Cities & Architecture

Urban Chaos May Grow Due to Lack of Proper Planning and Policies, Cautions Survey

New Delhi: With India’s urban population set to grow from 400 million to 800 million in the next 35 years, the country is unprepared to handle this growth well as of now. The Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems (ASICS), which seeks to provide an objective basis to evaluate the quality of governance in our cities, has revealed that although Mumbai and Thiruvananthapuram ranked the highest of the 21 cities surveyed, with a score of 4.2 out of 10 each, they still lagged behind London and New York, which were chosen as the benchmark cities with 9.4 and 9.7 points respectively.

Kolkata, Pune, Bhopal, Delhi and Chennai are some of the other cities that have done well, whereas Chandigarh, Jaipur, Ludhiana, Dehradun and Bhubaneswar sit at the bottom of the 21-city table in the ASICS report, prepared by the Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy.

Releasing the findings of the survey here on Monday, Srikanth Viswanathan, co-ordinator for advocacy and reforms, and research and insights at Janaagraha, said that although “for decades, we have been repeatedly confronting the same quality of life challenges in our cities,” the root causes of the problems faced by Indian cities have not been identified and addressed.

This, Viswanathan said, is exemplified by the fact that while crores of rupees have been spent on urban projects, beginning with the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, for over a decade and now on AMRUT, Smart Cities Mission and the Swachh Bharat Mission, the same period has witnessed the floods in Mumbai, the garbage crisis in Bengaluru, and more recently, the air pollution crisis in Delhi and the Chennai floods. These, he said, “are alarm bells that more of the same solutions, i.e. a series of patchwork projects, will not suffice…the disease needs to be treated and not just the symptoms.”

Survey findings

The annual survey was undertaken in order to highlight the root causes of the ills that plague the city systems based on the four components of the city-systems framework: urban planning and design; urban capacities and resources; empowered and legitimate political representation; and transparency, accountability and participation.

The 21 cities were chosen based on their population. While five cities had a population of 5-10 million or more, 12 had 1-5 million people and the remaining four had populations of half a million to a million.

For the purpose of the survey, 11 principal questions and 83 detailed parameters were used, and the cities with a higher score is thought to be more likely to deliver a better quality of life over the medium and long-term.

Discussing the reasons for Chandigarh’s low score, Viswanathan said the score reflected how the city did not have a sound system of delivery and was perceived to be doing well earlier because it had been planned well in 1940. “But that does not mean it would continue to do well in future without necessary interventions,” he added.

He said Bengaluru had declined drastically as a city between 2000 and 2010 when its population more than doubled from around 4 million to 8.5 million. The unplanned growth led to traffic problems, pressure on civic infrastructure and many businesses began moving out of the city due to a loss in productivity. But, with some corrective measures over the last year Bengaluru has moved up the rankings, from 18 to 12.

Through the examples of Chandigarh and Bengaluru, ASICS sought to underscore that it had relied on an objective benchmarking of the 21 cities through 83 questions, covering 112 parameters, and by adopting a systematic, data-driven approach towards urban governance it has avoided focus on the dysfunctional aspects of Indian cities, which are most noticed by citizens.

Rather than looking at cities the way citizens do – through the prism of potholed roads, lack of 24×7 water supply, unfettered proliferation of slum settlements or over-stretched public transport – the ASICS survey sought to highlight the flawed legislation, policies, processes and practices that lie at the root of these issues.

Vishwanathan said with its rich data and insights on city-systems, ASICS would aid elected and administrative leaders across levels to identify specific reform agendas for their cities. “A city blueprint to effect transformative, holistic change or specific city-system blueprints such as a Municipal Finance Blueprint or a Citizen Participation Blueprint could be logical next steps. It is for state governments to take the leadership in transforming the quality of our city-systems through such actionable blueprints,” he said.

The survey also threw up some interesting facts. It revealed that 12 of the 21 cities had archaic laws dating back to the 1960s-1980s and that none of these laws reflected the current or long-term demands of urbanisation.

It also said that while Delhi was the only city with spatial development plans, Chandigarh, despite being a planned city, scored poorly as it did not have a contemporary Planning Act and neither did it possess metropolitan- or ward-level SDPs.

The survey also found that there was huge variance in the budget and actual spending of the cities, with only six of the 21 having realistic budgets with a less than 15% variance. On the other hand, this variance was exceptionally high in Thiruvananthapuram at 79%, Bengaluru at 61% and Hyderabad at 24%.

Recommendations 

Coming to the issue of there being severe under-capacity in staffing, Anil Nair, senior manager for advocacy at Janaagraha, said not only was there a lack of specialisation in urban services, even performance management was not mandated in any city. He lamented that while the work of municipal commissioners required some level of expertise, frequent changes were the norm, with Raipur having had eight commissioners in the last five years and Jaipur and Bengaluru six each in the same period.

Similarly, the survey pointed to the terms of mayors being rather short in most cities, with several cities like Ahmedabad and Bengaluru changing them every year. The survey recommended a five-year term for mayors, to let them settle in and focus on the job at hand.

It has also suggested amending the Municipal Corporation Act to devolve all 18 functions to the urban local bodies as stated under Schedule 12 of the Constitution of India, and the grant of reasonable powers to the council over budgets, expenditure, investments, loans and certain city-specific policies.

Calling for greater transparency, accountability and participation, the survey has also sought for the adopting of open-data standards, and publishing both raw and synthesised data in the public domain. For this, it has also suggested creating a position of chief MIS officer with a team of specialist staff for the  regular and systematic release of accurate data relating to the operations and performance of the urban local body.