Urban infrastructure in India

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’. (They deserve special attention, which I hope to provide in a separate post …)

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 casued 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, 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 Manmohan Singh 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.

As an observer of the JNNURM from ground zero, I have seen private consultants brought in at every stage from the formulation of project proposals; their approval by the Ministry; the preparation of DPRs; and the actual execution of projects. This has caused immense resentment among the employees of State Government departments; parastatals of specific sectors like water supply and roads; and the engineers of municipal bodies. The last mentioned need to be involved right from the beginning of any urban infrastructure project, as the responsibilty to maintain and run any asset created will eventually lie with the municipal staff – long after the ‘consultants’ have packed their bags and gone home.

I do not wish to be guilty of just pointing out what went wrong – a national pastime in India – but also want to explore what local governments themselves can do to improve urban infrastructure and basic services in the 5 key sectors covered in my last post, viz. watersupply, sanitation, waste management, transport and housing.

While the jury is still out on the privatization of water supply in Indian cities, there is a growing consensus that municipal bodies themselves can do a lot to improve operational efficiency in the sourcing and supply of water to their citizens.

India has one of the highest ratios of maintenance staff per 1000 connections, and consequently, the salary bills of water supply departments are disproportionately high. What is needed is rightsizing the workforce and upgrading their skill levels, so that the quality of services and repair, renovation and maintenance of existing water storage structures is not compromised. In this way, the introduction of new technologies and systems will also be facilitated. A more effective and professional workforce would also be more vigilant in detecting illegal connections and leakages and can prevent the massive losses incurred due to this preventable practice.

Demand side management of costing and pricing of water also needs to be modernized, learning from the good practices across the world. 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.

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. The spirit of competition between local bodies, incorporated in the ‘Sant Gadge Baba Abhiyan’ in Maharashtra, is the main reason for its success.

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 here, with the capital costs being borne by the local government and donor agencies.

For the environment friendly disposal of waste, we need 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 (like the Advanced Locality Management in Mumbai); and workers’ cooperatives for recycling waste (like Swach in Pune) can have a tremendous beneficial effect and need to become more widespread.

Local governments can also provide incentives (like a small discount in property tax) for reusing of bio-degradable waste through vermicomposting, and non-biodegradable waste through recycling. This will also bring information about practitioners on the public record for regular monitoring.

Finally, Municipal bodies must adopt modern means to streamline waste collection and disposal in a sanitary manner, and may even consider some form of private sector participation to reduce the cost of investing in heavy vehicles and personnel on a permanent basis.

Most Indian cities have grown far beyond their planned boundaries and the resulting urban sprawl has put a tremendous burden on existing transit lines and public transport. The upgrading of roads and networks is extremely expensive if done retrospectively, and the only way out is to integrate transport planning into urban planning at all levels – locality, city or region.

Traffic flow too can be greatly improved through better regulation. For example, if the multiple modes of transport on a typical Indian street could be better segregated, there will be fewer traffic jams. The streets could also be decongested by improving public transport and providing disincentives like high parking fees for private vehicles – as is a common practice everywhere from London to Hong Kong. A better network of arterial roads would also go a long way in keeping the city traffic moving and cutting down on fuel costs and pollution.

Finally, the various agencies dealing with traffic and transport – railways, municipal transport, road development parastatals and traffic police – need much better inter-agency coordination than is seen at present. They must simply stop bickering and get their act together, in the interests of the nation!

As mentioned in my earlier post, the absence of a representational system for land ownership has been a key factor in the growing informalisation of urban housing in India. Therefore, a national system of clear title, documented and guaranteed by a government body must first be put in place, to allow greater access to formal credit by a larger number of people – especially migrants to a city, who otherwise cluster in informal settlements.

Government should also take on a more proactive role in both the development and financing of affordable housing and not leave this crucial sector entirely at the mercy of market forces. If land for affordable housing is earmarked in the Development Plans of cities, then innovative financial arrangements can be worked out which would combine subsidies, incentives and beneficiary contributions in a more convergent and holistic manner. In this way the various sources of government aid and subsidy could be used for maximum benefit. Special agencies could be mandated to actively pursue affordable housing city by city, and State by State.

Then again, a scheme for incentives can be put in place (such as rebates in property tax) which will substantially increase the rental housing stock in a city.

Finally, development control rules (DCR) and regulation of tenure can be made more flexible, to allow the low income groups to build incrementally, as and when they find the resources to do so.

This government makes no bones about the fact that it is industrialist-financed and industry-driven. Even its PR slogans like ‘Make in India’ appear to be single-mindedly pushing the country into putting the manufacturing sector above all else. Never mind that the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, and an eminent economist himself, warns against it, because his analysis shows that the global economy today simply does not have either the inclination or the capacity to absorb another China, in terms of manufactured products.

But this aggressive emphasis on manufacturing will skew our infrastructure priorities – industrial townships, SEZs, more electricity, more airports, and more expressways in the hinterland…

And greater indebtedness, higher informalization of local urban economies, dying cities, environmental degradation, and larger carbon footprints will be the result… surely no government wants that to be its legacy?



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