Very few cities are liveably smart
Government of India launched the ‘Ease of Living’ Index in January 2018 to help cities systematically assess themselves against global and national benchmarks and encourage them to shift towards an ‘outcome-based’ approach to urban planning and management.Updated: Aug 14, 2018 11:44 IST
Who knew that we knew so much about our cities and that Moradabad was as (un)liveable a city as Gurugram? According to the Government of India, the two rank 88 and 89 out of 111 cities ranked in the Ease of Living Index 2018, released yesterday – just above Panaji! Those familiar with urban data view the Index with wide eyes. That “reliable and high quality data” for 79 indicators – including air pollutants like sulpur dioxide and particulate matter 10 – was found for 111 cities provokes wonder and some doubt. The ministry would do well to put the data collected for this exercise (not just the scores) out in the public domain to confound such naysayers and put wind behind the sails of stakeholders who want to get our cities on the expressway to data-driven governance.
But let us suspend our scepticism for a bit and take the index at face value. What do we learn?
First, elected representation has little relationship with governance. The institutional sub-index does not measure a city’s ability to take actions that will affect its liveability. Indeed, if it builds a flyover or a website, a city will do better on this sub-index than if it hires nurses. It’s more about online services and capital spending than the ability to elect accountable politicians who have the power and money to make the city more “liveable”.
Second, smart cities are not very liveable. The index contains 95 of the smart cities, but once one puts aside the fact that Pune is at the topof both rankings, the rank correlation between the two is actually quite poor, just 0.41. Few cities seem to be liveably smart. After all, the smartest city, Bhubaneswar (no. 18 on the liveability index), was flooded last month and the Disaster Rapid Action Force had to rescue people.
Third, the infrastructure fetish of this government is visible. Indeed, given that the rank correlation of the physical sub-index with the overall index is 0.95, the exercise could have just stopped there. This is natural, given its overweight of 45% in the index, compared to 25% each for institutional and social sub-indices.
Fourth, our cities have gone beyond basic needs like roti and makaan. Liveability is only 5% about economic issues and housing is limited to slums in the index. Oddly, our metros, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru and New Delhi, rank 63, 70, 71 and 109 on this sub-index. Do people still go there to seek jobs, one wonders?
Fifth, the north and the east have the most unliveable cities in India – 18 of the bottom 21 are from this region.
Finally, unexpected pairings like Gurugramand Moradabad can force us to re-examine our assumptions about cities (or throw the measuring rod in the trash). A little introspection may reveal there is little that differentiates industrial Gurugram, on the south side of the highway, from other bustling wannabe metropolises of India like Moradabad and that most in the city do not enjoy the pleasures of CyberHub and the seclusion of a gated apartment complex.
What purpose does such exercises serve? It keeps the ministry in the news and provides a veneer of data-driven objectivity. But, does it really matter for our urban citizen to have an index which does not even tip its hat to empowering elected local government or to whether she can earn a living or find housing in the city? The answer awaits the next index
(Partha Mukhopadhyay and Mukta Naik are at the Centre for Policy Research.)