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…

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Author:

I have worked for over 26 years as a trainer of Government Officials and Elected Representatives, specializing in the urban and municipal sector. I have also written extensively on Urban Governance, Poverty, Development, Social Accountability and Municipal Management in the Indian context, and wish to share these writings with you through this blog.

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