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, supported by a municipal commissioner and a professionally capable team. If Mumbai is to emulate New York City, it needs leaders to initiate policies to renew blighted areas, facilitate industrial and knowledge clusters, draw investors, forge partnerships to attract research and educational institutions, adopt innovative policies to improve traffic management and so on.
India needs to follow the examples from Latin America and East Asia, where several metropolitan mayors have driven the transformation of their cities. In fact, their successes have catapulted them to senior state and national leadership positions. For political parties trying to groom their next generation of leaders, city mayoral races are the ideal primaries.
The other glaring weakness is urban planning. A master plan is a blueprint for the city’s future, for its spatial elements and density. Functionally, it guides the city’s transportation and utilities plans, future land-use patterns and the locations of economic activity for 20-25 years. The transportation and utility networks of an area need to be planned, and often constructed, in anticipation of the area’s future development trajectory. This, in turn, necessitates careful, long-term land-use planning and its strict enforcement. An adequate supply of affordable housing, especially for lower income groups, requires a multi-pronged strategy of mandates (on new housing developments), reserving land for public housing and planned vertical growth. The promotion of economic activity requires allocating space for the growth of industrial clusters as well as educational and research institutions, and their integration with the rest of the city.
Master plan design and implementation is the primary responsibility of metropolitan governments across major global cities. However, in India — where the largest metropolitan areas are large enough to dwarf the urban agglomeration — master plan design receives limited top-level attention and is done in a routine manner. Its implementation is, at best, lackadaisical. The lack of well-designed plans and their weak enforcement are manifest in the unmanageable traffic jams, unhygienic slums and the haphazard sprawl that has enveloped our large cities.
The urban development agencies (UDAs) were created with the specific objective of comprehensive development planning of the entire urban agglomeration. However, in practice, most of them have ended up as real estate or large transport infrastructure development facilitators. Everywhere, UDAs were at the centre of the last property boom, helping unscrupulous developers with land grabs under the ruse of satellite townships, changing zoning regulations and transport alignments to benefit vested interests. It is fair to say that “urban planning” is far from the priorities of most UDAs.
Across the country, state governments exercise considerable control over urban planning, though it is notionally devolved. They routinely and arbitrarily issue relaxation orders on master plan zoning regulations on individual applications. Needless to say, this exercise of patronage is accompanied by massive corruption.
Large urban agglomerations need a cascaded system of planning, where 20-25 year master plans are made at the agglomeration level and municipal development plans are mandatorily designed around it. The institutional architecture to support its design and enforcement is another matter.
We need a paradigm shift in urban governance. Governance structures need radical changes and planning should occupy the centre of the urban agenda. The biggest contribution that the new government can make to meet its urban development agenda is getting the largest cities to embrace this shift.
The writer is an IAS officer,batch of 1999,and a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School, US. Views are personal