When none of the Indian cities figured in the first 200 ranks of the Global Urban Competitiveness Report compiled last year by a group of international experts, debates about the narrow economic focus of the ranking method offered some consolation to policymakers. But if anyone seriously believes Indian metropolises might compare favourably with the good ones in the world if only the scale of measurement were better, here comes a reality check: UN-Habitat recently expanded the definition of a ‘prosperous city’ to include quality of life, equitable development and environmental sustainability parameters along with productivity and infrastructure. Based on this matured framework, it has worked out a new comprehensive measure — City Prosperity Index (CPI) — to gauge cities. Even in this new analysis, Indian cities are yet to reach the top bracket. When a select group of urban centres across the world were calibrated with the new measure, the two alpha cities of India, Mumbai and Delhi, have come out as mediocre places. They are ranked below Sao Paulo, Shanghai and Ankara. Jakarta, which is similar to Mumbai in terms of productivity, has turned out to be a better city in terms of environment quality and equity. Seoul outdoes Delhi on all counts and turns out as a far superior metropolis.
Indian policymakers should not rush to unwisely dismiss this index as yet another irrelevant ranking. The importance of the CPI lies in its ability to show how and why one city outscores the other and the precise policy corrections it can engender. Though Indian cities do well in terms of productivity, they are environmental nightmares. Delhi, with an environment index of 0.448 (maximum being 1.000) is at the bottom of the pile of the 69 cities studied. Deteriorating air quality, inefficient management of waste, depletion of the ground water table and vanishing water bodies have compromised the advantages offered by Indian urban centres. Insensitive encroachment of open spaces, and depleted green cover have only added to the woes. In contrast, Chongqing in China has increased the amount of public space by 16 times in three decades and Singapore has covered 50 per cent of its surface area with greenery. The second challenge that daunts Indian cities is the issue of equity. Dhaka has a better equity index than Delhi. This is because plans here have paid less attention to the marginalised, resulting in inadequate social housing, eviction of street vendors, and flawed land policies. Achieving economic prosperity along with better quality of life and inclusive growth is imperative not just to climb the rank ladder, but to make our cities desirable places to live.