureaucrats – commissioners, had the real power.  Changing this would not take that much effort and there is universal acceptance that at some point in time India will need to do this.

But if you were very energetic, and wanted to do more, you could as well.  Let mayors be re-electable so that they get a reward for doing work, increase their duration from a single year to (say) three years so that they get some time to do good work, let the commissioner (the IAS officer) report to the mayor so that they have the bureaucracy reporting to them.  Mayors are powerful globally, time we empowered them in India as well.

Once we get the mayoral system working, rather than the few hundred people in the Planning Commission, thousands of local level functionaries would worry about making their neighborhoods better.

But bureaucrats are naturally different.  Bureaucrats are trained to keep up the process, not to bring about change.  So if they do even one thing which is a bit different from the standard pushing files regime, the government calls it an innovation.  Let us empower local people first by making the local government answerable to local communities.  We would then not need to be elated over how some bureaucrat is cleaning garbage in some city.  Or how another babu is charging for water in another.  We would then feel elated on how a city’s residents have managed to get themselves 24×7 access to water.

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