Building liveable cities will need smart planning

  • Sunita Narain, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Dec 20, 2014 16:57 IST

Smart cities will work only if they can reinvent the very idea of urban growth in a country like India. Smart thinking will require the government not only copy the model cities of the already developed Western world, but also find a new measure of liveability that will work for the Indian situation, where the cost of growth is unaffordable for most. But all this will not happen, unless we can find the right fit for service providers in our cities. We need services--everything from water to the management and clean-up of sewage, waste and public transport--so that we can live healthy lives. The question is who will provide these services? What is the nature of the public service utility that India needs?

We know that our current municipal service providers are hampered by lack of technical capacity and crippled with poor governance. In the past few years there has been a push towards privatisation as the solution for provisioning of city services. But this is not as easy an answer as it would seem.

This is because we have a large population of poor and relatively poor middle-class, and so public infrastructure has to be affordable to build and to run. In most cases, the private player is unable to run the public asset--be it water supply, public transport or a swanky airport--without substantial recurring funds. So the private sector's interest is to make profit by building the infrastructure and then stay clear of the responsibility of providing services.

Take buses. The city of Delhi (and all others) desperately needs a revamped, modern public transport system, which can provide for the requirements of its exploding population. Without a viable and convenient transport system, the growth of private vehicles will choke the city roads and poison our lungs. But the question is what will be the shape and organisation of this system of the future?

The model of city bus transport in the country is largely publicly managed. Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Delhi--all have city corporations to run this key commuter service. Some do a better job than others in efficiency and service but the accounts of all agencies show that they are bleeding because of higher costs of operations and price of tickets. The fact is that the price of a ticket in a bus has a market competitor--it has to be lower than the cost of running a two-wheeler. The price of a bus ticket can only increase if there are adequate barriers for its substitute. For instance, if there are high rates for parking private vehicles and there is enforcement against unauthorised parking, then there is an incentive to move to the public transport mode and pay higher costs.

Take garbage. We know that our cities are drowning in garbage--plastic is surely the curse of the modern landscape. The current approach is to invest in collecting this garbage, transport it and bury it in landfills. It is built on the premise that there will be land for urban India to bury its waste. It then assumes that if we can finance infrastructure, we will be able to pay for urban services that can efficiently collect and dispose our waste. The vision is to hire corporate sweepers to clean our cities.

But the facts are different. Firstly, we do not have land to dispose of the current waste we generate, let alone the new waste we will generate. Finding a dumpyard - elsewhere - is always the cheapest and laziest option rich cities in many parts of the world have used. But we cannot. Secondly, all city plans do not account for the fact that there will be increasing quantities of plastic, non-disposal waste and toxic waste in our households, which will require new and much more expensive ways of disposal.

Thirdly, the waste-plan does not understand that it is the rich in the cities that do not pay for their waste disposal. Not the poor. Urban services today are stretched because they are in the service of the people who generate the waste but do not pay for it. In this scenario, cities cannot under any circumstances extend these services to all.

So, this is the same when it comes to water supply, sewage or garbage management in our cities. We need to redesign systems for providing services and then redesign the utility to supply most efficiently and to all.

The question then is what is the kind of contract that is signed between the private entity interested in profits and the public entity incapable of raising profits? The municipality or local government will either see the private sector as the instrument to recover money from subsidised consumers, or simply see it as a way to provide some efficiency even as the government continues to subsidise its consumers and also pay the private sector its pound of flesh.

Given all this, we need a different definition of efficiency and certainly a different model of service providers in our cities. The first principle is that whereas the private sector cannot solve the water, garbage or transport problems of our world, it cannot be excluded in playing a role in providing these services.

The second key is to accept that the private contractor private sector can only work within the terms society sets for it. It cannot own the resource. It certainly cannot be its custodian. The private sector may also be asked to set the price and recover dues. But setting the tariff must be fully transparent about the full costs of treating and delivering water and waste or providing other services. Therefore, the decision of governments to subsidise its middle-class electorate must not be hidden behind socialist rhetoric.

The most efficient utility for our smart cities will be about smart design. Let us not lose sight of this. Not even for an instant.

(Sunita Narain is director general, Centre for Science and Environment.)

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