Posted in Published Article, Urban Governance

Development Plan remains only on Paper

Published in Times of India, Pune in 2018, Lost and found. Reposted here for you

We often read in papers about the DP or Development Plan of a city but barely 2% of us know what a DP is. The Development Plan of a city is its vision. It sets the agenda of what the city wants to do with itself in the next two to three decades. It takes into account the various public requirements of the city and reserves lands, whether public or private, for those purposes. The plan also proposes conservation and preservation of areas that have natural, historical or architectural importance.

There are two instruments of a Development Plan – Zoning, and Reservation.

ZONING is the means whereby compatible land uses are grouped together, and incompatible uses segregated – such as manufacturing industry and residential areas. RESERVATIONS for public purposes means reserving space for schools, colleges and educational institutions, medical and public health facilities, markets, social welfare and cultural institutions, theatres and places of public entertainment, religious buildings, government buildings, open spaces and playgrounds, natural reserves and sanctuaries, dairies, sites for public utilities such as water supply and sewerage, fire stations, other community sites, service industries and industrial estates. 

The Development Plan also makes provisions for the city’s transportation and communication system such as roads, railways, airways and waterways, and parking facilities.

In order to successfully implement the Development Plan, the municipal body needs to be empowered and this is done through Development Control Rules (DCR). These rules deal with the manner in which building permission can be obtained, the general building requirements, and aspects of structural safety and services. Access, layouts, open spaces, area and height limitations, lifts, fire protection, exits and parking requirements are all stipulated in the DCR. 

Similarly structural design, quality of material and workmanship, and inspections during construction are also spelt out. The control of floor space use, tenement densities, and the Transfer of Development Rights are some of the most crucial issues dealt with by the rules. These rules are also framed by the planning authority and are sanctioned with suitable changes by the State Government.

Although Development Planning is the path to city development all across the world, the sad fact is that in most Indian States, not even 10% of a DP gets actually implemented. This is because while the planning takes place at the State level, the implementation is left to the municipal body, which has limited resources to acquire land to implement various schemes. Local Governments are also preoccupied with meeting the daily needs of citizens and have neither the expertise nor the personnel for long term planning.

As a result, people go in for new construction in areas where the Development Plan has promised infrastructure which may never materialize, and the beleaguered municipal body then has to ‘retrofit’ the area with these facilities at ten times the original cost. Perhaps greater involvement and participation of the affected citizens in the planning process, from the beginning, may be the best solution to the growing problems of underserviced urban sprawl in Indian cities.


Indian Urban Planning in Limbo

Posted in Published Article, Urban India

Why we have no real say over our Public Transport Systems

Published in Times of India, Pune on 14 November 2019. Lost and found. Posted here for you.

In an article published almost exactly a year ago, I had pointed out the huge impact of British colonial rule on Indian cities and towns – especially their love of low-form urbanization, which had proved to be utterly unsuitable and unsustainable for India’s teeming millions.

By limiting the Floor Space Index (FSI – Built-up permitted wrt land available) in Indian cities, we have forced people to settle further and further from the city centre and their places of work, education and healthcare. Moreover, because our national priorities immediately after Independence were food security and rural distress, our cities never really had the resources to provide the public transport networks, which would make a sprawling city viable – as London is.

Any latter-day attempts at densification fail because our existing infrastructure like water pipes, sewerage lines, power supply, simply cannot cope with high rises. Both the ill-conceived JNNURM and its progeny AMRUT and the SMART cities programme have found the limits of retrospective infrastructure upgradation, to our (the taxpayers’) immense cost.

The lack of adequate public transport has inevitably led to a growth in private vehicles, increasing pollution, and unsustainable traffic congestion on our roads. Further, retrofitting today’s cities with public transport networks like the metro are hugely expensive – not just in terms of the capital outlay but also the opportunity and social costs of the upheaval caused during construction, as Pune citizens are only too aware of.

The sharp rise in the private ownership of motor vehicles and the multiple modes of private transport have made traffic management a nightmare, leading to an unacceptably high rate of serious and fatal road accidents. The upgradation of roads and networks is extremely expensive if done retrospectively and therefore the only way out is to integrate transport planning into urban planning at all levels – locality, city or region.

Just look at the facts:

  • There are over 210 million vehicles on Indian roads and more than 90% are privately owned
  • Percentage of land under road for Class I Indian cities is 16% compared to 29% in USA, with 1.6 million km of non-rural roads
  • Inadequate road length leads to congestion, pollution, higher fuel consumption, with peak hour speeds limited to 5 – 10 km/h
  • Suspended Particulate Matter in India’s 3 largest cities is greater than 3 – 4 times WHO maximum acceptable level
  • At the ground level we find that manufacturers use the same truck engine and chassis for all buses, and therefore, Indian cities have few, if any, buses especially designed for intra-city travel, further adding to the inefficiency of the system.

Part of the reason for the growing crisis has been that urban transport management in India is a case of all responsibility and no authority for local governments. For instance, it is the State Government which formulates Development Plans which lead to urban sprawl, but it is the local body which must provide subsidized public transport. Yet again, registration of new vehicles being a very lucrative source of income for State Governments, there is no incentive to limit their number, and it is left to local bodies to provide parking and road space for them.

When it comes to the building of new expressways and flyovers, the contracts are given either to large private firms or to parastatals like MSRDC, NHAI or BMRDA. It is noteworthy that ALL parastatals are accountable only to their respective State or Central Government, and not the local authorities.

The same is the case with rail-based transport systems like metros, which depend totally for expertise and execution on the Indian Railways and its subsidiaries, which are under the Central Government, and are seldom geared to handle local issues and concerns. Once these large projects are handed over, their maintenance and upkeep become a further responsibility for municipal bodies.

So, like everything else in India, we need a paradigm shift in our patterns of urban planning and urban governance – and that dear reader is unlikely in the near future…


Deteriorating Services and Infrastructure in India

Posted in Governance, Published Article

City tops Good Governance List, but here’s the reality

Published in Times of India, Pune on 6 June 2018. Lost and found. Posted here for you.

Citizens of Pune were quite pleased when they read a survey which made Pune the best governed city in India. Not so well known is the fact that it scored merely 5.1 out of 10, and all other Indian cities were below this midpoint. In comparison, London and New York scored 8.8!

Parameters such as urban capacities and resources, empowered and legitimate political representation, transparency, accountability, participation, urban planning and design were used to give marks.

Governance is one of those concepts that we all feel we understand. We also know that it is not merely ‘government’ but something more… We know that governance stretches beyond the political and bureaucratic framework and out into the various stakeholder groups in a city

Therefore, governance = government + citizen.

If this is the case, then the parameters of ‘good’ governance will also come in two categories: the first to measure the efficiency and effectiveness of the government machinery, and the second to measure how responsive, transparent, equitable and inclusive the citizen interface is.

Governance at all levels in a democracy is also expected to be participatory and accountable and to work on the basis of consensus orientation and the rule of law. These are the very criteria of good urban governance laid out by various UN bodies, and used in ranking cities across the world.

But is there any sense in comparing chalk and cheese?

Indian cities are hamstrung by laws which greatly curtail their autonomy and State Governments are in no hurry to devolve powers and resources to the local level despite 26 years of the 74 Constitutional Amendment. Our mayors continue to play a ceremonial role while real power vests almost exclusively with the Standing Committee and the bureaucracy. Compare this to western mayors who even control the local police, public health and education.

In other words, there isn’t much ‘governance’ a typical municipal body can deliver in India. No wonder then that the public perception of a local government is limited to water, sewerage, garbage and roads. Or as someone rather rudely expressed it: gutter, water, metre.

Even within this limited ambit, Pune could score higher than other cities just by enhancing its use of Information Technology in key administrative areas like granting building permissions, monitoring projects, redressing complaints and managing its finances. PMC has also undertaken several initiatives like municipal bonds for water supply schemes, supported by an elaborate techno-financial-legal policy framework, and this too has enhanced its ranking in terms of greater efficiency in governance.

While the efficiency of Urban Local Bodies has grown significantly in the last 10 years, the effectiveness of their actions is questionable. For example, we may be able to pay our Property Tax online in a jiffy, but is it possible to ever get a disputed assessment of your property tax looked at? Such efficiency without effectiveness is meaningless. The same is the case with access legislation, meant to enhance transparency. When the RTI became law in 2005, it met with great resistance in public bodies, but gradually, most government organisations have mastered the art of giving only the information asked for, often piecemeal and irrelevant, and good luck to the questioner if he wants to make any sense of it!

Most importantly, good governance should be both inclusive and equitable – and therein lies the rub. Just look at the social reality in India: With a mere 8% of India’s population holding a college degree, the knowledge divide in the country is enormous. And if you extend this further, it means that not only the entire senior bureaucracy and judiciary but an increasing number of Elected Representatives and almost all corporate businesses, mass media, NGOs and civil society groups are drawn from this 8%. As they between them take over 90% of the actions and decisions that profoundly affect the lives of the remaining 92%, how inclusive, equitable and participatory has our democracy really been?

Therefore, the inescapable conclusion is that merely making the government machinery more efficient will not hand us ‘good governance’ on a platter. It will have to flow from the ‘governed’ themselves, and how far they are enabled and empowered to expect and accept good governance…


Urbanization Trends in India

Posted in Published Article, Urban India

Why we must turn Regional Planning on its head, now

Published in Times of India, Pune on 28 March 2019. Lost and found. Posted here for you.

Thanks to the efforts of scholars like Dr Tharoor, we are becoming aware of the ravages of colonial rule in India. The bottom line is that all colonization throughout human history has had a dual commercial motive: firstly, through unjust taxation of a subjugated population, and secondly, through the stripping of a country’s natural and human resources.

As these resources had to be transported back to the mother country, it is only natural that post-colonial cities were essentially gateways for the export of raw materials and import of finished goods – whether as ports on the coast, or railheads inland. In India, the British extracted our resources in the form of cotton, indigo, forest produce, jute, tea, grains and minerals. Hence the rapid development of Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata. Their only interest in the hinterland was in extracting all they could without spending anything on infrastructure or services in rural areas. Thus, poverty became endemic in the Indian countryside, and today’s farmer distress has deep roots in the great famines of the 1930s and 40s.

Now, 70 years after Independence, every Government has tried to address these issues of rural neglect in a piecemeal fashion – sector by sector e.g. rural roads, rural housing, rural sanitation, rural health, but the results have not matched the resources poured in.

This is where Regional Planning comes in.

It is not something new, but unfortunately, Indian Regional Planning has traditionally been left to urban planners and they have never been able to rise beyond the standard British formula of land use, transport and communication routes, water supply and drainage, preservation of areas, and reservations of sites for new towns.

It’s almost as if the big city is endowing its poor rural sisters with that ultimate gift of modernity – more urbanization. Like creating 5-star Industrial Townships like Ranjangaon in the heart of good agricultural territory! In fact, with the worldwide decline in heavy manufacturing, the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) of yesteryear have quietly fizzled out, with the only beneficiaries being the business houses who promoted them, who are now the owners of vast swathes of rural and tribal lands, generously ‘acquired’ for them by Government agencies themselves.

As currently understood, a major aspect of the Regional Plan is metropolitan decentralisation and the redistribution of the population, city functions and activities of the Mother City. In other words, it is a classic case of ‘top-down’ planning doomed to failure in a rapidly changing globalised world.

However, as the headline suggests, maybe it is time to turn Regional Planning on its head.

So, let’s begin with the villages. India, because of its density of population has always had market towns at the hub of a circle of villages – going back to Vedic times. These market towns have in most cases been reduced to overgrown villages or small municipalities or census towns. So why not concentrate on their revival first? Let us rebuild the spokes of the wheel of which each market town is a hub through good all-weather roads, telecommunication links, broadband connectivity, adequate water and electricity.

The next layer can be developing the social infrastructure like schools, polytechnics, colleges, hospitals, mother and child care centres, and financial infrastructure like banks and business centres. The only industry to be allowed in these hub towns would be agroindustries and food processing, and modern polluting industries would be strictly kept out.

To enable these hubs to function properly, the full allocation of education, health, irrigation and forestry funds should be delegated to the local authority, as has been done successfully in Kerala. The local economic development and environmental and water management will also be the responsibility of the local body. As the area becomes more productive, there should be financial incentives for the local body like higher allocation from GST collected.

In this way, we will be tertiarizing the rural economy, creating non-agricultural jobs in small towns, using local resources in a sustainable manner, and reducing migration to cities in search of higher education and good health care. So, if we adopt this approach, we end up with multi-nodal development and these nodes or hubs can all be networked through transport and communication links.

As we approach the medium range towns, the Regional Plan must concentrate on upgrading basic municipal services and infrastructure, which will make these towns more liveable and discourage migration to the big city. These medium towns must also provide the tertiary level of services like Universities and Multispeciality Hospitals. Such towns should focus on developing local entrepreneurs by providing affordable industrial galas, shopping malls, and reliable power, water, transport and communication. Such towns can also become cargo hubs for produce from the market towns, with the emphasis being on developing rail and water transport rather than 6-lane highways which play havoc with the environment.

Coming to the Mother City, the emphasis must be on efficient public transport, power, water supply and environmental management with good connectivity to outlying areas, the rest of the country and abroad. With these facilities in place, the productivity of a city is bound to go up and this growth must be encouraged through higher allocations from taxes earned, more autonomy and less interference by State Governments in local matters. This will make local governments more responsive and accountable to their citizens.

Finally, the already existing forest and conservation laws need to be stringently adhered to, so that the rights of forest dwellers and the legacy of future generations are preserved.

In the present bleak scenario of polluted cities, urban sprawl, dwindling water sources, depleted forests and land hoarding, we all need to think outside the box, and plan for our country’s future.


Indian Urban Planning in limbo

Read more: Why we must turn Regional Planning on its head, now
Posted in Published Article, Urban India

When is a city truly ‘prosperous’?

Published in Times of India, Pune on 21 December 2018. Lost and found. Posted here for you.

A few years back, a visiting Minister of State who was in town to flag off the Marathon had commented that Pune appeared to be a ‘prosperous’ city. And I don’t think he was off the mark there. If you have lived here all your life you pick up the Pune zing of being ‘up and about’ and going about your business, with a goal and a schedule – whether the executive in his chauffeur-driven car, or the ‘bai’ (domestic) whizzing around her 6-7 jobs on her trusty two-wheeler.

If we are to go only by ‘economic’ prosperity, then according to GDP, Pune takes seventh place behind Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad. Which is not bad at all, because it is not a State Capital like the others.  

So, what defines a city as prosperous, if not just GDP? According to the UN-Habitat:

  • First, a prosperous city contributes to economic growth through productivity, generating the income and employment that afford adequate living standards for the whole population.
  • Second, a prosperous city deploys the infrastructure, physical assets and amenities required to sustain both the population and the economy.
  • Third, prosperous cities provide social services like education, health, recreation, safety and security, required for improved living standards, enabling the population to maximize individual potential and lead fulfilling lives.
  • Fourth, a city is only prosperous to the extent that poverty and inequalities are minimal. No city can claim to be prosperous when large segments of the population live in abject poverty and deprivation (Mumbai, Kolkata please note!) This involves reducing the incidence of slums, homelessness and new forms of poverty.
  • Fifth, ensuring that the creation and (re)distribution of the benefits of prosperity do not destroy or degrade the environment; instead, the city’s natural assets are preserved for the sake of sustainable urbanization.

So, if Pune is to appear prosperous to outsiders and host a happy and contented population, it needs to look at the pressure points, which need immediate attention, correction and upgradation.

Pune and its satellite cities of Pimpri-Chinchwad, were blessed with excellent weather, an educated workforce and proximity to Mumbai and remain one of the most important civilian manufacturing hubs in India. As the city with the most prestigious defence and scientific establishments too, Pune offers the best work opportunities in both the public and private sectors and its citizens have prided themselves on a culture of high productivity. This culture made an easy transition to the burgeoning IT sector, as many majors set up hubs at the various software technology parks.

However, the city’s high productivity is under threat from FAILING INFRASTRUCTURE – be it the unreliable power supply, the mediocre telecom networks and connectivity, or the lack of efficient public transport which cost millions of workhours lost in traffic jams.

As regards sustaining everyday life, Pune is becoming more and more stressed in its WATER SUPPLY each passing year – chiefly due to a cumbersome sourcing mechanism, outdated treatment and distribution networks, and low capacity staff at the municipal level. The situation is made worse by an unregulated water tanker mafia and corruption which allows large-scale pilferage and diversion in the system.

In the area of social services like health, sanitation and education, Pune is relatively better off but the chief hurdle is the MULTIPLICITY OF AGENCIES in these sectors – local, State and Central Government. Perhaps Maharashtra needs to learn from Kerala which thoroughly decentralized education and health to the local level and achieved not just 100% literacy and universal health coverage, but a Human Development Index rank on par with developed countries.

As regards inequality and slums, Pune has long been an example to other cities with respect to providing basic services, high quality sanitation and total coverage in immunization of children in slums. Perhaps the need of the hour in Pune and elsewhere, is an INTEGRATED APPROACH to upgradation of slum housing (with the full participation of the residents) with new development control rules, emphasis on using recycled and indigenous materials, and providing public spaces for recreation and commercial activity in each settlement.

Coming to the environment, Pune is again blessed with a very SAVVY POPULACE and an active (or as the bureaucracy feels, overactive) environment lobby – the ecologically sound Ganpati Visarjan (Immersion Ritual at the end of the Ganesh festival) is an example of the Punekar’s mature awareness of his/her responsibilities.

What most citizens may not know is that Pune (along with other municipal corporations in Maharashtra) prepares an excellent annual ENVIRONMENT STATUS REPORT covering everything from air and water pollution, energy use, carbon footprints, forestation, housing to transport and waste management. The reports lay down the pressure points for the city and outline corrective measures. Sadly however, these insights are seldom if ever incorporated in either the city’s Development Plan, or the annual budget and the few incentive schemes offered to citizens – like a discount in Property Tax for installing rainwater harvesting systems – vanish in a haze of bureaucratic inertia.

So, if an Indian city like Pune truly wants to remain a prosperous city, the State and Centre need to devolve resources and develop capacities at the local level, and the local leadership need to galvanize their workforce, exercise tighter regulation to curb petty corruption, and plan for a sustainable future for the city, based on sound scientific principles, rooted in a fast changing, environmentally challenged world.


Quality of Life in an Indian Context

Posted in India

Republic Day: look back in awe… look forward in anguish

I make it a point to post something on this blog every 26th of January, to commemorate the day “we, the people of India” gave to ourselves a brand new Constitution. 

A Constitution that was to become the template for the healing of a bruised, battered and partitioned motherland, which promised a unified, caring and modern home to its children of every persuasion, weaving their diversities into the fabric of nationhood, embroidered with the silks of optimism, hope and learning.

It had the gumption to include in its Fundamental Duties, Article 51A(h): “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”. Towards this end, the most world renowned institutions of learning were born like TIFR, BARC, ICAR, ISRO, IISc, IITs, IIMs etc whose alumni adorn so many global corporates today. 

Social research too was given its due and Indian research organisations soon acquired the reputation of providing the most reliable social and demographic data among the developing countries. Such data are a boost to coherent policy-making and scientific planning, resulting in the optimum utilisation of scarce resources. The lynchpin, of course, was to be the decadal Census of India, and its conduct became a Union subject under Article 246 of the Indian Constitution, and it is listed at serial number 69 of its Seventh Schedule.

A census essentially reveals the demographic profile of the nation which is vital for many reasons like the conduct of health, education, and agriculture surveys, the design and implementation of policy, and for administrative decision-making. The data collected through the Census is also used for the management and evaluation of various programmes run or to be introduced by the Government, NGOs, academics, researchers, as well as commercial and private enterprises. 

Census data is also used for the demarcation of constituencies and allocation of representation to the Parliament, State Legislative Assemblies and local bodies. And the Finance Commission gives grants to the States on the basis of population figures available from the Census data.

Ever since the First Census of 1881, India kept its date with the Census – once a decade, hundreds of thousands of enumerators visited every household in one of the most populous countries on the planet, to gather information about individuals, families, livelihoods, economic conditions, migration status, societies and cultures. 

Sadly it took a pandemic like Covid to disrupt this schedule. However, what would have been a short disruption of a few months has unfortunately become a deliberate postponement of indefinite length. Politics once more trumps development and governance – if there is no Census, it will be difficult to hold the incumbents accountable for the rising poverty, malnutrition, unemployment and declining labour ratios at the next General Election. Not to mention that political interference in the statistical institutions of the country calls into question the integrity of Indian data and does untold harm to India’s reputation globally.

As expected, it’s always the poorest of the poor who pay the price. For instance, since the government still depends on population figures from the 2011 census to determine who is eligible for aid, more than 100 million people are estimated to be excluded from the subsidised food grain Public Distribution System, and millions of children are left with inadequate schooling and nutrition. What’s left to say…

I sometimes wonder why every post which begins as a celebration of our nationhood on every Republic Day becomes a lamentation by the end.

I am beginning to despair… 

Jai Hind!

Posted in Published Article, Urban India

Smart use of Unutilized Land can boost Affordable Housing

Published in Times of India Pune on 12 September 2019. Lost and found. Posted here for you.

This article was prompted by a question: Will it ever be possible to get a flat for Rs 45,00,000 in the prime areas of Pune? And my immediate response was No… and then, why not? Let me explain.

Those of the Doordarshan (Public Service Television) generation who grew up in Pune Cantonment still remember how all our friends lived within walking distance in the streets flanking Main Street, how we walked to an excellent school and got a great education without breaking the bank, and our older siblings cycled to college – and the few posh ones in school lived in Koregaon Park, beyond which was the wilderness.

Crossing the river to Fergusson College one discovered an almost identical habitation pattern around the peths (bazars) and wadas (family compounds) off Laxmi Road, and the better off lived in the bungalows around Deccan Gymkhana.

Then life happened. We moved on to Murdoch’s Star TV and the new generation moved out to Silicon Valley and Dubai, Canada and Australia. But they did come back and invest in a flat back home, and while Saifee Street moved en masse to Fakhri Hills, the ‘city-walas’ moved to Kothrud.

Meantime, there was a concerted effort by retirees to make a home in Pune and while the suburbs of Aundh and Pashan attracted those from the many educational and scientific institutes in the area, Salunke Vihar and NIBM grew into attractive localities for the ex-Army types where even today, you only hear chaste Kendriya Vidyalaya (Central School) Hindi spoken. The aspirational and business classes meanwhile, extended beyond the much-coveted Bund-KP area to Kalyani Nagar, and the nouveau riche IT class sought its own enclaves everywhere from Kharadi to Hinjewadi.

Things were booming and Pune was growing until the bubble burst around 2007-2008. Pune’s real estate sector had priced itself out of the market – they didn’t realize that even the best amenities will not attract buyers on the outskirts because people would rather have good schools and hospitals in the neighbourhood, rather than posh gyms and swimming pools in increasingly unaffordable gated societies, stuck in the middle of nowhere. The developers had twisted the screws by reducing the carpet areas of flats while charging exorbitant rates for super built up premises, with large terraces being sold at the same price as covered areas. Finally, the worm turned and people stopped buying. Period.

In development parlance all social sectors like education, health and housing are governed by the 3 As: Availability, Accessibility and Affordability.

So, when we talk of urban housing, we essentially talk about the availability, accessibility and affordability of land in a city. For equity and inclusion, a city needs to make available an adequate mixed-income housing stock, which is equally accessible and affordable to the rich and the poor alike. And when a city achieves that, it prospers like Singapore – the city with the best Quality of Life in Asia.

Coming to the case of Pune, we find that land is indeed available, but it is not accessible to the housing sector because of colonial hangovers, retrograde laws and outdated provisions – and so Punekars do not have affordable housing. We refer of course to the vast swathes of unutilized defence land in the Cantonment areas, and large tracts of government-acquired land tied up in defunct factories in the MIDC Pimpri-Chinchwad area.

If the most high-security defence establishments in the Pashan Area can be entrusted to the jurisdiction of the Pune Municipal Corporation, there is really no need for a separate and impoverished Cantonment Board to look after a racecourse, a few schools, a fish market, some shops and restaurants and heaps of crumbling old bungalows.

There is a simple solution: Why not consolidate all this unused land under a single government authority on the lines of the National Housing Board of Singapore? This way, we can plan affordable housing in both parts of Pune and ensure that the infrastructure provided is clean, green and state-of-the-art.

As these would be greenfield rather than redevelopment projects, they can be planned de novo as high-rise structures with ample scope to compensate both the defence ministry and private industrialists, with housing enclaves for their personnel, or for commercial sale. This can be termed the Pune Model and applied gradually to other Indian cities where land is trapped in large government or private holdings.

It is very essential that the Housing Board remain a Government entity, because all public-private enterprises in India tend to be dogged by cost overruns, NPAs and manipulation.

Sadly, one doubts that this will happen – because as the supply rises to match demand, house prices will fall, and the screws will be tightened on the government by both the real estate speculators and the corporates likely to lose their massive land holdings.

So no, it doesn’t seem likely that you will get a flat for under Rs 4.5 million in Pune any time soon…


Cities without Shelter

Posted in Development, India, Published Article

How British Rule changed our Cities and Towns forever

Published in Times of India, Pune in November 2018. Lost and found. Posted here for you.

As one grows older, one realizes that life has no ‘undo’ button. Life happens – and our best intentions and greatest plans finally amount to little. The same is true with the life of nations. We can, at best, understand history – not change it. So even as we lament about the excesses of colonial rule, there is no escaping the fact that British rule had an irreversible and far-reaching impact on the way we live and work in our cities today.

In the pre-colonial days, our cities grew organically from the soil and represented old pieties and practices – so we had temple towns, pilgrim centres, handicraft hubs, agricultural market towns, fortresses and royal capitals studding every corner of India. The British, however, were to greatly change this timeless landscape with the addition of 5 new types of urbanization: port cities, railway towns, cantonments, hill stations and mining centres.

As the British consolidated their dominion over India, the growing railway network provided connectivity and allowed them to centralise their two essential functions of maintaining law and order, and collecting taxes. This required a centralised bureaucracy and the ‘steel frame’ is still with us today – rusty, creaking and neither trained nor qualified to tackle the immense challenges of unplanned urbanization and growing informalisation.

The centralization of power and authority, coupled with a deep distrust of the ‘natives’ was formalized in the mother of all municipal laws – the Bombay Municipal Act of 1888. And its archaic provisions still govern our cities and towns, through the various Acts it has spawned on the sub-continent. Even today, despite modifying the Constitution through the 74th Amendment in 1992, little or no true power has percolated down to our municipal bodies – which are the third tier of government. Their powers to raise taxes have eroded through the years, with the GST regime dealing the final blow, and State and Central allocations to municipal bodies remain largely arbitrary and politically coloured.

The third deep impact of British rule has been on our town planning and urban land use. With the British nostalgia for creating ‘a green and pleasant land’ in the distant tropics, the planning laws were too short-sighted for a country as densely populated as India where low-form urbanization would be entirely unsuitable. To now densify Indian cities by raising FSI just isn’t practical because there is a limit to how much the existing infrastructure can cope with (water supply, sewerage, power lines) and retrofitting infrastructure is extremely expensive – and chaotic. The result has been urban sprawl – and in the absence of efficient public transport, expensive and time-consuming commuting.

With these planning norms, we also inherited strict development control rules which require such high standards of construction that the poor have no option but to go informal, simply because they build their houses incrementally, as and when they have the resources. Our town plans also do not provide for informal enterprise, hawking areas, or waste collection and processing within the city limits.

We also continue to be bound by that other British gem – the Land Acquisition Act of 1894. Despite attempts to modify it in 2013 and remodify it two years later, its interpretation has been left largely to the discretion of State Governments and is consequently mired in controversies, scams, litigation and land mafias.

Finally, the most ticklish and controversial legacy of the British – Cantonments. And who better to understand the problems this creates for urban governance than the people of the Pune Metropolitan Region, blessed as we are with 2 Municipal Corporations and 3 Cantonment Boards. How can any wizard conjure up a Development Plan for this city without stepping on a thousand toes?

Pune is indeed proud to host so many techno-military establishments, but why can’t these establishments be part of a common urban landscape, availing the services and paying the taxes of a SINGLE municipal body, as other civilian and scientific establishments do? Isn’t it time to ‘trust the natives’ 70 years after Independence? Imagine the CBD that a Singapore planner could develop in that vast swathe of prime urban land from Sachapir Street to the Race Course and from Poona Club to St Mary’s – it is, after all, almost entirely under civilian use, so why can’t it have a civilian makeover? It is said that the cantonments are the lungs of Pune, but there are alternatives. Planned high rise development interspersed with vast open and green eco-friendly public spaces are the modern option in cities across the world, and would sit well with Pune’s hills and dales.

To end, let us give the devil his due: The British formalized urban governance in India, and municipalities were endowed with powers of taxation as far back as 1850. The creation and development of port cities put India on the map for world trade, while industrial technologies and the railways speeded up our modernization. Finally, the legacy of modern education, scientific temper and the English language has put India at the forefront of a globalized world and on a trajectory to the future. All thanks to those firangis


Development and the Rural-Urban Continuum

Development and the Informal Urban Economy

Posted in Accountability and Corruption, Published Article

To fight Corruption, boost Systems of Accountability

Published in Times of India, Pune on 3 October 2018. Lost and found. Posted here for you.

Accountability is an essential component of a democratic system. It is based on periodic elections and different types of vertical and horizontal accountability arrangements that hold executive branches accountable to legislature; civil servants to politicians; and businesses to their shareholders. Such systems consist of a range of independent regulatory agencies, such as superior audit institutions and corruption commissions that scrutinize the actions and decisions of businesses, politicians and bureaucrats.

So just who is accountable? The simple answer to that is ‘those who govern and have the power and authority to do so.’ By this definition, the elected representative wins legitimacy by getting the political mandate in an election, and then the law of the land confers power and authority upon her/him. This constitutes political authority, which is in turn delegated to the bureaucracy as administrative authority. In this way are policies, programmes and decisions implemented, through a well understood and well-regulated delegation of power and authority.

Through regulation, governments are both mandated by, and made accountable to society at large, putting all governance in an essentially social context – hence SOCIAL accountability. Further, this mandate confers the power and authority to use PUBLIC funds to run the country and its government, making those who govern, financially accountable as well.

Accountability (or the lack of it) in public life is often discussed in the context of corruption, and along with clientelism and crony capitalism, it is branded as the main reason that developing countries never really make it. The underlying assumption is that a corrupt act or practice is always at the cost of the rights of another individual, group or organization.

Compounded over its entirety, corruption results in huge financial losses and social cost to any country.

Instinctively, we all understand corruption because we grow up bribing and tipping our way through life, but how corruption gets into every system and how its mechanisms really work, needs a little understanding.

Robert Klitgaard, economist and academic – considered the world expert on corruption – set forth the problem succinctly in his famous formula:

Corruption = Monopoly + Discretion – Accountability

Therefore, if a country seriously wishes to tackle corruption, it must minimize monopolies, reduce discretion in procedures, and enhance accountability.

Monopoly: Where possible, the effects of monopoly can be reduced by allowing some private operators to provide the same services, but with proper regulation. Where a service provider is monopolistic by its very nature (like a Municipal Corporation) we need to look at ways to mitigate the monopoly of decision-making. The most obvious way is widening the space for decision-making through regular and formalized public consultations and participation. Furthermore, outsourcing the basic services to workers’ collectives, NGOs and CBOs, will also soften the monolithic, monopolistic work culture of these places. Another way would be through the lateral induction of managers who have had corporate experience in the areas which the monopoly deals with.

Discretion: Most day-to-day bribery is a result of the enormous discretionary powers given to individuals. It is necessary to revisit some of the archaic laws, vestiges of British Rule, where the ruling class did not trust the natives, and all powers were vested in senior civil servants. Did you know, for instance, that there is a major element of discretion in assessing the property taxes for your property? The only way to outwit individual discretion is through e-Governance, where there are several layers of checks and balances; business processes have been re-engineered; and standardization has been put in place. Moreover, people’s access to information is much greater in an IT-enabled environment, allowing for greater vigilance by civil society.

Accountability can be increased by Access Legislation, like the Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005, provided it is adhered to in letter and spirit by both sides. And most importantly, we need much greater transparency in the procurement process and the award of contracts by Municipal Corporations, State Governments and the Central Government.

Summarizing: Governments that are serious about reducing corruption in public systems need to look earnestly at 5 key issues:

  • Building objective criteria and benchmarks for decision-making, thus reducing individual discretion and arbitrariness
  • De-bureaucratization or simplification of procedures so that expediency does not become a reason for corruption
  • Enunciating clearly the role of various agencies, provisions, conditionalities, benefits, monitoring and evaluation mechanisms of Government schemes
  • Putting in place mechanisms for social, financial, legal and political accountability at every level – local, regional and national
  • Creating public awareness of the mechanisms of redressal available to citizens when faced with corruption

Only ridding the system of its tendencies of monopoly, discretion and lack of accountability, can stop everyday bribery and corruption.


Costs of Corruption

Political Capture and Growing Disparity

Power, Authority and Influence

Posted in Development, Published Article, Urban Issues

Development should never mean just flyovers and roads

Published in Times of India, Pune on 4 July 2019. Lost and found. Posted here for you.

Development at its most basic may be defined as ‘directed growth‘. And that direction is decided by the type of government in power and its ideology: some may look upon development as building infrastructure, others as building human capital.

Conservative governments throughout history have looked upon ‘development’ as an opportunity to leave their mark on history and the landscape quit literally. Great kings have built pyramids, palaces, highways, aqueducts, temples, churches and mosques for their sprawling capitals – and in modern terms, when a government has a 5-year timeframe to work in, it makes more sense to build flyovers, than plant trees.

This idea of development as physical infrastructure took root soon after Independence, when heavy industries like steel were in a boom period across the world, and oil was cheap. So, with an abundance of steel one naturally built skyscrapers, bridges, towers and railways.

Heavy infrastructure of this kind naturally congregates around big metros, which soon become overcrowded and environmentally noxious. There also comes a tipping point when the old residents begin to curse the newcomers to their city and local governments cannot spare the resources to service fringe areas adequately. As urban sprawl takes over, a planned city becomes slowly unplanned…

Meanwhile the small towns in the surrounding region resent this skewed development and keep sending their young to these overcrowded metros to seek their fortunes, because urban planners concentrate their efforts only in the big cities – and soon we all end up living in urban hell!

This tendency to equate development with roads, bridges and flyovers has several negative consequences:

  • Firstly, although investment in infrastructure may raise economic activity and thus the GDP, it doesn’t really create secure, long-term employment in the country. Most infrastructure projects are designed and executed by people already in permanent government jobs in the railways or PWD, and the future maintenance of the infrastructure will be in the hands of the permanent employees of the municipal corporation, so no new long-term jobs are created. Only a very few temporary, low-skill jobs may be created during the construction phase, with little or no impact on the labour market.
  • Secondly, if a government is obsessed with creating just infrastructure, there is always a tendency to bend the environmental guidelines to expedite land acquisition for projects, with disastrous consequences for the biodiversity and natural safeguards of the project area. The draining of the mangrove swamps of Kurla for the Bandra-Kurla Complex is now accepted as the primary cause for the repeated monsoon flooding of Mumbai, and something similar has happened to Nagpur with the unnecessary concreting of all its roads. It is axiomatic that the number of vehicles in a city will rise as the road network of a city expands, and it is the unprecedented growth of roads and fly-overs which has added to Delhi’s breathing problems.
  • Thirdly, single-minded concentration on infrastructure draws public funds away from basic services like education and health care, which are the true cornerstones of achieving ‘human’ development in a society. Without adequate attention to education, health and nutrition, countries like India risk losing their demographic dividend of a young society. And this only aggravates the schisms and tiers in society as future generations have to compete for every crumb of a rapidly shrinking pie.

It is noteworthy that ALL three of Asia’s tech giants first invested in the universalisation and then the vocationalisation of education, to literally lift themselves up by the bootstraps and resurrect their devastated economies: Japan after WW2, South Korea after the Korean War, China after the Cultural Revolution. Only after attaining a fair and equitable human development did these countries move into mega infrastructure development.

India meanwhile, did build up a welfare state after the ravages of colonial rule, but somewhere in the heady days of the IT revolution of the 90s, we seem to have lost track and opted for more visible and tangible signs of connectivity as development, which has unfortunately only made the rich richer, and left vast swathes of India’s population far, far behind.

Post-Independence, India also had the vision to set up a world class infrastructure for higher education, science and technology, but somehow these elite institutions came at the cost of universal education, and hinterland India had to be satisfied with a Green Revolution.

Consequently, India entered the twenty-first century with a billion-plus cell phones but not enough drinking water in every village. In fact, we have all recently seen villagers pointing to toilet blocks and pavements as proof of the ‘development’ brought in by a, b, or c although their eyes cloud over with doubt if asked about jobs, their children’s future and better livelihoods. 

The fall-out of this singularly material approach has been the great Indian tradition of offering last minute freebies just before an election (an approach that ALL political parties are guilty of.)

It’s like keeping an excellent racehorse thirsty the night before a big race, and just before starter’s orders, giving it a large bucket of water which it laps up. The wretched horse will run its heart out in gratitude, but with a belly full of water, it can never win a race.

And the punters who bet against the poor horse will carry their winnings away, laughing all the way to the bank. Such is life!


Business as usual – and damn the environment!

Infrastructure Projects in India