It is often said that ideas, even when plain obvious for long, take a crisis or leadership to find acceptance. In April 2010, McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) came out with an excellent study of India’s urban challenges, with a series of actionable recommendations. But very little has found its way into public policy.
Now, with a new government at the Centre, whose manifesto refreshingly prioritises urban development, and an urban crisis not too far away, it is worth highlighting two critical reforms. They stem from two egregious deficiencies in our urban administration systems. First, cities lack long-term sustainable growth-focused leadership. Second, urban planning is virtually non-existent. Addressing them is critical to any meaningful effort at sustainable urban development. In fact, these are arguably the biggest weaknesses of even our largest cities, just as they are the greatest strengths of major global cities.
Take the issue of leadership. Currently, municipal commissioners shape the city’s development agenda.
Their limited knowledge of the local context and requirements, lack of accountability to the local population and short tenures naturally circumscribe this agenda. They chase quick wins and personal glory by trying to maximise tax collections, improve sanitation, construct public housing, and building roads and flyovers. The focus of even state urban development ministries does not go much farther.
Our urban growth strategy assumes that once basic civic infrastructure is constructed and public service delivery is made effective, economic growth will automatically follow. These priorities are undoubtedly a reflection of the poor state of physical infrastructure and service delivery, even in metropolitan cities. To be sure, dirty streets and clogged drains, chronic water shortages and overflowing sewers, unhygienic slums and decrepit public transport need immediate attention. But we do not have the luxury of sequencing interventions.
Further, this reasoning underestimates the complex dynamics of economic growth. For starters, several studies, most notably by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, show that the dynamism of the fastest growing global cities can be traced to a history of cultivating entrepreneurs and their start-up businesses. In other words, cities that grow sustainably need to create the conditions for attracting enterprising migrants. Also, there are co-ordination externalities (for example, industrial clusters do not grow on their own) and other market failures (the development of affordable housing and effective transport management, for instance) whose correction requires carefully planned government interventions.
This needs a leadership whose priorities go beyond mere public service delivery to long-term planning and policymaking. More specifically, urban leaders should be freed from the mundane tasks of collecting taxes or keeping streets clean or even building roads, and allowed to concentrate on long-term planning and economic growth promoting policies. It is unlikely that municipal commissioners will be able to provide such leadership.
It requires a strong political leadership with a committed five-year tenure, …continued »