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Managing The Chaos

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It is a migration that is unstoppable. throughout Asia, including India, the wave of people moving to cities will only swell as years go by. “Some 1.1 billion people in Asia will move to cities in the next 20 years,” Haruhiko Kuroda, president of the Asian Development Bank, warned while delivering the plenary lecture at the first World Cities Summit held recently in Singapore. “By 2030, half the population of the continent will live in cities.”

The challenge, then, is of managing this scale and pace of migration from rural areas to urban agglomerations. “Providing jobs and services while improving the livelihood and quality of life for so many city dwellers is an urban management task of a magnitude never before attempted,” said Kuroda. And that good urban governance is both imperative and indispensable to this ‘management’, and the process of creating sustainable and vibrant cities was underscored by the summit’s proceedings.

With Indian cities hard pressed to accommodate and provide for their current residents — pegged at 12 million in Mumbai, 14 million in Delhi, 5 million in Kolkata and 4.5 million in Bangalore — it is hard to imagine how they will cope with the new additions. The fact that half of India’s population is projected to live in cities by 2041 bodes badly for habitats where taps have already run dry, public transport has fallen apart and inadequate housing has meant that entire swathes of humanity live cheek by jowl in overcrowded urban slums.

Too Many Cooks
Take the case of China on the other hand. According to James Adams, vice-president for the World Bank’s East Asia and Pacific Region, the country has in the past two decades managed to absorb more than 370 million people into its cities without the proliferation of urban slums. He attributes this phenomenon to a number of factors. “Key among them are good national policies that give Chinese municipalities the authority to introduce and implement regulations governing land use, the transport system and the urban environment,” he says. Local authorities, says Richard Leete, director and head of the department of social affairs with the Qatar government, are flexible in making decisions on land use, infrastructure and services, and are, thus, better suited to ensure social and economic development. They are also, adds Leete, better placed to institute urban governance.

Policy makers in India, too, have accounted for the importance of decentralisation of powers in the 74th Constitutional Amendment enacted in 1992. The amendment empowers local authorities to plan, execute and manage issues related to land use and construction, water supply, town planning and building of roads and bridges — though it does not seem to be working in practice. According to an ADB report, while reforms have promoted devolution, “authorities in many countries are still reluctant to relinquish power and control”. The problem in India, according to Phillip Rode, executive director of Urban Age, a worldwide investigation into the future of cities, is no different.

Speaking at the Urban Habitats Forum, a public-private partnership between the India Habitat Centre and Delhi-based Mirabilis Advisory, Rode showed how the national government still retains crucial powers in the management of the city-state of Delhi, while the state governments emerge as the key decision makers and service operators in the planning and running of Mumbai and Bangalore. The local authorities in these cities have no serious power or autonomy to effect any policy change.

A number of other Asian cities, too, are facing a serious governance challenge, says a report by the UN-Habitat’s Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. The poor governance and management of the urban infrastructure is further compounded by the sheer number of local bodies in every city. In Delhi, at least four major civic bodies — Municipal Corporation of Delhi, New Delhi Municipal Council, Delhi Jal Board and Delhi Development Authority — are at loggerheads over territory and accountability. Many municipalities operating in an urban area, says the ADB report, means that they pose difficulties in planning and coordination of capital investments. For the residents it means unpaved roads, overflowing sewers, unauthorised constructions and routine demolitions.

Source: Asian Development Bank,
UN Human Development Report
2005, UNFPA, UN-Habitat, Urban Age

Easing The Pressure
The need to focus on improving municipal planning and empowering local bodies with the power to govern becomes all the more pressing in light of observations made by Sanjeev Sanyal, the regional chief economist of Deutsche Bank and steering committee member of Urban Age and the Urban Habitats Forum. According to Sanyal, India’s urbanisation “will not just be about migration to the existing big cities”. The growth, he says, “will increasingly come from the smaller cities, long forgotten mofussil towns and brand new urban centres”.

The development of successful second-tier cities is a key issue. Such a move will stem migration to megacities such as Delhi and Mumbai and, thus, prevent them from coming apart at the seams. To ease the population pressure, Indian cities also need to have a clear policy regarding the verticalisation of growth. Although Delhi’s 2021 master plan does allow for taller buildings through a relaxation of the plot ratio regulations, the policy at the moment remains ad hoc. In Singapore, not only has going vertical helped deal with the housing problem, it has also cleared up ground space for the development of green spaces such as parks and forests.

Further migration into the cities can also be stemmed by putting in place an effective mass rapid transport system such as Delhi’s Metro, which will reduce distances substantially, allowing people to live and work even in two different cities. But this building of new or improved existing infrastructure requires huge investments, and according to the ADB report, local authorities can do that through raising domestic credit and foreign direct investment.

Successful city management requires necessary and timely institutional reforms, but it also needs to be led by people with a vision and a good idea of its problems and needs. As World Bank’s Adams says, “Smart cities see what’s ahead and plan accordingly.”

(Businessworld Issue 15-21 July 2008)

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