Posted in Published Article, Urban Issues

How we can transform cities to make them more resilient

Published in Times of India Pune on 27 December 2019. Lost and found. Posted here for you.

Indian cities have faced tremendous problems over the last few years and in most cases the action or inaction of various levels of Government have been to blame. For instance, while poor dam management and concretization of natural drain systems have caused flooding, poor regulation of illegal structures by municipal bodies is the main reason for factory fires and wall collapses.

So, the question is, how do we make our cities more resilient?

The Rockefeller Foundation defines Urban Resilience as: “… the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.”

It is our belief that Indian towns and cities suffer from chronic stresses, rather than acute shocks like say, earthquakes and tsunamis, which plague other metros. These chronic stresses include shortage of drinking water, annual flooding, building collapse, seasonal viral disease outbreaks, heightened air pollution in post-harvest season, traffic congestion, and increasing social unrest.

Most of these stresses can be tackled at the city level itself if our municipal bodies are enabled to provide adequate services like water supply, sanitation and waste management and have the appropriate social infrastructure like schools, clinics, hospitals and first responder services. State Governments can then ensure the equitable distribution of natural resources, like water, among urban and rural areas and provide the intercity connectivity to promote economic development. The Central Government can ensure that the local bodies are adequately funded.

Alas, this is not so. In fact, our cities have never been as incapacitated and under-resourced as they are now, since Independence.

The reasons for this are manifold. As the contribution of the agricultural sector to GDP has shrunk over the years, Central Governments have become more and more dependent on cities with their manufacturing and services sectors, to balance the Union Budget. In its haste to standardize, the Government has rushed through with a Goods and Services Tax (GST) to replace a buoyant tax like Octroi, and large metros like Mumbai and Pune have been severely hit by this change.

Our municipal bodies are still caged in outdated laws like the Bombay Municipal Corporation Act of 1888 and its brood of municipal acts across the sub-continent. The colonial mindset built into these Acts, is a basic mistrust of the ‘natives’ – so you have an Officer selected by the Centre, posted by the State to run a Local Government. With neither a memory of the past, nor an understanding of the present, he or she is expected to formulate a vision for the city’s future!

Many attempts have been made to strengthen local government through the 74th Amendment to the Constitution (1992) and the setting up of Finance Commissions, but political interests at the State level have not allowed true devolution of power to local level. A Model Municipal Law formulated in 2000 had few takers and upgrading the post of Mayor to a sort of CEO also came to nothing.

The Police and Fire Departments of the city of New York come under the Mayor’s command – remember Mayor Giuliani of 9/11 fame? A visit to the website of the Mayor of Shanghai is also a revelation – not one King, Emir, President or PM on a State Visit to China misses calling upon the Mayor of Shanghai and discussing international deals and treaties. That is what an empowered Mayor means in practical terms, and I am quite sure that barely 5% of our citizens even know the mayor’s name in Indian cities.

The Municipal Corporations have also been losing out on their human capital, as infrastructure projects are now largely privatized. The erstwhile JNNURM and its subsequent progeny brought in a whole new business model of city management – so much so that a City’s vision document was prepared by one consultant, the DPR by another, and sanctioned at the Ministry by a third consultant. I leave the rest to your imagination…

In the heavily financed ‘housing for the poor’ schemes, projects were again privatized, with NGOs and commercial builders replacing Consultants.

In short, when the Municipal Corporation is so weakened in terms of its functions, finances and human resources, how can it be expected to make the city resilient?

Eventually, it is left to the common citizens to pull the city up by its bootstraps after every man-made or natural disaster. One may sing the praises of the eternal ‘spirit’ of Mumbai, but every time there is a flood, a bomb blast, a terror attack, a collapsed building or a fire, the spirit becomes a little dimmed. In the long run, it is not a catastrophe that kills a person or a city but a chronic disease which hollows out the body or the city from within. Mumbai had been labelled a dying city by many experts since the 2011 Census, and one dreads to think what the 2021 Census will reveal about our tired metros…

What is needed is to put in place systems, institutions and mechanisms which make citizen participation in local government a fact of daily life, so that this immense force for good can be rapidly mobilised in an emergency .

A good example of channeling citizen effort is the Kudumbashree Scheme of Kerala:

Related:

Urbanisation Trends in India

Read more: How we can transform cities to make them more resilient

Author:

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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