Book: Transforming Our Cities – Postcards of Change
Writer: Isher Judge Ahluwalia
Price: Rs 599
In the mid-1970s, Isher Judge Ahluwalia finished her PhD thesis at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a macro-econometric model of the Indian economy. Her thesis adviser was Stan Fischer, who was also the adviser to one Ben Bernanke. To the best of my knowledge, this was the first such model for the Indian economy, and among the first macro-econometric models in the world. In 1991, Ahluwalia published Productivity and Growth in Indian Manufacturing – once again an original effort and one of the earliest such studies. Her current book talks about urbanisation, an area of research and policy correctly identified by Ahluwalia as the most pressing social and economic problem facing India today. Again, she’s got there before all of us.
In Transforming Our Cities, Ahluwalia, by design, has chosen to talk about successful stories of urbanisation. But that does not mean there isn’t a lament for what has gone wrong with our cities. Her detailed aankhon dekhi and aankhon jaanchi accounts are not only interesting but riveting. Stylistically and non-ideologically, she lets her experiences and data walk the talk. For those of us old enough to be jaded, cynical and pessimistic, the response to her articles is: Ye bhi India mein ho sakta hai? (Is this possible in India?)”
This is a hopeful book, and a book rich on policy. There is a joint concern about urbanisation, and with the anti-environment effects of unplanned cities. It touches all the right chords, including memories of an India of the AIR era, un-littered and green, and before the tsunami of urbanisation hit us. But she is not a Luddite, far from it. Her accounts beckon us to welcome the change, and make tomorrow better for the generations to come. And her postcards tell you how it can, and has been done.
Ahluwalia touches upon various significant aspects of “transforming our cities”, from planning to the delivery of services such as water, transportation, sanitation, property taxes, e-governance etc — everything you wanted to know about urbanisation. The case studies provide reason for hope and evidence of despair. A noteworthy pattern is that most of the case studies are focused in four main regions: Maharashtra, Gujarat, some parts of Madhya Pradesh and the southern states. For me, the real surprise is Maharashtra, a state which has not been known for good governance in recent decades. But that is precisely Ahluwalia’s point — success is possible because of individual effort and vision, though an enabling environment is always helpful.
This book is a must-read for all of us, but especially for policy makers who think they are the cutting edge of social change. There are several articles on water policy; if only Arvind Kejriwal had read her articles on water (published in the Indian Express much before the Aam Aadmi Party was even a dream), maybe Delhi would have been spared the excesses of little knowledge. Who says one can’t hope for the past to be different!
As Ahluwalia documents, 24×7 water supply was successfully achieved in two small towns in Maharashtra: Malkapur and Amravati. Malkapur was successful in providing water supply of 110 litres per capita per day to its residents. Moreover, people using less than 55 litres per capita per day were given only a 15 per cent concession, and Malkapur is nowhere as rich as Delhi. Neither is Amravati. This city delivered 24×7 water at a price at least five times higher than Delhi; and this was before Kejriwal and AAP decided to fight corruption in Delhi by incentivising corruption in the purchase of water. The Delhi policy is that even an additional drop of water beyond approximately 135 litres per person per day on the meter means the household will have to pay the full amount (albeit a measly amount much below the “fair” price of water). Even before the AAP’s mindless policy of zero-price for water, Delhi had one of the lowest prices of water among all the cities in the world.
In e-governance, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru and Hyderabad are the pioneers. Andhra Pradesh launched e-Seva in 2001, following pilot projects in Hyderabad and Secunderabad. In 2011, this project was extended to rural areas under the name of Mee-Seva (“at your service” in Telugu). Moreover, Andhra Pradesh also focused on ensuring a high quality of services (according to a World Bank study, Mee-Seva improved the quality of services from satisfactory to very good). Similar programs were also implemented in Bangalore and Gujarat.
In yet another message to our bumbling but united-against-corruption politicians, Ahluwalia documents how e-governance projects help in improving transparency, accountability and reducing corruption. A 97.5 per cent reduction in corruption in Bangalore was reported by an IIM-B study for 2005-2009.
With this book, Ahluwalia has changed her course, but not her impact. No more equations, nor hard empirical estimation and insights. This time, there is a
warm glow of analysis-driven affection for what has been achieved in urban India, and considerable hope for the future.
Surjit S Bhalla is chairman of Oxus Investments, an emerging market advisory firm, and a senior advisor to Zyfin, a leading financial information company
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