Posted in Urban Issues

What a Waste

What a Waste 2.0 – A global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050, is one of those comprehensive and well-researched reports which only an organization with the expertise and global reach of the World Bank could produce.

Taking an overview of every aspect of waste management first globally, then region by region, this report can inform many a local SWM policy paper or augment a scholarly thesis.

I shall simply repeat some of its key observations, so that a hitherto neglected aspect of urban governance viz. solid waste management, is adequately covered on this blog.

Waste Composition

Composition of waste changes with time and technology and naturally, the waste of our times reflects the wants of our times:

Waste Generation

The world generates 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste annually, with at least a third of that not managed in an environmentally safe manner. Worldwide, waste generated per person per day averages 0.74 kilogram but ranges widely, from 0.11 to 4.54 kilograms. Though they only account for 16% of the world’s population, high-income countries generate about 34% of the world’s waste. When looking forward, global waste is expected to grow to 3.40  billion tonnes by 2050.

Waste Collection

The most common form of waste collection is door-to-door. In this model, trucks or small vehicles are used to pick up garbage outside of households at a predetermined frequency. In certain localities, communities may dispose of waste in a central container or collection point where it is picked up by the municipality and transported to final disposal sites. In lower-middle-income countries like India, collection rates are about 51%. Improvement of waste collection services is a critical step to reduce pollution and thereby to improve human health and longevity.

Waste Disposal

Around the world, almost 40% of waste is disposed of in landfills. About 19% undergoes materials recovery through recycling and composting, and 11% is treated through modern incineration, while the remaining is openly dumped. Waste disposal practices vary significantly by income level and region, and as nations prosper economically, waste is managed using more sustainable methods. Construction and use of landfills is commonly the first step toward sustainable waste management.

The darker side of waste disposal is that richer countries often export their electronic waste to poorer countries and this e-waste contains toxic substances such as lead, mercury, cadmium, arsenic and flame retardants. Once in a landfill, these toxic materials seep out into the environment, contaminating land, water and the air, and harming the local community . In addition, devices are often dismantled in primitive conditions, and those who work at these sites suffer frequent bouts of illness, and long-term diseases.

Key Insights about South Asia

The South Asia region, where India is the largest country, generated 334 million tonnes of waste in 2016, at an average of 0 .52 kilogram per capita daily, with 57% characterized as food and green waste. About 44% of waste is collected in South Asia, mainly through door-to-door systems, and three-fourths of waste is currently openly dumped, although improvements to collection systems and construction of sanitary final disposal sites are underway.

Financing and Cost Recovery across the World

  • According to the Report, basic solid waste management systems covering collection, transport, and sanitary disposal in low-income countries cost $35 per tonne at a minimum and often much more.
  • Solid waste management is a large expenditure item for cities and typically comprises nearly 20 percent of municipal budgets in low-income countries, more than 10 percent in middle-income countries, and 4 percent in high-income  countries. Budgets can be much higher in certain  cases.
  • Systems that include more advanced approaches for waste treatment and recycling cost more, from $50 to $100 per tonne or  more. The choice of waste management methodology and technology depends highly on the local context and capacity for investments and ongoing management.
  • User fees range from an average of $35 per year in low-income countries to $170 per year in high-income countries. Full cost recovery from user fees is largely limited to high-income countries. Almost all low-income countries, and a limited number of high-income countries, such as the Republic of Korea and Japan, subsidize domestic waste management from national or local budgets.
  • Although public-private partnerships could potentially reduce the burden on local government budgets, they could result in compromises in service quality when not structured and managed properly.
  • Local governments provide about 50 percent of investments for waste services, and the remainder is typically provided through national government subsidies and the private sector.
  • When political support for increasing user fees for households to cost recovery levels is limited, cross-subsidizing from payments by waste generators (for  example, the commercial sector) can help reduce the burden on local government  budgets. Commercial fees range from about $150 per year in low-income countries to $300 in high-income  countries.
  • Volume-based waste fees have been successful in countries like Austria, Korea, and the Netherlands but are still uncommon because they require coordinated planning and strong  enforcement. Households and commercial institutions in low-income countries are typically charged a flat fee that is collected on a door-to-door basis.

Results based financing

The Report makes the following recommendations:

  • Increase fee collection, such as by matching a portion of the fees collected by the managing institution
  • Promote source separation, waste reduction, and recycling, such as by providing a stipend to neighborhoods that sort and separate an adequate quantity of clean recyclables
  • Strengthen waste collection and transportation, such as by paying waste collectors upon successful and timely delivery of waste to the final disposal site
  • Design efficient infrastructure projects, such as by making loans or grants for a new landfill project contingent on successful construction of various phases
  • Defray risk for investors and increase investments, such as by delaying payments until proof of service success or completion of infrastructure
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Posted in Urban India

Deteriorating Services and Infrastructure in India

Although in 1947, India had at its helm a modern, forward-looking visionary like Nehru – we were forced to choose country over town. The brutal aftermath of colonization, the two World Wars and Partition meant that Indian cities had to take a back seat, as the nation’s priority had to be the famine stalking the Indian countryside, and our meagre resources had to be diverted to agriculture and rural development – with cities left to fend for themselves. However, as the demographic pressures built up in our cities, their resources fell short and by the 1970s, the majority of India’s once thriving municipalities were pushed into a vicious cycle of impoverishment, from which they were never to emerge – despite recent injections of funds under the JNNURM, AMRUT and SMART city programmes.

As we can see in the above figure, deteriorating infrastructure and services result not only in greater informalization and therefore lower tax income, but also reduce the Willingness to Pay (WTP) among tax-payers in the formal sector – and municipalities begin their descent down the spiral of impoverishment.

Local governments in India are responsible for providing and maintaining the civic infrastructure which will allow them to deliver the basic services to citizens mandated under law. The primary service – that of water supply – has already been covered in an earlier post, so let us look at the urban realities concerning urban transport, sanitation, waste management and public housing.

Urban Transport

With a British-inspired emphasis on decongestion and low urban form, town planning in India has not been able to meet the housing and livelihood needs of a rapidly growing population. The resulting urban sprawl to the fringes of the city has put tremendous pressure on urban transport. The absence of affordable, efficient and well-connected public transport networks has led to a sharp rise in the private ownership of motor vehicles, which has in turn led to greater pollution – and the multiple modes of private transport have made traffic management a nightmare, leading to an unacceptably high rate of serious and fatal road accidents. The upgradation of roads and networks is extremely expensive if done retrospectively and therefore the only way out is to integrate transport planning into urban planning at all levels – locality, city or region.

Just look at the facts:

  • There are over 210 million vehicles on Indian roads and > 90% are privately owned
  • Percentage of land under road for Class I Indian cities is 16% compared to 29% in USA, with 1.6 million km of non-rural roads
  • Inadequate road length leads to congestion, pollution, higher fuel consumption, with peak hour speeds limited to 5 – 10 km/h
  • Suspended Particulate Matter in India’s 3 largest cities > 3 – 4 times WHO maximum acceptable level

A part of the reason for the growing crisis has been that urban transport management in India is a case of all responsibility and no authority for local governments. For instance, it is the State Government which formulates Development Plans which lead to urban sprawl, but it is the local body which must provide subsidised public transport. Yet again, registration of new vehicles being a very lucrative source of income for State Governments, there is no incentive to limit their number, and it is left to local bodies to provide parking and road space for them.

At the ground level we find that manufacturers use the same truck engine and chassis for all buses, and therefore, no Indian city has buses especially designed for intra-city travel, further adding to the inefficiency of the system.

Lastly, any city considering a rail-based transport system must depend totally for expertise and execution on the Indian Railways and its subsidiaries, which are under the Central Government, and seldom geared to handle local issues.

Sanitation

Inadequate water supply makes a bad situation worse in the case of urban sanitation. It is estimated that across the world, over 5,000 children die every day from diarrhoeal diseases. In developing countries, the cost of not investing in sanitation and water are immeasurable, resulting in higher infant mortality, more school dropouts and lost work days.

Although around 84% of urban India has sanitation coverage, the 16% that don’t, offer a formidable challenge in terms of absolute numbers, especially as the population of urban India now exceeds the entire population of the USA !

Despite the grandiose Swachha Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Campaign), the persistent issues remain: little public awareness about the link between sanitation and health; investments in urban sanitation planned in a piece-meal manner, ignoring the full cycle of safe confinement, treatment and disposal; continuation of manual scavenging, and little or no attention paid to health and occupational hazards faced by sanitation workers. Meanwhile, huge amounts have been expended on advertising the SBA for political mileage.

Sanitation in Indian cities is not merely a question of finding the land and resources for creating public facilities. It is also an area fraught with cultural practices, customs and personal habits. Therefore, in order to make an appreciable mark it would be necessary to raise public awareness of the hazards of poor sanitation, and provide incentives to achieve certain basic benchmarks. It is also recommended by experts that the design of private, public and community sanitation should be done in active consultation with the end-users, with some contribution (either monetary or voluntary labour) which will give them a sense of responsibility for its maintenance. It has been seen in South Asia, that household connections are more welcome than community facilities and it is strongly recommended that private sanitation be an integral part of all new housing projects for the poor. The major expense would be in providing sewerage lines and treatment plants, and private sector participation may be sought, with the capital costs being borne by the local government and donor agencies.

Waste Management

Estimates put the generation of solid waste in Indian metros at approximately half a kilogram, per capita per day. The characteristics of waste have also changed over the last decade, with the organic, ash and earth component reducing, and the non-biodegradable plastics and hazardous waste components increasing steadily to dangerous levels.

The commonest means of waste disposal remains landfills, and with land becoming increasingly hard to find, garbage has to be ferried further and further away from its source, thereby increasing transport costs. At the receiving end, the residents of selected sites are none too happy, and their resentment often explodes in violent protests and civil unrest. Thus, landfills are becoming an inefficient and unsustainable option for waste disposal and other means must be found soon.

That urban planning and governance in India has been reactive rather than pro-active, is most obvious in the way that Indian cities handle garbage. Development Plans have singularly failed to provide for the needs of growing populations within city boundaries, and solid waste management remains peripheral to the city in both spatial and functional terms. It also tends to be labour-intensive, with a disproportionately high ratio of 2-3 workers per 1000 residents. This adds greatly to the municipal wage bill, and a city with a population of a million could end up spending Rs 100 million annually, without visible improvement in services. Moreover, the vested interests among the labour prevent the adoption of practices like separation at source, and modern technology like mechanical composting.

For the environment friendly disposal of waste, what is needed is strategic planning, public participation and the political and administrative will to make a city cleaner and healthier. Good practices like the separation of garbage at the household level, community participation in keeping city neighbourhoods clean, and workers’ cooperatives for recycling waste can have a tremendous beneficial effect and need to become more widespread. Local governments can also provide incentives for reusing of bio-degradable waste through vermicomposting, and non-biodegradable waste through recycling.

Housing

Affordable housing in urban India is yet another casualty of the country’s planning process. The 5-year plans spent pitiful amounts on urban development and housing through the years, and the Development Plans simply failed to make adequate provisions for the shelter needs of the poor. Secondly, the absence of mechanisms to incorporate the urban informal sector into the legitimate economy has resulted in a lot of dead capital, especially with the poor, which could otherwise have given them greater access to credit for housing.

In the context of urban housing, no fixed asset is more relevant than land. Sadly, even after 70 years of Independence, India is yet to evolve a representational system of land title, which irrevocably fixes ownership of a particular land with a particular owner. The ‘7/12 extracts’ (this is merely the number of a form and has no numerical significance) currently in use are no more than a ‘buyer beware’ or ‘caveat emptor’ type of advisory. For instance, they do not tell you whether a property has been mortgaged or not. As it is not guaranteed or underwritten by a government agency, the 7/12 extract does not constitute land ‘title’ as understood in the rest of the world.

This lack of irrevocable title means that a poor migrant to a big city cannot capitalise on his land holdings back home to finance a house in the city, for instance, or claim secure title on any land he may ‘buy’ in the city slum, from a local slum-lord.

Besides the obscurities of fixing land title, the debt market for housing in India is not sufficiently developed to make affordable housing a reality; and the absence of laws for closure and seizure, further complicates the situation.

Then again, there have been few efforts to stimulate the growth of rental housing stock. While Central and State laws – like the rent control acts – discourage investors from adding to rental housing, many local governments levy prohibitively high property taxes on a house which has been rented out. As rental housing remains the most affordable option for the poor to move into formal housing, these disincentives simply spell bad policy and lack of vision.

Local bodies are also guilty of enforcing very strict development control rules with regard to open spaces, clearances, documentation and building specifications, which the poor simply cannot adhere to, because they build their homes in incremental stages, whenever money becomes available.

And Housing Boards aren’t helping either, as they fail to effectively transfer low cost building technology to the end users.


We may talk of building 100 smart cities, but no amount of IT applied to an Indian city can make the citizens’ life easier if the resources being ‘smartly’ managed are grossly inadequate to begin with.

Ever since the economic reforms of 1991, India has been dragged screaming and resisting, into the new millennium and a globalized world. While the well-connected tech savvy 10% want India to become China overnight, the majority (70%) couldn’t give a damn about globalization and our image on the internet, while the undecided 20% are labelled (rather patronisingly) as the ‘aspiring class’.

One consequence of this post-global polarisation has been the undue emphasis on big-ticket infrastructure projects in the Vajpayee era with the private sector eager to get involved, and banks ready to finance. But they reckoned without the inevitable delays caused by the 3 curses of India which China is relatively free from: lack of adequate planning, land acquisition problems, and a low capacity implementing workforce in both the public and private sectors.

As a result, private companies got deeper and deeper into debt, (in fact most of the non-performing assets plaguing Indian Banks today date back to this era), banks became more and more reluctant to lend, and delayed projects did not yield the cash flow at the expected time, to keep the profits humming.

The UPA Government had the right idea when it announced the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) – they reasoned that as cities are the generators of economic momentum, it makes sense to upgrade city infrastructure, and as its cities grow more productive and prosperous, India will grow more productive and prosperous. Period.

But the JNNURM floundered precisely because the private sector was let in too early, before addressing any of the 3 issues mentioned above viz: lack of adequate planning; land acquisition problems; low capacity implementing workforce.

And the present Government has repeated all the JNNURM mistakes with spades: this time round, the blatant crony capitalism and capture of the Indian Infrastructure economy by select business houses, does not even have the fig leaf of PPP to hide behind…

Posted in Urban India

Indian Urban Planning in limbo

Clichés about Indian cities abound – the skyscrapers of the rich surrounded by the squalor of slums, the overcrowded public transport, the stray cows at the crossroads, the piles of garbage, the algae infested waterways, the polluted and unbreathable air… and successive governments have simply not had the time (because rural poverty required attention immediately after Independence) nor the inclination (because urban India has just 31% of the vote) to do anything about India’s dead and dying cities.

To make matters worse, Indian urban planning has always been trapped in something of a time warp, still true to its British parentage, while countries like South Korea, Singapore and China have surged ahead and shown the world how millions of urban dwellers can live in cities that work, and are still people-friendly.

Like all the laws governing Indian cities today, the planning laws too originated under British rule in the Bombay Town Planning Act of 1915, and it is quite understandable that the provisions of this law all hark back to ‘the green and pleasant land’ the law makers had left behind, and wished to recreate in India. Never mind that Britain had solved its population problems through forced and unforced emigrations to North America and the antipodes, while India’s population was still burgeoning!

As a result, India was left tied to an outdated ‘low urban form’, strict zoning laws which militated against the poor, and development control rules (DCR) redolent of a past where the colonials lived in splendid bungalows, and the ‘natives’ lived in congested squalor. Remnants of this colonial past are still visible in the cantonment areas of cities like Pune, with crumbling bungalows (with empty stables!), huge tracts of vacant defence land, clubs (and even a racecourse!) occupying prime land in what could be the city’s Central Business District (CBD) if developed with an eye to the future instead of the past…

Streamlining and modernizing land laws is crucial to any urban planning that Indian cities may indulge in, and integrated, culturally relevant, flexible and people-friendly urban planning allows for less costly provision of basic services such as water and sanitation, higher resilience, climate change mitigation and adaptation, poverty reduction and pro-poor policies.


The cornerstone of current Indian urban planning is the Development Plan (DP), often described as the vision of the city, its physical configuration and growth in the foreseeable future, and the environmental considerations and technical solutions unique to the geography, history and social make-up of every city. It sets the agenda of what the city wants to do with itself in the next two to three decades. To make this vision a reality, the urban planner takes into account the various public requirements of the city and reserves lands, whether public or private, for those purposes. The plan also proposes conservation and preservation of areas that have natural, historical or architectural importance. The Development Plan also makes provisions for the city’s transportation and communication system such as roads, railways, airways and waterways, and parking facilities.

The two instruments of a Development Plan are zoning, and reservation:

  • Zoning is the means whereby compatible land uses are grouped together, and incompatible uses segregated – such as manufacturing industry and residential areas.
  • Reservations for public purposes include schools, colleges and educational institutions, medical and public health facilities, markets, social welfare and cultural institutions, theatres and places of public entertainment, religious buildings, burial grounds and crematoria, government buildings, open spaces and playgrounds, natural reserves and sanctuaries, dairies, sites for public utilities such as water supply and sewerage, fire stations, other community sites, service industries and industrial estates.

In order to successfully implement the Development Plan, the municipal body needs to be empowered and this is done through Development Control Rules (DCR). These rules deal with the manner in which building permission can be obtained, the general building requirements, and aspects of structural safety and services. Access, layouts, open spaces, area and height limitations, lifts, fire protection, exits and parking requirements are all stipulated in the DCR. Similarly, structural design, quality of material and workmanship, and inspections during construction are spelt out. The control of floor space use, tenement densities, and the Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) are some of the most crucial issues dealt with by these rules.

Although Development Planning is the path to city development all across the world, the sad fact is that in most Indian cities, not even 10% of a DP gets actually implemented. In fact, while all the tedious processes of approval, amendment and land acquisition are going on, the citizens have built their houses and moved in, without waiting for the infrastructure promised in the DP. Once an area becomes inhabited, the best a municipal body can do is retrofitting the essentials like water supply and sewerage, at huge cost. In this way are our ‘planned’ cities unplanned.

Urban Planning because of its control of that most precious commodity in an overcrowded country (land) is also susceptible to major subversion and scams. A well-documented case is that of the prime land tied up in Mumbai’s dead and dying textile mills, until the Supreme Court of India intervened to permit their brownfield redevelopment by the mill owners, with due reservations for public amenities and housing. The problem here arose from a little sleight of hand by vested interests. The Government of Maharashtra had introduced the Development Control Rules (DCR) in 1991, under which a mill owner was permitted to sell or redevelop his land, provided one-third was surrendered to the municipal corporation for public amenities and another third to the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) for low-cost housing. The remaining third was the owner’s. Ten years later, it surreptitiously amended this clause to make it apply only to vacant land – as distinct from the entire footprint of the mill. As a result, the first mill which would have surrendered 5,641 sq m for open space and 4,616 sq m to MHADA, got away with forfeiting just 474 sq m and 388 sq m respectively. In the case of Modern Mills, the corresponding figures are 8,626 versus 1,163 sq m as open space, and 7,058 sq m versus nothing for housing. Even this open space is often subsumed within the redeveloped complexes (mill to mall) and is not public space, strictly speaking.

This tendency to play fast and loose with planning laws and development control rules when it comes to big land owners in urban areas is deliberate, as it gives a lot of discretion to public officials and is the biggest source of corruption in local government. The ultimate losers, as always, are the unfortunate citizens of these cities, who keep getting pushed to the outer peripheries, as homes in the central areas have become simply unaffordable even for top earning professionals.

Lastly, when the very raison d’être of great cities has been manufacturing, how can they survive de-industrialization? They don’t. While de-industrialization may hollow out a western city, in India, de-industrialization ‘leaves the world to darkness and to me…’ The stalwart of the informal sector, living a life of quiet misery and departing life unmourned and unlamented. How and when will India reinvent its Bombays and Madrases? Perhaps by renaming them yet again?


According to UN Habitat, “…the city of the 21st century is one that transcends the form and functionality of previous models, balancing lower energy costs with a smaller ecological footprint, more compact form, and greater heterogeneity and functionality. This city safeguards against new risks and creates conditions for a higher provision of public goods, together with more creative spaces for imagination and social interaction.

The city of the 21st century is one that:

  • Reduces disaster risks and vulnerabilities for all, including the poor, and builds resilience to any adverse forces of nature
  • Stimulates local job creation, promotes social diversity, maintains a sustainable environment and recognizes the importance of public spaces
  • Creates harmony between the five dimensions of prosperity and enhances the prospects for a better future
  • Comes with a change of pace, profile and urban functions and provides the social, political and economic conditions of prosperity…”
Posted in Reports & Indices

World Development Report 2019: The Changing Nature of Work

It had to happen I suppose. After the World Development Report 2018 on Learning to Realize Education’s Promise, it was only to be expected that the World Development Report 2019 would look at the Changing Nature of Work.

Last year, the President of the World Bank Group, Jim Yong Kim reminded us how education helped his country to rise from the ashes of war: “Today, not only has [South] Korea achieved universal literacy, but its students also perform at the highest levels in international learning assessments. It’s a high-income country and a model of successful economic development.” This year he reminds us that “investing in Human Capital is not just a concern of ministers of health and education; it should also be a top priority for heads of state and ministers of finance.” Simple economics indeed!

The Report points out that the nature of work is changing in several ways:

  1. Digital technology is gradually replacing the traditional input-output production process, with the global platform marketplace which brings together producers, providers and customers in a multi-sided model
  2. The skill set required of workers today is shifting from manual skills to socio-behavioural, which require higher cognitive skills and greater adaptability
  3. There is a global shift from manufacturing to services, which again requires a differently skilled workforce and only those countries which have invested heavily in human capital (like Singapore and South Korea) have used this opportunity to move from developing to developed country status
  4. South Asia, on the other hand, has again missed the boat in this regard, and the result has been the unrelenting informalization of their economies, with a concomitant poor quality of life for their citizens

The Report suggests areas in which governments need to act promptly, to ensure that they are not left behind by the rest of the world, often frittering away their demographic dividends:

  • Investment in human capital, particularly early childhood education, to develop high-order cognitive and socio-behavioral skills in addition to foundational skills.
  • Enhanced social protection. A solid guaranteed social minimum and strengthened social insurance, complemented by reforms in labor market rules in some emerging economies, would achieve this goal.
  • More fiscal space for public financing of human capital development and social protection.

To back up its argument, the Report presents its first Human Capital Index for ranking its member nations. The index follows the trajectory from birth to adulthood of a child born in a given year, and quantifies the milestones in this trajectory in terms of their consequences for the productivity of the next generation of workers.

It has three components:

  1. a measure of whether children survive from birth to school age (age 5)
  2. a measure of expected years of quality-adjusted school which combines information on the quantity and quality of education
  3. two broad measures of health—stunting rates and adult survival rates.

The HCI calculated for nations is graphically presented as below:

The World Bank’s Human Capital Index has really set the cat among the pigeons, by calling to account governments like the present one in India, which only chase growth in GDP at the cost of long-term human development of future generations. The Indian Government has cried foul about the data used in this Index, but statistical hassles notwithstanding, it is very clear that the present government has grossly neglected the human, social and environmental aspects of development in favour of physical infrastructure alone. And as we know, sustainable livelihoods can be provided only when ALL five types of capital are amply provided and balanced – human, social, natural, physical and financial. 

No wonder then, it may well be the issue of livelihoods in both urban and rural areas which may see drastic political changes across India in the coming days and months…

 

 

Posted in Urban India

Looming Water Crisis in Indian Cities

 

While the pollution of cities like New Delhi grabs world headlines, with the Supreme Court threatening to ban all private vehicles in the national capital, there is little public and media interest in another looming catastrophe for all Indian cities – the deteriorating water supply.

India’s water consumption is projected to touch 843 billion cubic meters (bcm) by 2025 against the current availability of 695 bcm. By 2050, the country will need 1,180 bcm of water, and at the same time groundwater is being depleted at unsustainable rates. These are the conclusions of a new report by the Niti Aayog (formerly the Planning Commission), and its author, Avinash Mishra, goes on: “We’re in dire straits and we need to change our approach to tackle the crisis, otherwise the situation will become so grim that the shortages will knock down our GDP by 6 percentage points in over a decade.”

The water situation has worsened gradually over the years and is rooted (as most of India’s problems are) in too much politics, and too little governance.

The problems begin with sourcing of water for big cities like Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi. At the institutional level, urban local bodies do not have control of the source which is either with the Irrigation Department or parastatals, whose first priority is, naturally, agriculture.

Secondly, the groundwater of a city remains largely in private hands and is tantamount to theft, as the aquifers supplying water to private wells are a common natural resource for everyone. The Groundwater Surveys and Development Agency (GSDA) of the State Government has identified 4,500 wells in a major city like Pune, but only 200 borewells are registered with the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC). The result of this discrepancy has been the growth of a tanker mafia, with the average citizen at its mercy for his/her daily water supply. Again, only 150 water tanker suppliers are registered with the Corporation, while hundreds more operate below the radar – often tapping the PMC’s own supplies illegally, to sell at a premium to the hapless citizen.

The ‘Dynamic Ground Water Resources of India’, a report published by the Central Ground Water Board, defines the stage of development of groundwater as the percentage of utilisation of groundwater with respect to recharge. The chart below shows the extreme overutilization of groundwater in major Indian cities:

Groundwater in Major Indian CitiesMeanwhile, unchecked extraction by urban farmers and wealthy residents has caused groundwater levels to plunge to record lows, and the 21 major cities shown above, are expected to run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting 100 million people.

To make matters worse, an estimated 70% of India’s water is contaminated with arsenic, fluoride, salinity, nitrates, industrial effluents, organic and inorganic solid waste. Further, only one-third of its wastewater is currently treated, meaning raw sewage flows into rivers, lakes and ponds – and eventually gets into the groundwater.

A municipal corporation’s woes though, are only just beginning – having made this low-quality water drinkable at great cost in terms of treating agents and electric power for purification, it must further spend millions to distribute the treated water through an antiquated distribution network, losing further through illegal tapping and leakages in the system – often as high as 40%. The heavy physical losses, low pressure and intermittent supplies, lead to back siphoning and further contamination of water in the distribution network.

Of course, the consumer at the other end is never happy with the result, curses the Corporation for not providing water 24×7, and will take to the street to protest even a paltry hike in his monthly bill. Water, it is argued, is a ‘gift of nature’ and should be free. In reality, the heavy subsidy on drinking water is the main reason for the impoverishment of municipal bodies the world over. The Pune Municipal Corporation, for instance, spends Rs 11 to provide 1000 litres of water, and recovers only Rs 5 – a subsidy of Rs 6 for every thousand litres, multiplied a thousand-fold, takes a heavy toll of its inadequate resources.

The financial situation of municipal bodies was not helped by replacing buoyant local taxes and levies (like Octroi) with grants from the Central kitty, routed and delayed by the State Government. It is estimated that although the Centre will compensate cites like Mumbai on par with their last receipts when Octroi was replaced by a consolidated Goods and Services Tax (GST), the loss to the Municipal Corporation in terms of the buoyancy and immediacy built into Octroi, could mean anywhere between 10-15% loss of revenue.

The problem arising from the complexity of the institutional arrangements, the machinations of the informal water sector, and the huge imbalance between revenue and expenditure, all make urban water supply a city manager’s worst nightmare.

However, all is not lost – municipal bodies themselves can do a lot to improve operational efficiency in the sourcing and supply of water to their citizens. An effective, professional and dedicated workforce will go a long way in preventing the massive losses through illegal connections and leakages. Most municipal bodies have water supply departments which are grossly understaffed, and this increases their dependence upon private contractors whom it can neither monitor, control nor regulate. This adds greatly to the inefficiency of the city’s water supply as a whole.

Municipal Corporations must also stem the leakage losses due to the corruption amid its own staff, whereby private contractors will fit a broad-gauge supply line to a particular building or locality, while it is shown at half that gauge in the municipal records.

Demand side management of costing and pricing of water also needs to be modernized, learning from good practices across the world. Currently, most Indian cities have only a fraction of their connections metered, but the bulk of their non-commercial users pay a lump sum as part of their annual Property Tax – and this has no relation whatsoever, to the actual quantity of water used in a year by that property owner. As the poor are limited in the amount of water they can store, the greatest beneficiaries of the subsidy are the middle class, who may indiscriminately use the expensively provided water for drinking, bathing, flushing their toilets, or washing their cars. While a more discriminatory pricing system like the Increasing Block Tariff or IBT will ensure that the available subsidies go to the deserving, the conservation of water through rainwater harvesting and recycling schemes could also be incentivized through a system of rebates on tariff.


Sadly, one thing is clear – just like climate change and air pollution, dwindling water supplies must be tackled by all countries on a war footing. There simply aren’t enough tomorrows left with the human race…

Posted in Urban India

Quality of Life in an Indian Context

Quality of Life is being increasingly discussed in India – the older generation laments its passing and TV Gurus propose that we use it to measure the Government’s performance before the next election. Then again, there are sporadic reports from foreign agencies ranking Indian cities globally at 116, or 126, or whatever. And we shake our heads in sorrow. But have you ever wondered how ‘quality’ of life can be measured with such accuracy in ‘quantities’? And who exactly is measuring it and why?

The whole QOL craze is a product of our increasingly interconnected global economy. Multinationals needed an easy base number to calculate the salaries of expatriate workers and an index was needed to work out the costs of children’s education, medical care, and ‘hardship’ allowances for conveniences unavailable in a foreign posting.

The best known of these indices is the Mercer Index for Quality of Life. It evaluates local living conditions in more than 450 cities according to 39 factors, grouped in 10 categories: political and social environment, economic environment, cultural environment, medical and health considerations, schools and education, public services and transportation, recreation, consumer goods availability, rental housing including household appliances, furniture and maintenance services, and lastly, natural environment/climate and record of natural disasters.

QOL Determinants

As expected, the prime cities of over-resourced and underpopulated Western Europe, Australia or Canada take the top spots. Interestingly, if we list the best 20 cities on the Mercer Index and compare them with the 20 most populous cities, we will find that not one city from the second list figures in the first. So, one can safely conclude that as a city grows in size, beyond its carrying capacity, the first casualty will always be the quality of life of its citizens.

Does this mean that the world’s largest urban agglomerations are doomed to linger in the nether regions of such scales year after year – with their citizens forever deprived of a decent quality of life? I don’t think so.

Instead of constantly validating our happiness by western criteria, why can’t Indian (and Asian) cities set their own standards for judging Quality of Life? These would be firmly anchored in each country’s social, cultural and political realities and would resonate well with the people, besides comparing one city with another on the true quality of life; not just the level of services available.


To work out an Indian QOL Index, the following questions need to be asked. These can be answered using our own urban experience and data locally available with various government agencies, parastatals, professional bodies and NGOs.

Political and Social Environment

  • Do women feel safe living by themselves and traveling at all hours across the city?
  • What is the city’s performance in Centrally-sponsored programmes for the poor – in terms of livelihoods, self-help groups and subsidized housing?
  • What is the Police record in tackling crime and maintaining Law and Order in the city?
  • Are there mohalla (community) committees to defuse a potential conflict before violence breaks out?
  • How active is the voluntary sector in the city?
  • How successful are public awareness and sensitization campaigns on various social issues?

Economic Environment

  • What is the city’s contribution to the Central and State exchequer in terms of various direct and indirect taxes?
  • What is the access and availability of banking and financial services in the city?
  • Are there Special Economic Zones, IT Parks and other facilities, earmarked for industries and services?
  • Does the city have a domestic/international airport, a railway junction/station?
  • How well is the city connected to national and international e-retail networks?
  • What are the rents per square foot for commercial premises in the city’s CBD?
  • How many businesses in the city are registered under the Shop and Establishments Act?
  • How efficient are the public utilities like power and broadband connectivity?
  • What is the standard of municipal services in the areas of public transport, water supply, sanitation, solid waste management, etc?

Housing and related issues

  • What percentage of the city’s economy and housing are in the informal sector?
  • How many notified slums does the city have?
  • What is the average monthly rent for a 1000 sq ft apartment?
  • What are the average monthly maintenance charges in a cooperative society?
  • What percentage of the city’s housing is owner-occupied?

Schools and Education

  • Is the number of schools adequate for 100% coverage of the school going population?
  • What is the average student to teacher ratio in the city schools?
  • Do municipal and ZP schools offer children the same learning opportunities as private schools?
  • What is the availability and affordability of institutions of higher learning? Are they equally accessible to locals as to outsiders?

Health and Sanitation

  • How does the Public Health machinery respond to a crisis, epidemic or disaster?
  • Is Primary Health Care (PHC) available and accessible in every corner of the city?
  • What is the city’s doctor to patient ratio?
  • What is the city’s hospital bed to patient ratio?
  • How many specialist medical and diagnostic services are available in the city’s hospitals?
  • How many 24-hour pharmacies does the city have?
  • What is the city’s record in mass immunization campaigns?
  • What percentage of the city’s housing is connected to the main sewage line?
  • How many public toilets does the city have per 1000 users?

Natural Environment

  • Is there a city policy on monitoring and limiting air, noise and water pollution?
  • What are the average annual pollution levels for the city as a whole?
  • Are the public spaces and green cover available in the city adequate for its population?
  • Is the water supply in the city adequate per WHO norms? How much is actually supplied per day per capita?

Cultural Environment

  • Does the city government finance, subsidize and encourage cultural activities?
  • Does the city organize annual festivals of Literature, Art, Music, Drama?
  • How many Libraries, Art Galleries, Drama theatres, Cinema theatres and multiplexes does the city have?
  • Are there local handicrafts and artisan groups? Does the city provide them subsidized business support?

And so on…

Such an Index will not only be meaningful to Indians, but will also facilitate policy formulation at the city level, and allow cities to compete with one another to offer a better quality of life to all their citizens.

Posted in Poverty

Poverty now an ascribed status?

While I was writing a piece on understanding urban poverty for a newspaper, I was struck by the fact that being poor has become as much an ascribed status in South Asia, as caste, class, race or gender.

In other words, you live and die with what you are born into – an accident of birth that marks you for life. And you start ‘paying’ for this accident in the womb itself – with a malnourished mother giving birth to a chronically undernourished child.

Look at the state of children today – at the forefront of every conflict, born and growing up with the sound of rockets and bombs in their ears – not their mother’s lullabies. Escaping war only to succumb to entirely treatable diseases like cholera, ravaging their malnourished little bodies. All across the world, what begins as politics and resource grabbing, ends up as another humanitarian crisis where the children of the poor continue to pay the price for being born at the wrong place at the wrong time: whether in Syria, Yemen, Gaza, or Myanmar.

If a child of a poor household escapes being born in a war zone, it will have other conflicts to endure – child labour, trafficking, slavery, sexual exploitation, little food and less education. In other words, no aspiration or escape from the terrible conditions he or she is born into – only a childhood lost forever.

The Sustainable Development Goals may speak of ending poverty in the next decade or so, but see how the world is treating its future generations: children make up the majority of those living in extreme poverty. In 2013, an estimated 385 million children lived on less than US$1.90 per day. Still, these figures are unreliable due to huge gaps in data on the status of children worldwide. And this income data by itself is far from sufficient to truly gauge the depth of deprivation among poor children worldwide.

Gone are the days when poverty, especially urban poverty was measured merely by the lack of income, or resources. As Robert McNamara pointed out as far back as 1980: the deprivations of the absolute poor “… go beyond income. And in many cases, even if their income were higher… they could not by that fact alone free themselves from their difficulties. The reason is that absolute poverty is a complicated web of circumstances, all of them punitive, that reinforce and strengthen one another.”

And the reinforcement covers all dimensions like low income, little or no access to credit, lack of security of tenure, unsanitary living and working conditions, malnutrition and poor health, low learning capacity and lifelong unemployment and underemployment.
Trapped in this vicious circle, can the poor ever break out on their own?

Cycle of Poverty

Obviously not. But there are several points at which a government can break the cycle, provided it has the political will not to sell out to the rich, and to agree with McNamara when he says: “To reduce and eliminate massive absolute poverty lies at the very core of development itself. It is critical to the survival of any decent society.”

Governments, especially those in South Asia, need to realize that the universalization of primary and secondary education is key to all future development – social, industrial and economic. Schools themselves can become an agency to monitor the nutritional status of children and their immunization against the deadliest childhood diseases besides spreading the message about hygiene and sanitation.

With the basic education structure in place, social evils like child and forced labour can be eliminated from society, and the future workforce can continue learning long enough to move to vocational and professional education, which will enable employment in the formal sectors of the economy and gradual formalization of the tiny, micro and informal sectors through proper registration, record and regulation by the government.

South Asian countries must also put in place a representational system for all assets, liabilities, and inventories of the poor to give them access to institutional finance. The absence of such a system is one of the reasons that the poor and their assets cannot be mainstreamed into the local, regional and national economies in these countries, resulting in huge losses to governments in terms of unassessed and uncollected taxes.

But these things have been said again and again and nobody seems to care anymore.

I hang my head in shame…