Designed to fail! The truth about the Indian city #urbanization #governance

I am not terribly excited by conspiracy theories. But when reality stares at you in the face too often and reality resembles a gigantic conspiracy theory, it is hard to ignore it. And that’s when life gets exciting!

I had my curtain raiser moment this morning, when I was attending a discussion on JNNURM and Indian cities this morning in which a group of very credible citizens and activists from Gurgaon were interacting with experts from rating agency ICRA to see how data could help influence a more robust citizen movement to improve this city.

What made this morning’s experience different from other presentations was the clarity it offered on core issues that have bothered me for a while. In our sector, we constantly run into systemic issues. Working with the government and running up against non-transparent ways of functioning is one source of frustration, of course. But more than that it is the growing awareness with every assignment you work on, that every inefficiency is part of a carefully orchestrated alternative system that is designed to render the official processes non-functional and redundant.

This is certainly true of Indian cities. As an entity, the city is getting short shrift in the Indian bureaucratic and political system. Despite being of enormous importance, cities are largely poorly governed, lagging behind in infrastructure and offer low quality of life and poor efficiencies.

The big questions we constantly ask are:

  • Why are cities such a low priority for state government despite the growing importance of the ‘urban’ as a source of income and growth?
  • If urbanization is a reality, as we know it to be today, why are city governments not more autonomous and powerful? Why is the Mayor a persona non grata in the Indian city?

Without going into a long historic discussion of this issue (one that has been written about extensively), let me offer the few points that emerged that struck me as interesting.

Shailesh Pathak from SREI, who has  many years of government service behind him, offered an interesting thesis. One that surmises that the growing importance of cities threatens the existing political establishment. Therefore, despite the 74th amendment, attempts to convert to systems where the Mayor is directly elected and therefore a powerful representative have actively been reversed or suppressed. He offered Maharashtra as an example.

Moreover, Shailesh also explained that the system of rotational reservation in city government ensures that councilors cannot stand for elections from the same ward twice in a row. It is therefore, we surmise, impossible to build a strong electoral base and commitment to a single ward and quite hard to get re-elected. This effectively prevents a class of city-level powerful political leadership from rising and MLAs and MPs can continue to be centers of power, often stepping in to give largesse or take decisions that councilors have been pushing for months without success. This sort of situation has been corroborated during my discussions with councilors in Gurgaon, including Ward 30 councilor Nisha Singh who was present at this morning’s meeting.

Cities at present are seen by State governments as the proverbial milking cow. Sources of revenue, to be blunt, both above the board and largely below it! Given the short term view that politicians usually have (by definition, I might add), this revenue is maximized in the ‘growth’ phase of a city, when land is available to be urbanized, zoned as per a Master Plan and much money is to be made for those who have access to this privileged information beforehand! Even above the table, money is to be made building real estate and setting up infrastructure, providing services, etc. Once this growth spurt is over, governments (read politicians and bureaucrats) tend to lose interest in performing the mundane functions of governance and service provisioning, as there are no big bucks in this any more.

In most cities across India, this is the situation. Of all the items that must be under the local government’s ambit, as per the 74th amendment, the most vital functions of urban planning, development control and infrastructure development are usurped by the State government using parastatal agencies like development authorities. The city is reduced to small functions, usually to be performed in a fractured landscape of jurisdictions. This is intensely frustrating for all those who operate at the city level (planners, bureaucrats, politicians, civil society, professionals, etc) and the general sentiment becomes one of cynicism and despair.

We cannot continue to live this paradox in which cities full of energy, enterprise and promise are log-jammed into an uncompromising political scenario. Yet, every conference and talk you attend, every report that is released re-iterates this situation of extremes, but offers absolutely no solutions! Take for example, this news item.

Delhi HT BoylePaul Boyle, who heads UK-based ESRC, spins the big story about the future of Delhi’s development as a mega city even as he outlines nearly everything that contributes to life as we desire it (all sorts of infrastructure basically) as a ‘problem’! I find this sort of position absolutely ridiculous and a fallout of a vision that is only driven by economic development figures like the GDP without an eye out for overall inclusive growth. But the essential message is about the importance of the city as a driver of growth, which we cannot and must not deny.

We have no choice but to ensure that cities function well given the trend towards urbanization that we cannot stem (another fact that the political class keeps turning a blind eye to). If cities in India need to meet their potential, it is pretty clear that some significant changes need to happen. In political mindsets, in legal and administrative processes, in institutional mechanisms and in the attitudes of urban citizens who must be more discerning and more demanding for a quality of life that they most certainly deserve.

Sharing experiences, opinions on informal urbanism

Hearing from practitioners, government officials, researchers and funders on their experiences in engaging with informality in cities has been quite invigorating. We have spent the last couple of months gearing up for this workshop at micro Home Solutions, mostly focusing on getting on board the right partners and then figuring out logistics. I must say it has been a most satisfying experience to see it come together well.

Informality was a contested term at the day’s first session where URBZ took the lead. Rahul and Matias took exception to the connotation that everything in the informal realm is sans form,the objected to the dichotomies of formal-informal, urban-rural that we cling to and called for a more nuanced understanding if the terms used. The stance generated a lot of debate and their presentation of their Homegrown Cities project fascinated me, in which the strategy is to support local contractors and crowdfund to support cost of expertise, and thus construct houses in informal areas, ultimately to form a cooperative of homegrown homes and a neighbourhood that sustains itself through self-organisation. Quite an undertaking! Be sure to visit their Facebook page and website to know more and contribute!

Nithya and Vinaya from Transparent Chennai had put together a short exercise for all of us. The task of filling out a form to apply for a water and sewage connection scheme by the Chennai water utility as though we were one of three persons they had profiled! Threw up many points. Complexity of paperwork, hidden costs to avail the scheme, eligibility issues, a huge push towards rent seeking behaviour because of the complexities and loopholes. Ineffective for the common man and certainly excludes slum dwellers who really need these services badly! Complimenting this exercise were comments from Patrick Heller on his research on citizenship with regards to accessing basic services. Julia King’s walk through of providing community based sanitation in Savda Ghevra, a resettlement colony outside Delhi opened the doors for participation by DUSIB (Delhi Shelter improvement Board), which was a great value add and gave the chance for us to ask difficult questions from government officers face to face. I must say all the exchanges were surprisingly respectful and honest.

The concluding session for the day on access to finance saw a micro finance player and National Housing Bank present diametrically opposite approaches to lending for the poor. Lalit Kumar from NHB did a great job of fielding questions from the audience on why schemes like the credit guarantee fund or refinancing for construction of affordable housing are unsuitable for the incremental situation. The takeaway from this was that precious little can be done with formal finance unless govt moves to grant legal titles to slum dwellers. The question of why it is such a no-no to experiment with higher risk when MFIs have has such good experiences with repayment was well taken. Sandeep Farias from Elevar Equity who was moderating the session along with CPR‘s Partha Mukhopadhyay, suggested an ‘incremental’ build up towards finance schemes that incorporate more risk. Quite appropriate, given the day’s discussions

Looking forward to tomorrow’s sessions on building safety and disaster preparedness in incremental communities and a closing panel that discusses ways forward for policy.

Guest post from Udai: A day at the passport office!

So much fun to have my nearly nine-year old write on my blog! Udai (and his parents) had quite an experience trying to get him a new passport at the Passport Seva Kendra in Gurgaon. You could say we spent some quality time together. I would say it is a waste of time when things could be much simpler and faster! Here is his very to the point description…

A day at the passport office

I was thinking ‘how much time it would take to make the passport?’ when we reached. When the form checking person checked our form he sent us to the A.P.O [a scary dragon lady]. She checked our form too. She said an affidavit was missing. Then we made the affidavit. We got sent to the A.P.O again. This time there was a problem with an ID. Then papa went to print it in a better way. We got our brown file at last [that got us a token number].

After some time we went to counter A [where the TCS staff verified and scanned documents]. We had it done quickly. We waited to go to B counter and we made a joke- the “bees are not buzzing”! This was because the counters closed for lunch for one hour and we had to wait. Then we cleared the B counter [where the Passport officials verified the documents as well, asking strange questions and with stern expressions on their faces]. Then we did the C counter quickly [a final check and cancellation of the old passport if new one is granted] and it was finished. The whole thing took us from 10:45 in the morning till 4 in the evening.

Image

Done and dusted!

I must tell you though, that it has been a week today and the passport shows no signs of arriving. The status still shows it is under process even though I have a ‘granted’ receipt in my possession! I suppose I have to wait till the police bother to verify. Sigh!

Dissatisfied citizens of India, let’s reinforce the positive please! July 13, 2012

So it’s official. No less than 59% of us Indians are dissatisfied with the state of India and most of us blame the government for the sorry state of affairs. I agree, it’s frustrating. When we read the news, watch TV, talk with friends about politics, caste wars, molested women, apathetic cops, poverty, torture, espionage, violence, potholes, road rage, it is natural to feel helpless. We think of ourselves as victims, powerless figures that cannot make a difference. I feel that way too. But I know that is the root of the problem, this viewing of problems as residing on someone elses plate.

Each one of us are contributing to the state of affairs and we need to look into ourselves first. Little things matter, and not just in the sense of little drops constituting an ocean. Rather, they matter because if you get the attitude right for little things, there is a chance you will have a more balanced perspective for the larger picture as well.

For instance, I can visualize many homes that tut-tut at the Guwahati molestation incident, but do not raise their sons to respect women. Many middle class parents talk about gender equality, but refuse to send their daughters to study away from home because she is a ‘girl’, even at the cost of her missing an excellent opportunity. And so and so forth, issues related to safety and dignity for women seem particularly hard to crack. We’ve been a chauvinistic society for centuries, but this degeneration into completely obstinate and meaningless gender disparity is scary on many levels. We live with so much fear that its impossible to view the problem in an objective manner. We’ve got so used to this discourse, that the anger that seethes over every time something horrific happens simply vanishes in a while, leading us back to our state of complacence.

So what can we do? For starters, let’s reinforce the positivity in our life. Let’s renounce the philosophy of fear and protectiveness. Let’s make small efforts to be nice to people around us, the people we meet in the lift, on the streets, on the way to work, the office boy, the maid, the person next to you in the Metro. It’s made a huge difference to my personal attitude since I decided to smile at everyone that catches my eye on my way to work. Perhaps some people think I’m batty, but at least I give them entertainment!

As I read endless tweets denouncing the Guwahati molestation and the crazy Panchayat decision from Bhagpat, UP that trates women like cattle, I made a decision. On the days I find negative information washing away my enthusiasm for life, I shall look for the positives and blog about them. Enough in enough! I do not believe this life isn’t worth living any more, nor am I prepared to give up on the future. Against reason, I seek the positives…take special note, my friend who wants me to change my blog name to grumblinginthecity! :)

 

We deserve responsible policing and safe cities- Jan 13, 2012

It’s Friday, the 13th and I’m not scared of the friends from the world beyond, but the weirdos from our own planet! Two stories reported by friends this week outline the precariously dangerous lives we lead in the urban environs of Delhi. One woman friend’s car was stopped by motorcyclists, who threatened and verbally abused her in a state of inebriation. Only her crisis management skills got her out of that situation safely. Another friend told me about a gory incident in which guys in an auto teased a woman two-wheelerist. They then lodged a stick on the handle of her scooty, bringing it down and dragging her on the tarmac. No one stopped to help and the girl needs cosmetic surgery and is nursing a broken jaw as well!

Stuff like this is a nightmare; we all (and its not only women, I know men friends who have faced worse) hope to God we aren’t involved in any such situation. We can talk endlessly about why these things are happening. In my view, these are clear fallouts of rapid, unplanned urbanization; the clash of conflicting cultures and lifestyles and above all, a large young, unemployed, direction-less population.

The problem is no one is addressing these issues. These situations need a two-fold response; swift disciplinary action by the police and a parallel awareness and outreach campaign that goes out to urban villages, low-income settlements, RWAs and even corporate organizations in the city.

The outreach should:

1- clearly outline what is wrong

2- publicize a zero-tolerance policy

3- set up a complaint/counseling cell & encourage people to approach it

4- hold workshops to sensitize people about what to do in such a situation, and to talk about their experiences openly

However, all of this will only stand good if there is a committed backing from the police force and political class. The Gurgaon police however, in a recent interview, blamed the deteriorating crime scenario on “migrants” and that seriously confused me! The large majority of Gurgaon’s population would come under this banner, rich and poor, illiterate and super-educated alike! It’s easy to target the poor (and I mean economically impoverished) Bengali and Bihari migrants, but who disciplines the moneyed, lawless testosterone-charged local youths who brandish desi guns and strut around like they still own the land the rest of us live on? Doesn’t law apply to everyone? And since the city is one of the highest tax generating areas in the country, what right does the police have to differentiate between locals and migrants, given many of us migrants pay taxes here? Whatever protection we need, we are entitled to it, right?

I know this sounds like a rant….my apologies. I also know that the perception of crime can be vastly greater than the reality. However, when the authorities make excuses instead of coming down hard on goons, it doesn’t instill much confidence in citizens. Living in gated communities and stepping into a lawless hell outside your gates doesn’t make for sensible living. We all need to work harder and make more noise for those in power to understand, recognize and act on this!