Field Notes Society

‘Do we want Indian cities to become a London and New York?’

Dharavi Slums in Mumbai

There is something odd about 200 overpasses in Long Island, New York. Compared to those elsewhere in the U.S., some of these overpasses on Long Island are extraordinarily low.

There is a reason behind it — Robert Moses, the master architect of New York, deliberately designed them low to discourage the presence of buses. Why so? So that poor people, who used buses, were not seen on these highways.

This is one of the examples political scientist L. Winner cites in The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology, a study of the politics of engineering and technology.

To the lighthouse

Cities are thus ideas and visions — or prejudices and biases — realised in concrete. Each city has a history and a vision for the future. Advocates of city rankings argue that rankings act as a lighthouse for that future.

Recently, Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, a Bengaluru-based non-profit, released its annual report ranking Indian cities, which ‘measures the preparedness of cities to deliver high quality infrastructure and services’. Called the Annual Survey of India’s City Systems or ASICS report, it is a novel attempt to help understand the capabilities, levels, and processes of cities.

Consider a music competition. How do the judges pick the top spot? They either judge based on certain parameters, or they choose certain musicians as the benchmark against which the competitors are judged. The ASICS report uses the ‘benchmark’ approach, with London and New York as the benchmarks.

For 2017, Johannesburg has been added to introduce a city from a developing country. What value is there in comparing our cities to London, New York and Johannesburg?

A more critical question: Do we want Indian cities to become a London and New York? The ASICS report says, “Our cities presently have broken City-Systems and are improving at a snail’s pace. They score between 3.0 and 5.1 while London and New York score 8.8. Johannesburg, a city from a developing country, scores 7.6. Scores indicate how far our City-Systems need to be strengthened before we can expect our cities to deliver good quality of life.”

 Stone bridge on Taconic State Parkway near Shrub Oak, New York

Stone bridge on Taconic State Parkway near Shrub Oak, New York

The regulatory and technical framework and autonomy that allow London and New York to function the way they do are vastly different from conditions in India. While larger cities such as Delhi, Mumbai or Bengaluru are comparable to London and New York in terms of population and/ or population density, what does it mean to compare Raipur, Dehradun or Ludhiana with these?

For starters, consider budgetary inflows for city councils in India. Property tax is the main revenue source for urban local bodies (ULBs). External revenue sources include state revenue, government grants, loans from state governments, and market borrowings. Moreover, according to UNDP’s ‘Decentralisation in India Challenges & Opportunities’, ULBs suffer from lack of financial devolution and have to depend upon the State government’s political and bureaucratic lobbies to access funds. The funds are nowhere near comparable to what London and New York get. This means an inability to hire or retain skilled personnel, in turn lowering institutional memory and capacity.

Therefore, low quality products or services from Indian city councils are unsurprising. For instance, using spatial planning tools requires expertise, which our city councils don’t have. So, scores of 3.3 or even 10 for Spatial Development Planning are meaningless . On the one hand, ASICS acknowledges that our cities don’t employ enough skilled labour, but also penalises them for poor quality outputs.

The relevance question

Then, there’s the methodology. The ‘City-Systems Framework’, the basis of the ASICS ranking, has four components: urban planning and design; urban capacities and resources; transparency, accountability, and participation; and empowered and legitimate political representation. In each of these categories, different questions determine the ULB’s scores.

How relevant are the questions? Many depend on the implementation of the Town and Country Planning Act, which comes under the State governments. It is, therefore, irrelevant to score the ULB on them. Or, take the question about a city’s relationship to its citizens. Who is a ‘citizen’? To gauge citizen participation, there are questions on online information access, but this implies that only those with online access are considered ‘citizens’.

One of the consistent recommendations of the ASICS report is to ‘outsource’ many functions of the ULB. A 2014 expert committee report chaired by S. Goldsmith (former mayor of Indianapolis now at Harvard University) says that calculating the costs and benefits of outsourcing is complex.

While there have been instances of generating savings of over 20% through outsourcing, there are other cases where costs increased five-fold. While current planning systems should be improved, is it a question of chucking the baby with the bathwater to abandon in-house capacity building entirely to favour outsourcing?

To return to London or New York, it is unclear why these two are considered benchmarks. For instance, in Mercer’s Quality of Living Ranking of 2017, London is nowhere in the first 10 or even 20; its ranking is 40.

In The Economist’s World’s Most Liveable cities, both London and New York are not in the top 10. The recent edition of the UN Habitat’s biannual ‘State of World Cities’ report says that ‘the most unequal cities in the region, and probably the world, are in South Africa’. If it is not about quality of life, what do London, New York, and Johannesburg stand for?

According to the ASICS ranking, the score of a city is meant to indicate “its ability to deliver good quality of life in the medium to long term.”

City as a service

What does such a conception of a city say? Cognitive linguist G. Lakoff in his book Don’t Think of an Elephant! — Know your Values and Frame the Debate talks of how we have a network of associations attached to different words. For instance, referring to a ‘56-inch chest’ in relation to the Prime Minister invokes a metaphorical frame of traditional masculinity, with associated meanings of muscular strength, force, and power. In the ASICS report, talking of a city’s ‘ability’ to ‘deliver’ a good ‘quality’ life invokes the ‘city as a service’ frame.

Once this is clear, the recommendations of the ASICS report fall into place. The recommendations call for improved efficiencies, objectives, metrics, outsourcing, frameworks, and solutions: all that services companies do to improve their profits.

So, what’s wrong with framing a city as a service company? J. Saul argues in The Unconscious Civilization , “We are not customers [of government]. We haven’t walked into a shop to think about buying. We are not going to make a purchase and then walk away. We are the owners of the services in question. Our relationship is not tied to purchase or to value for money but to responsibility. Not only are we not customers of public servants, we are in fact their employers.”

A city cannot and should not choose whom to provide services to in order to make itself financially viable.

It is estimated that 60 crore Indians will live in cities by the year 2031. As the ASICS report joins a chorus of voices asking for a tomorrow where cities become service providers, the question remains unasked: do we the people want to be customers or citizens?

The writers are with Fields of View, a non-profit research group that designs games and simulations for better public policy.

' Systemic approach is the way forward for Indian cities ': A response to this article from  Vivek Anandan Nair and V.R. Vachana who are part of Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, Bengaluru and are the authors of ASICS 2017.


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Printable version | May 1, 2022 2:17:59 am | https://www.thehindu.com/society/do-we-want-indian-cities-to-become-a-london-and-new-york/article23331464.ece