Enough has been said about India's urban century and the upcoming challenges in terms of infrastructure and inclusiveness, but not much has been said about the role leadership will play in meeting the many challenges Indian cities are facing, and will face in the coming future. Without effective leadership and a high degree of oversight our cities will become avenues for pillage, and all kinds of haphazard decisions will lead to a diminished quality of life.
A deeper understanding of the political economy of Indian cities is needed to enable smarter decisions for the future. We have poor commentary and case studies of the kind of leadership issues Indian cities have faced till now. There may be approach-specific commentaries like the essays by Isher Judge Ahluwalia celebrating PPP models in urban India but there is little unbiased evaluation of the tenure of political leaders and bureaucrats, decisions taken and the impact they have on the city.
The Indian urban discourse relies almost completely on anecdotes and case studies from around the world and while the outcome is much talked about what ultimately gets most appreciated is the leadership of a particular individual or group or institutions. It could be the Land Transport Authority or a Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore or Jannette Sadik Khan and Amanda Burden as also ex-mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York or Dr Kee Yeon Hwang and the Korea Transport Institute in South Korea.
A clear unambiguous human face to the improvement(s) is always celebrated, not of some algorithm or technology. Many of these individuals and the legacies they leave behind have become a source of soft power which can be replicated in other cities and countries. Transport planners and mayors of these cities are much sought speakers at conferences or in the international speaker circuit, with interviews in leading media channels a given. The ex-mayor of Bogota (Colombia) Enrique Penalosa has been a favourite in India and has visited many of our cities in the past decade. We have no similar instance of a globally celebrated face from India.
We need to increasingly ask the question: Where are Indian cities getting their leadership from or what kind of people end up providing leadership to Indian cities? It will in all probability not throw up pleasant answers but it will be a necessary first step for change.
Commentary on approaches to affordable housing, density, transport infrastructure and provision of a clean environment in terms of open spaces and clean water bodies is missing. For example, I do not see any credible academic work or political commentary on the debilitating and cascading affects the free housing policy of the BJP-Shiv Sena government under the remote control of late Bal Thackeray had on Mumbai. Subsequent Congress-NCP governments have made few changes and have continued the status quo. It will be two decades now and the city has become even more notorious for its unaffordable housing than it was 20 years ago. Slums are still there and thriving and all that the Slum Rehabilitation Policy has achieved is to generate enough FSI to develop high-end unaffordable luxury housing. People have even started taking decisions to leave the city altogether. So what is it that Mumbai did so wrong with its housing policy over the years?
Density in most Indian cities, and certainly Mumbai, is completely determined by developers and land sharks. In Mumbai, high land and rental values have ensured that somebody capable of strong-arm tactics and holding even a small piece of land (illegally occupied) to begin with can generate enough rental income from that plot and allied illegal activities to buy his way up into the city power hierarchy and then go on to influence almost any and every important decision in Mumbai. Such a person can become a politician, or more importantly determine the career of a politician who is then more than happy to entertain such people as power-brokers and suitably work on some policy or not.
At the same time good-intentioned and knowledgeable people are never able to provide the leadership that the city requires because acquiring political power and a seat at the table have become almost impossible by means deemed civil. They are then consigned to making noises at fora, being quoted on city matters in newspapers or being part of coffee-table discussions ruing the state of the city. In such a raw muscle-power determined power structure the contours of the visionary leadership that we desire for our cities get completely distorted. The principles and values that we expect to be the foundations for taking decisions about our cities’ infrastructure and inclusiveness are nowhere to be found in this quagmire.
The average citizen who could be a slum dweller finding even public transport costly at times, or a high ranking CEO who has the best of cars at his disposal both find themselves equally marginalised in such a set-up not knowing just how to go about getting some basic services from their city – such as a good commuting experience. Nobody knows what the city government looks like besides a few statements in the papers and the latest controversy over a road or any other contract.
Not able to raise ourselves in stature to handle the problems of existing cities, we are drawn to the romantic vision of new cities, the idea of taking a few thousand acres of virgin land and then drawing a set of lines on fresh paper. New cities will never be the answer unless we wish to develop ghost cities like in China. The value system and leadership crisis in existing cities has to be resolved. If not, investors and power-brokers from existing cities or their local counterparts will move into the new cities and in a short period make them look similar to the old cities. Gurgaon is not an old city, it could have very well improved upon the deficiencies of Delhi but it did not.
A smart city may have great technology but the basic decisions about how the available land will be used, how and what kind of housing will be developed, public transport or private transport, economic policy, health and education policies will remain the same in existing or greenfield cities. And the outcomes for these will still be determined by the human factor.
The author is environmental activist and research fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai