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Know your city to set it right

Last updated on: April 24, 2013 16:37 IST

Know your city to set it right

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Subir Roy

The ratio of municipal employees to population is better, but Indian cities are still at around a sixth of New York, notes Subir Roy

India's cities are in poor shape and it is axiomatic that unless you have proper systems of governance in place working through the right kind of institutions, there is no hope for their uplift.

Janaagraha, a Bengaluru-based non-governmental organisation that focuses on urban issues and has access to advice from global experts, has conducted a 'city-systems' survey of 11 leading Indian cities.

By rating cities on the basis of four attributes -- planning, resources, empowerment and accountability -- the survey hopes to tell us who is falling short where (or who scores where) so that we can have a logical action plan to make the cities livable and capable of growing healthily.

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Image: A boy attends Independence Day celebrations at a school in a slum area in Siliguri.
Photographs: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

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This exercise has reinforced the consensus around a must-do list so that we can stop arguing and start working on it.

To have a sort of 'control' as in an experiment, the survey also asks citizens what they think of the quality of life in these cities and how they rate their systems.

This yields some fascinating divergences. Not only do experts and citizens not always think alike, citizens sometimes end up liking a place whose systems they themselves may not rate highly, or vice versa.

This should tell us that we do not have all the answers, perhaps never will, and that there will always be a subjective edge to why we like or dislike cities.

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Image: A view of the Charminar.
Photographs: Reuters
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In terms of overall ranking, the 11 cities score thus in the city-systems survey: Mumbai (1), Kolkata (2), Hyderabad (3), Pune (4), Delhi and Kanpur (5), Jaipur (7), Chennai (8), Ahmedabad (9), and Bengaluru and Surat (10).

Just to maintain perspective, London and New York have also been measured by the same attributes and are, of course, way ahead.

If you are wondering why Kolkata has done so well, it is because it scores highly on planning (the only city with a metropolitan planning committee mandated by the Constitution) and empowerment (through a mayor with a five-year tenure and a mayor's council).

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Image: A view of the India Gate in New Delhi.
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But citizens are not so impressed, giving a just-below-middling (sixth) rank to its quality of life.

Mumbai ranks first in the survey by being high on resources and accountability and middling in planning and empowerment.

Delhi leads in resources and planning, but it is near the bottom in empowerment and accountability.

Chennai ranks high on empowerment (directly elected mayor), but low on planning. Bangalore is at the bottom in empowerment and resources, but ranks high on planning. Hyderabad leads in transparency and ranks high on planning, but low on resources and empowerment.

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Citizens feel that Surat, Pune and Ahmedabad lead in quality of life and the laggards are Kanpur, Delhi and Bengaluru.

The best city systems, according to them, are in Surat, Ahmedabad and Chennai and the worst are in Kanpur, Kolkata and Bangalore. Citizens are consistent with most cities in that they give similar ranks in terms of quality of life and systems.

But there is a divergence in the case of Pune and Kolkata.

As the survey will be an annual affair, there is sure to be an improvement in design, which will make findings more consistent.

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Image: A building under construction in Mumbai.
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When citizens think of quality of life, uppermost in their minds are transport, clean water and cleanliness.

(If this be so, then how come Delhi, with its fabulous Metro, gets low marks on quality of life?)

When citizens think of city systems, uppermost in their minds are the effectiveness of the master plan (sounds doubtful), prevention of building violations and competence of civic officials.

Some of the additional information provided with the survey is highly useful. Per capita capital expenditure in Indian cities is under a tenth of New York's.

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Image: The city of Kolkata.
Photographs: Reuters

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The ratio of municipal employees to population is better, but Indian cities are still at around a sixth of New York.

A fourth state finance commission has been constituted in states that cover six out of the 11 cities.

So there is some hope for more resources.

But the problem is that responsibility for some of the vital functions in a city like land use and management, school education, and urban environment management and heritage is not in the hands of the respective urban local bodies in many instances.

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Image: Commuters ride inside a carriage of a Namma Metro train as it travels along an elevated track in the Indira Nagar area of Bengaluru.
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This makes the civic body a lightweight and creates a multiplicity of authorities.

Significantly, Surat and Ahmedabad, which score poorly under the city-systems survey but do well in citizens' perception of quality of life, have the highest number of functions under their civic bodies.

Do citizens sometimes have a better gut feeling of reality than structured surveys? This is not to argue that methodical surveys are unnecessary but to say that the process has just begun.


Image: A labourer carries bricks at a residential complex under construction on the outskirts of Ahmedabad.
Photographs: Amit Dave/Reuters

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