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Urban India: Ruined by reign

Cities don't need natural disasters. Politics is the problem. A different politics, the solution

india Updated: Jan 22, 2006 23:40 IST

It rained in Mumbai and everyone said how awfully maintained India's cities are. That flood of indignation and critique is actually the scary part— as this study by HT Research shows, it doesn't need record rains or other natural disasters for urban India to collapse. The irony is that urban India, constituting less than 30 per cent of the country by population, is not in problem because it is growing too fast. As the main chart shows, India's urbanisation process has been slowing down. This doesn't bode well for the country since expansion of cities is linked with overall economic performance.

That fiscal allocations for urban development has been abysmally low is a reason for this slowdown. But even then, enough money and political will hasn't been found to maintain or create infrastructure. Official data show some scary mismatches: the number of vehicles in urban India has increased 80 times but road area has gone up by only five per cent. At this rate, today's traffic jams will look like picnics in a few more years. And today's slums will look like model townships. Housing is an explosive social problem waiting for a trigger. More than 17 million dwelling units have to be built in the next five years. The first section of the study provides a catalogue of these problems, concluding with a political economic scandal - that urban India contributes nine out of every 10 rupees collected by the government as revenue but gets back precious little. As a result , while urban India needs about $ 90 billion over the next ten years for infrastructure, official funds availability is only $ 10 billion. The next section breaks down this finance gap. There's shortage in every sector, starting from basic services. If government fund allocations do not change in the short term, what are the options? There are some, as we argue. If municipalities change the way they calculate some of the taxes, that on property, for example, revenue will increase. If they start charging economic costs for services and start outsourcing non-core activities, more money will available for development. But these, as well as options like tapping the bond markets for funds, require an administrative set up that is powerful and accountable.

As the third and last section of this study argues, that is the principal problem of urban India. Indian cities are political orphans. With the possible exception of Delhi, a city-state, India's cities are political lightweights in the Centre-state scheme of things.

The 74th constitutional amendment did provide for empowering urban local bodies. But state governments have turned that reform into a joke.

India's cities need a political revolution - strong, representative governments led by directly elected Mayors. Basically, what Rudy Guiliani did to New York.