Posted in Urban India

Quality of Life in an Indian Context

Quality of Life is being increasingly discussed in India – the older generation laments its passing and TV Gurus propose that we use it to measure the Government’s performance before the next election. Then again, there are sporadic reports from foreign agencies ranking Indian cities globally at 116, or 126, or whatever. And we shake our heads in sorrow. But have you ever wondered how ‘quality’ of life can be measured with such accuracy in ‘quantities’? And who exactly is measuring it and why?

The whole QOL craze is a product of our increasingly interconnected global economy. Multinationals needed an easy base number to calculate the salaries of expatriate workers and an index was needed to work out the costs of children’s education, medical care, and ‘hardship’ allowances for conveniences unavailable in a foreign posting.

The best known of these indices is the Mercer Index for Quality of Life. It evaluates local living conditions in more than 450 cities according to 39 factors, grouped in 10 categories: political and social environment, economic environment, cultural environment, medical and health considerations, schools and education, public services and transportation, recreation, consumer goods availability, rental housing including household appliances, furniture and maintenance services, and lastly, natural environment/climate and record of natural disasters.

QOL Determinants

As expected, the prime cities of over-resourced and underpopulated Western Europe, Australia or Canada take the top spots. Interestingly, if we list the best 20 cities on the Mercer Index and compare them with the 20 most populous cities, we will find that not one city from the second list figures in the first. So, one can safely conclude that as a city grows in size, beyond its carrying capacity, the first casualty will always be the quality of life of its citizens.

Does this mean that the world’s largest urban agglomerations are doomed to linger in the nether regions of such scales year after year – with their citizens forever deprived of a decent quality of life? I don’t think so.

Instead of constantly validating our happiness by western criteria, why can’t Indian (and Asian) cities set their own standards for judging Quality of Life? These would be firmly anchored in each country’s social, cultural and political realities and would resonate well with the people, besides comparing one city with another on the true quality of life; not just the level of services available.

To work out an Indian QOL Index, the following questions need to be asked. These can be answered using our own urban experience and data locally available with various government agencies, parastatals, professional bodies and NGOs.

Political and Social Environment

  • Do women feel safe living by themselves and traveling at all hours across the city?
  • What is the city’s performance in Centrally-sponsored programmes for the poor – in terms of livelihoods, self-help groups and subsidized housing?
  • What is the Police record in tackling crime and maintaining Law and Order in the city?
  • Are there mohalla (community) committees to defuse a potential conflict before violence breaks out?
  • How active is the voluntary sector in the city?
  • How successful are public awareness and sensitization campaigns on various social issues?

Economic Environment

  • What is the city’s contribution to the Central and State exchequer in terms of various direct and indirect taxes?
  • What is the access and availability of banking and financial services in the city?
  • Are there Special Economic Zones, IT Parks and other facilities, earmarked for industries and services?
  • Does the city have a domestic/international airport, a railway junction/station?
  • How well is the city connected to national and international e-retail networks?
  • What are the rents per square foot for commercial premises in the city’s CBD?
  • How many businesses in the city are registered under the Shop and Establishments Act?
  • How efficient are the public utilities like power and broadband connectivity?
  • What is the standard of municipal services in the areas of public transport, water supply, sanitation, solid waste management, etc?

Housing and related issues

  • What percentage of the city’s economy and housing are in the informal sector?
  • How many notified slums does the city have?
  • What is the average monthly rent for a 1000 sq ft apartment?
  • What are the average monthly maintenance charges in a cooperative society?
  • What percentage of the city’s housing is owner-occupied?

Schools and Education

  • Is the number of schools adequate for 100% coverage of the school going population?
  • What is the average student to teacher ratio in the city schools?
  • Do municipal and ZP schools offer children the same learning opportunities as private schools?
  • What is the availability and affordability of institutions of higher learning? Are they equally accessible to locals as to outsiders?

Health and Sanitation

  • How does the Public Health machinery respond to a crisis, epidemic or disaster?
  • Is Primary Health Care (PHC) available and accessible in every corner of the city?
  • What is the city’s doctor to patient ratio?
  • What is the city’s hospital bed to patient ratio?
  • How many specialist medical and diagnostic services are available in the city’s hospitals?
  • How many 24-hour pharmacies does the city have?
  • What is the city’s record in mass immunization campaigns?
  • What percentage of the city’s housing is connected to the main sewage line?
  • How many public toilets does the city have per 1000 users?

Natural Environment

  • Is there a city policy on monitoring and limiting air, noise and water pollution?
  • What are the average annual pollution levels for the city as a whole?
  • Are the public spaces and green cover available in the city adequate for its population?
  • Is the water supply in the city adequate per WHO norms? How much is actually supplied per day per capita?

Cultural Environment

  • Does the city government finance, subsidize and encourage cultural activities?
  • Does the city organize annual festivals of Literature, Art, Music, Drama?
  • How many Libraries, Art Galleries, Drama theatres, Cinema theatres and multiplexes does the city have?
  • Are there local handicrafts and artisan groups? Does the city provide them subsidized business support?

And so on…

Such an Index will not only be meaningful to Indians, but will also facilitate policy formulation at the city level, and allow cities to compete with one another to offer a better quality of life to all their citizens.


I am a trainer of Government Officials and Elected Representatives, specializing in the urban and municipal sector. I have also written extensively on Urban Governance, Poverty, Development, Social Accountability and Municipal Management in the Indian context, and wish to share these writings with you through this blog.

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