Cities without Shelter…

The maiden edition of UN Habitat’s World Cities Report (WCR 2016) reviews the changing face of urbanization in the last 20 years, covering the period when the global urban population hit the critical 50% mark, and our world was forever changed.

It identifies and discusses the following key issues or challenges before our cities, citizens and local and federal governments:

Emerging Issues in World City Report 2016

Of particular interest to countries like India is the section on Slums and Informal Settlements. UN-Habitat defines slums as “… a contiguous settlement that lacks one or more of the following five conditions: access to clean water, access to improved sanitation, sufficient living area that is not overcrowded, durable housing and secure tenure.” The WCR 2016 clearly avers that “…slums are the products of failed policies, poor governance, corruption, inappropriate regulation, dysfunctional land markets, unresponsive financial systems, and a lack of political will.”

And what is apparently true of the world, is true of India as well. In spades.

The WCR 2016 draws a dismal picture of government efforts to address the problem of informal settlements, across the world:

  • Over the last 20 years, housing has not been central to national and international development agendas, and urban land management and administration have suffered as a result
  • The housing policies put in place through the enabling approach have failed to promote adequate and affordable housing
  • Inequality, focus on homeownership, speculation and neglect of rental housing have gone on unchecked
  • Most involvement by governments has focused on helping the middle class to achieve home-ownership in a formal sector that only they can afford
  • The dependence on the private sector to provide housing has steadily increased across the world

The Report suggests the following policy initiatives at all tiers of government, to address the issue of adequate and affordable housing:

  • If the emerging future of cities is to be sustainable, a new approach that places housing at the centre of urban policies is required, to re-establish the important role of housing in achieving sustainable urbanization
  • At the national level, the goal is to integrate housing into national urban policies
  • At the local level, the importance of housing must be reinforced within appropriate regulatory frameworks, urban planning and finance, and as part of the development of cities and people.

Nobody in India is paying the least attention, as housing subsidies for the poor are rapidly replaced by ‘subsidized housing loans’ and initiatives like Smart Cities run into local resistance, because they are seen as a means of further enrichment of multinational IT firms, by raising local tariffs and taxes. RIP!

And as the Government of India jettisons all rights-based approaches in the social sector, the situation in the country’s slums will only get worse. Urban land transactions have bred land and construction mafias, which have totally penetrated and undermined local governments; engendered corruption on an unimaginable scale in State and Central Governments; and transferred huge tracts of public lands into private hands through the back door – in the name of the poor. Where else but in Mumbai can a rich man buy a 5 bedroom penthouse, signing 4 different contracts with the developer for 4 ‘lower income’ flats ‘merged’ into one while the government authorities conveniently looked the other way? And even the beleaguered and heavily indebted middle class must turn its hard earned ‘white’ money into ‘black’ to appease the property developer who demands part of the price of a house in this form, to avoid paying taxes. None of the successive governments of various ideological hues has done anything to address these woes, and none will, because the builders’ lobby is simply too strong and influential.

So it goes in various guises across the world, as the global housing shortage is expected to hit a billion by 2025…



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?


Municipal services in India

The raison d’être of urban local bodies anywhere in the world is the provision of basic civic or municipal services, and the functions of these bodies in India have remained virtually unchanged, since the time of Chanakya. Today, I would like to share some little known ground realities in India, about the key sectors of Water Supply and Sanitation, Solid Waste Management, Urban Transport and Housing.

Water supply, of course, is the most important function of a municipal body anywhere in the world, and it is said that bridging the demand and supply gap in a city can be the urban manager’s worst nightmare. Water, because of its centrality to human existence, has always been a highly emotive issue in most cultures, ever since the first civilizations came up on the banks of mighty rivers.

There is also the underlying assumption that water is a gift of nature, and should be provided free of cost, and any proposal to recover the cost of supply at realistic rates, meets with immediate resistance – from rich and poor alike. The rising price of chemicals and electricity needed for the effective treatment and distribution of water further adds to the cost, and is completely ignored and impossible to recover from the end-user.

The net effect of these attitudes is the precarious water situation in India’s metros, and even in its small and medium towns. According to a 2001 World Bank study, of the 27 Asian million-plus cities, Chennai and Delhi are ranked as the worst performing metropolitan cities in terms of hours of water availability per day, while Mumbai is ranked as second worst performer and Kolkata fourth worst. The quantum of water supplied too, is far below the WHO norms in almost all Indian cities.

The sporadic, inadequate and unreliable municipal supply of water has led to a desperate search for other sources, and as a result, groundwater is being indiscriminately tapped with rapid depletion, boding ill for future generations. The groundwater levels of Delhi well illustrate this point:

Delhi Groundwater

At the operational level too, the urban local bodies are dogged by several intractable problems. While water sources in and around a city remain virtually static, the exponential growth in population dramatically increases the demand-supply gap, year after year. And as the proportion of poor grows with the population, the sanitary conditions deteriorate; water sources get contaminated; and the cost of water purification keeps rising.

Then again, the distribution of water is dogged by old and poor quality transmission and distribution networks and inadequately trained and equipped maintenance personnel. This results in heavy physical losses, low pressure and intermittent supplies, leading to back siphoning and contamination of water in the distribution network.

The inadequate, unreliable and inefficient levels of water supply in most Indian cities further reduces the consumers’ willingness-to-pay (WTP), and is the chief reason for the continuing impoverishment of municipal governments across the country.

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.

In India, sanitation has low priority and there is poor awareness about its linkages with public health. Investments in sanitation are planned in a piece-meal manner and do not take into account the full cycle of safe confinement, treatment and safe disposal. Further, despite the elimination of manual scavenging, little or no attention is paid to health and occupational hazards faced by sanitation workers.

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 !

After water supply and sanitation, the second most universal task of municipal bodies is conservancy and solid waste management. A poor record here can totally mar a city’s image and destroy its local economy, as the 1994 plague in Surat illustrated only too well.

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.

And underpinning it all is general public apathy and the legendary Indian tolerance of filth in public spaces, while insisting on spotless cleanliness at home.

Another aspect of poor urban planning is the road and transport crisis in Indian cities. 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. Just look at the facts:

  • There are over 60 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
  • 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.

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 67 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 by 12 extracts 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 by 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 a 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.

In my next post, I hope to share some painfully gained insights into why urban infrastructure in India cannot keep pace with growing needs; or other Asian countries like China and Singapore…