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

Posted in Poverty, Published Article, Urban India

Why we are still asking the wrong questions on Slums

Published in Times of India, Pune on 14 November 2018. Lost and found. Posted here for you.

Informal housing – or ‘slum’ as it is derisively called – has become the hallmark of all metros in the developing world, from Rio to Lagos to Nairobi to Mumbai.

The evolution of slums in post-Independence India, however, is the stuff of legend, on which many a career in New Wave Indian Cinema of the 1970s was built….

Several studies during this period revealed that the typical migrant to urban areas was a semi-skilled or skilled male, 18-35 years old, who sent a major share of his earnings back home to support his family.  Housing was a low priority for such a person and he was ready to squat or settle at any location which cost him the least of his hard-earned money. The social vacuum created by a separation from rural roots was compensated by congregating along ethnic, caste, linguistic and regional lines, and such arrangements provided a strong social support system to compensate for the break-up of the rural extended family.

The downside of this has been ghettoization, which not only enhances strife and bigotry, but provides easy mobilization in violent crises – be they communal riots, industrial unrest, or underworld gang wars.

In planning terms, the assumption that slums and urban poverty were co-extensive and coterminous led to numerous ad hoc ‘slum improvement’ schemes at this time, where it was naively assumed that upgrading living conditions in slums in a piecemeal fashion, would eliminate the scourge of poverty from our towns and cities.

However, as the research and information base has grown, it has become clear that the relationship between urban poverty and slums is both tenuous and complex – especially as a second generation of slum dwellers, with few choices and little upward mobility, begin to emerge on the urban scene. They can look forward to a life only in the informal economy of the city, and given our outdated civic laws, even a new-born child in such a household, breaks a dozen laws as he or she draws its first breath…

During the 1980s, urban slums could no longer be seen as extensions of rural poverty and became more or less autonomous. As thriving, self-sustaining social systems in their own right (Dharavi being an example), urban slums were no more synonymous merely with urban poverty. While urban poverty incidence has declined between the early 1970s and the late 1980s, there is no evidence of any decline of the slum population.  As a result, fewer people have access to safe drinking water and nearly 70% are reported to be without basic sanitation. 

Poor housing, infrastructure and urban services are the problem, not poor people.

The consequences of regarding urban poverty and slums as one and the same have been largely negative:

Once a slum is recognized as such, subtle political forces prevent it from ever becoming de-notified and this has stigmatized entire communities of urban poor, doomed to be labeled ‘slum-dwellers’ for generation after generation. As a result, slums become powerful vote banks and can be mobilized for various anti-social activities like crime, extortion, land grabbing, strike breaking and communal violence.

Meanwhile, badly designed slum upgradation schemes have set up an unsustainable regime of subsidies, inculcating the same dependency syndrome among beneficiaries, which was earlier seen only in Indian villages. Providing basic services in slums was made synonymous with poverty alleviation, and the neglect of health and education in urban slums continues to eat away at the human potential of slum populations, pushing them further and deeper into unemployment, under-employment and the informal sector.

On the side of local government, there is a tendency to underestimate the ability of the urban poor to pay for services and they have to learn to ‘do without’ these services. Slum schemes with their emphasis on shelter and basic services, neglect informal enterprise, and compound the problem by making no effort to integrate the informal slum economy within the larger city economy.

Almost all housing schemes continue to neglect the key issues of access, security of tenure, and affordability and it is this – the most visible housing dimension of urban poverty – which continues to scar Indian cities.

Finally, with the entry of private commercial interests into slum rehabilitation projects currently being implemented across India, there is a danger of encroached government and municipal lands passing forever into private hands.

This would be an irrecoverable loss of public assets for generations to come. Instead, Indian cities can perhaps take a leaf out of capitalist Singapore and communist China’s public housing and long-term lease policies to ensure development with equity.


Housing Dimension of Urban Poverty

Cities without Shelter

Formalizing the Informal – the only economic reform that matters

Read more: Why we are still asking the wrong questions on Slums
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:


Urbanisation Trends in India

Read more: How we can transform cities to make them more resilient
Posted in Published Article, Urban Issues

The Tiny Circle Inside Which Most of the Planet Lives

Published in Times of India, Pune on 29 November 2018. Lost and found. Posted here for you.

It is quite a paradox that while issues like global warming, the rise of the dollar, and global geopolitics are the staples of our conversations, we look no further than the garbage on the sidewalk to define our city and country – never realizing our key position in the world of today and tomorrow.

There is however, a legend of the Internet, known as the Valeriepieris Circle, which sets the record straight, getting across its message simply, visually and effectively.

It is essentially the tightest circle which can be drawn on a 2-D map, wherein more people live inside the circle than outside it. To give you an idea of the density of population in the circle, just ONE Metropolitan Region (Greater Tokyo Area) has a population greater by a million, than that of the second largest country in the world – Canada; while the population of Shanghai exceeds the total population of Australia by another million.

Which brings us to another statistic: 21 of the world’s 35 megacities with a population more than 10 million or 1 crore; and 11 of the 15 cities contributing the most to global GDP by 2030, are in this circle. On the negative side, not ONE city in the top 45 cities on the global QOL Index is in this circle, but 9 of the 10 most polluted cities are!

All Asia and Pacific sub-regions are experiencing urban growth at higher rates than overall population growth. By 2050, urban areas will account for nearly two out of three people, and cities in China and India alone will have grown by an additional 696 million – India by 404 million and China by 292 million.

Paradoxically, while the region is home to so many megacities, they only accommodate a little over 10% of the region’s urban dwellers. The bulk of urban dwellers live in small and medium cities, where much of the region’s urban transition is actually unfolding. Yet, despite their increasing significance, most small cities face their future with limited human, financial, and organizational resources – as any visitor to a small town (the ubiquitous Indian ‘native place’) can confirm.

The biggest challenge for governments in Asia and the Pacific remains their growing urban poverty and vulnerability in the face of natural and man-made disasters, often grossly underestimated, and therefore unaddressed. It is estimated that a third of the region’s urban residents lack access to adequate shelter, clean energy, safe drinking water and sanitation. Unless some attempts are made to formalize the informal sectors in both economic activity and housing, poverty and the omnipresent slum will continue to mar the Asian urban story in the foreseeable future.

As the UN-Habitat World Cities Report 2016 clearly pointed out: Cities are operating in economic, social, and cultural ecologies that are radically different from the outmoded urban model of the 20th century, and persistent urban issues include urban growth, changes in family patterns, growing number of urban residents living in informal settlements, and the challenge of providing urban services. Adding to these problems are emerging urban issues like climate change, exclusion, increasing inequality, rising insecurity and social tensions, and an upsurge in internal and international migration.

As regards housing, most government efforts have focused on helping the middle class to achieve home-ownership in a formal sector that only they can afford. The housing policies put in place through the enabling approach have failed to promote adequate and affordable housing for the low-income groups, and slums continue to be one of the most visible faces of poverty in our cities. The spatial concentration of poor and unskilled workers in segregated residential quarters acts as a poverty trap with severe job restrictions, high rates of gender disparities, deteriorated living conditions, social exclusion and marginalization, and a high incidence of crime.

Cities continue to be the generators of economic growth across the region, but only those which have got their act together in terms of infrastructure and services, culturally appropriate planning norms, efficient public transport and mobility, and capitalization of land resources will matter globally in the years to come. Sadly, Indian megacities are tired, old and neglected, and will become national liabilities rather than assets as time goes by.

By 2030, global demand for energy and water is expected to grow by 40 and 50 per cent respectively, and our cities will get more and more polluted, our water more contaminated. In urban areas, climate change impacts like heat waves, heavy rains and droughts can compound one another, making disaster risk management more complex. Just keeping a city clean is becoming more labour intensive and costly every day, and solid waste management dominates municipal annual budgets in low- and middle-income countries, with shares of 30 to 50 per cent.

As we watch our compatriots wearing masks in the thick Delhi smog, as they continue to light crackers to celebrate Diwali, the question we have to ask is do Indians really care?  May be if we started realising the immensity of problems facing our cities, we would insist upon political parties providing a workable National Urban Framework to: strengthen and empower local governments, decentralise power, devolve resources, take a more flexible and Indian approach to town planning, provide genuine accountability, and develop the administrative capacity to implement public policies.

Next election let us ask for liveable cities.

Next election let us ask for the moon


Cities of Asia and the Pacific

Posted in India

Independence Day 2022: 75 years of growth or dissolution?

15 August is just a date, and 75 is just a number, but this year, as India celebrates the diamond jubilee of its freedom from oppressive colonial rule, these numbers focus our minds sharply on what has been gained… and lost.

India’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru delivered his dreams and hopes in one of the most famous speeches of the English language (Tryst with Destiny) at midnight on 15 August 1947; and for the next 17 years, he endeavoured to strengthen India’s Independence in every sense of the word:

The first priority was to provide self-sufficiency in food – hence the Green Revolution and the foundations of a vast network of irrigation and hydro-electric power stations in rural areas.

Equally important was the consolidation of India’s natural resources through the creation of various Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) in Mining, Energy, Infrastructure, Communication and Transport. Several Public Sector manufacturing units also came up, and were dubbed the temples of New India – industrial and urban India was on the cusp of a great revolution.

Then came an ambitious programme to strengthen human resources through the creation of world class institutions of learning in everything from the Pure Sciences, to Technology, to Business Management and the Liberal Arts, to Medicine and Space Research, to Defence R&D to the Nuclear Sciences.

Internationally, Nehruvian India stood proud and tall as the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, and the country which everyone had expected to disintegrate within a decade of Independence, found its rightful place on the world stage as an arbiter of good common sense, an exemplar of unity in diversity, and a proponent of peace and goodwill among nations.

There was a simultaneous effort to improve the quality of life of the country’s citizens through various poverty alleviation programmes, and the vast improvement in Human Development Indicators in the second half of the last century, are evidence of their success.

However, the world caught up with India and after the oil shock and various wars of the 1970s, came the ‘lost decade’ of the 1980s, and inevitably, the dawn of an era of globalisation accompanied by liberalisation and privatisation.

Ironically the great economic reforms which were ushered in by Pandit Nehru’s own party were to sound the death knell of the great Nehruvian dream of planned development, and pave the way for a right-wing government under A B Vajpayee, which merrily went on to sell some precious gems from India’s public sector, to private investors. Between 1999 and 2004, the BJP privatized the Bharat Aluminium Company (BALCO), Hindustan Zinc (both to Sterlite Industries), Indian Petrochemicals Corporation Limited (to Reliance Industries) and VSNL (to the Tata group) and various state government establishments as well. While the track record and future of these companies were considered good at the time of sale, they have all failed under the private establishments that they were sold to.

Between 2014 and 2018 the present government divested a total of ₹1,94,646 crore – and as most of these PSUs were literally run into the ground to justify their sale, it led to a loss to the taxpayer of over ₹69,575.64 crores over the past decade.

So much for Indian independence and self-sufficiency in key areas of manufacturing.

Ditto with the human resources which have leached away to foreign shores with full support of the government, which has done little or nothing to staunch the brain drain and incentivize investment in India by its expatriates. Studies have found that 23,000 Indian millionaires have left India since 2014 and that nearly 7,000 millionaires left in 2019 alone, costing the country billions in tax revenue. Since 2015, nearly 9 lakh Indians have given up their citizenship.

So much for Indian independence and self-sufficiency in key areas of learning and knowledge.

And the final loss of independence stares us in the face in the arena of foreign relations, as India scuttles embarrassingly from this side to that – swinging from BRICS to QUAD, with no principled reasoning to support either side. And with a world on the verge of moving away from the unipolarity of the last 30 years to a distinctly multipolar order, we are very much in danger of being utterly marginalized in world affairs. Sad but true.

The coming decades will be crucial and here’s hoping we can overcome the growing poverty, the immoral inequality, the increasing divisiveness, and our marginal global profile, so that we can celebrate the Centenary of our Independence as a truly great nation in 2047. Amen!

Posted in Governance, India

Ethical Consumption and Indian Industry 2.0

First published on 8 February 2015

I started this blog to counter the current Indian Government’s proclivity for mega pronouncements without thinking through the implications. The latest buzz phrase is ‘Make in India’. But make in India for whom? The domestic consumer or the European and American consumer, where India hopes to replace China as the key provider of the basic essentials of life?

Update 1:

Despite various bans and boycotts imposed by the Government of India on Chinese goods following a border clash, Indian imports from China in 2021 reached a whopping $97.5 Billion, a 30% rise from 2019. Moreover, these imports are largely ‘manufactured’ goods like electrical and mechanical machinery, auto components, pharmaceutical ingredients, and medical supplies like oxygen concentrators and PPEs.

So much for ‘Make in India’…

India is also not able to compete in export markets for manufactured goods because of its relatively poor infrastructure and tedious red tape, widespread petty corruption, an ill-educated workforce (by international standards) and the prevalence of child labour and forced labour somewhere in every corporate supply chain, which creates a very negative image of the country in the minds of the western consumer, who is tech-savvy, globally connected, well-informed and increasingly believes in conscious consumerism.

Update 2:

Need for Regulating Supply Chains

In the early years of this century, the movements for ethical supply chain management gathered momentum, and every time there was a furore in the western media about environmental damage, animal experimentation, poor labour practices, or unsafe working conditions anywhere down a long and trailing multinational supply chain, the most high-profile retailer bore the brunt of boycotts and protests. This was unacceptable in economic terms and extremely expensive in transnational legal terms, and so a global standard had to be put in place to assure ethical supply chain management.

The best known of these is the SA8000 initiated by Social Accountability International, a US-based non-profit. The SA8000 looks at human rights in the workplace, worker safety, child labour and forced labour and other issues, based upon ILO guidelines, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and the UNICEF Convention on Rights of the Child.

Its 9 principles for certifying a business as SA8000 compliant are:

  1. Child Labour: No child labour; remediation of any child found working
  2. Forced Labour: No forced labour; no lodging of deposits or identity papers at employers or outside recruiters; no trafficking
  3. Health and Safety: Safe and healthy work environment; system to detect and prevent threats to health and safety; regular health and safety worker training; access to clean toilet facilities and potable water
  4. Freedom of Association and Right to Collective Bargaining: All personnel have the right to form and join trades unions and bargain collectively; where these rights are restricted under law, the company shall allow workers to freely elect their own representatives
  5. Discrimination: No discrimination based on gender, race, caste, origin, religion, disability, sexual orientation, marital status, family responsibilities, trade union or political affiliation, or age; no sexual harassment
  6. Discipline: No corporal punishment, mental or physical coercion or verbal abuse
  7. Working Hours: Compliant with applicable law, but, in any event, no more than 48 hours per week with at least one day off following every six consecutive days or work; voluntary overtime paid at a premium rate and not to exceed 12 hours per week; overtime may be mandatory if part of a collective bargaining agreement
  8. Remuneration: Wages paid for a standard work week must meet legal and industry standards and be sufficient to meet the basic needs of workers and their families and to provide some discretionary income
  9. Management Systems: To earn and sustain certification, facilities must go beyond simple compliance to integrate the requirements into documented management systems and into their supply chain, including complaints response, workplace dialogue, and stakeholder engagement.

Compliance with SA8000 includes compliance with ILO conventions, local and national law, openness to worker concerns, and a commitment to continuous improvement. Research I undertook in 2012 threw up the following interesting facts about the 614 SA8000 compliant businesses in India at that time:

  • The most common businesses opting for SA 8000 were small and medium enterprises, (the reasoning is that large, heavy manufacturing businesses already have the statutory framework in place in compliance with the existing labour legislation in India, and therefore do not require an SA 8000 type of certification for their international trade activity).
  • Most of the SA 8000 certified Indian businesses are essentially part of the supply chain of large multi-national retailers, who insist on such certification, while domestic retailers seldom do
  • Most of the SA 8000 certified Indian businesses manufacture consumer nondurables like apparel, textiles, footwear, processed foods, leather and sports goods
  • Most of the SA 8000 certified Indian businesses are likely to be located in the States with niche manufacturing small and medium sector enterprises, like Tamil Nadu, where the overwhelming number of SA8000 compliant companies were in Tirupur, a cotton apparel town, sometimes called the ‘ganji’ or capital of the world for its exclusive production of men’s vests and T-shirts.

However, just 600-700 ‘ethical’ businesses in a country with hundreds of thousands of small and medium enterprises is indeed laughable, and this ‘tokenism’ in the name of ethical supply chains by the manufacturing sector is bound to take its toll in the international market, where the conscious consumer is now king.

Whatever claims of equitable work conditions are made by corporate India, the sad fact is that India’s image abroad has steadily declined as it continues its downward slide in various international rankings like the World Hunger Index and the World Press Freedom Index; besides the negative press it gets abroad for its growing communalism, casteism, curtailment of dissent, and treatment of protesters.

The aftermath of the COVID19 pandemic too has added to India’s woes as huge masses of rural children have dropped out of the education system into forced and child labour, and general poverty, unemployment, informalisation and inequality have reached frightening levels.


Thus, before proclaiming grandiose schemes like ‘Make in India’, perhaps the Government should overcome its aversion to ‘leftist’ ideals of a rights-based approach to human development – especially, education, vocational training, and public health. This was the path so successfully followed by Japan, Singapore, South Korea and China. Let India not go down in history as the country which so carelessly threw away its priceless demographic dividend.