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Lack Of Good Urban Planning May Be Costing Us 3% Of Our GDP Every Year

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By Vivek Anandan Nair:

Each monsoon, our cities witness the same sights, some more horrifying than others; of flooded and potholed streets, overflowing sewers, power outages, and building collapse, and the same issues repeat each year like a stuck record. Given that urbanisation is an inevitability, and a growing urban population will only add to the pressures on our cities, this is a situation we can ill-afford.

When read along with what several reports state, that by 2030, cities will account for 70% of the country’s GDP and 70% of net new jobs created— we get a sense of what is at risk. All this is not new knowledge, neither the fact that India’s cities will play an increasingly larger role, nor that our cities need a major overhaul.

Why, then, haven’t we been able to fix even some of these basic issues that our cities face? One could argue that this is largely owing to two related reasons— first, that India’s policymakers haven’t given due attention to cities, and relatedly, second, that our attempts at fixing the issues cities face have mostly focused on a ‘projects-based’ approach, often resembling spot-fixes, ignoring the fact that it is poor governance systems that fail to deliver the infrastructure and services our cities need.

Of these two reasons, it would be wiser to focus on the latter since governments today are at least realising the importance of cities, though they have a long way to go: urban India continues to be under-represented in both the Parliament and State Assemblies.

As we move ahead to reform our cities for the better, it would be wise for us not to make the same mistakes that both key central urban missions of the past made, or the ones that state governments continue to make today. We can begin by recognising that cities are complex systems that are inter-related and dependent and that they need to be viewed through a system’s lens.

It’s important to look at the root cause

Cities are not just mere summations of infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, housing, the metro rail, and services. These are just visible outputs delivered by a set of systems containing laws and policies, crafted by elected representatives, implemented by a set of institutions; all ideally underpinned by accountability and citizen participation.

Cities are not just mere summations of infrastructure | Photo courtesy: Ashwin John, Flickr

If one were to imagine the services and infrastructure that shape our quality of life as the trunk and leaves of a tree; the laws, policies, institutions, processes, and accountability mechanisms are its roots. These critical systems, which are often invisible to most, are what we collectively call ‘urban governance’. They are the ‘horizontals’ that together help hold up and drive both services and infrastructure—transport, affordable housing, waste recovery and management, and pollution control.

Urban governance systems can be bucketed into four broad categories:

  1. Urban planning that ensures adequate and sustainable patterns of growth in cities.
  2. Urban capacities, including people and financial resource management (generating, managing, and spending financial resources for infrastructure creation and upgradation).
  3. Empowered local governments, with the adequate devolution of funds, functions, and functionaries, to deliver quality outcomes.
  4. Transparency, accountability, and citizen participation, to ensure that citizens continue to take part in decision making and holding governments accountable, beyond the typical electoral process.

While these four systems are distinct, they are also highly interlinked. For instance, good urban planning—lack of which may be costing us up to three percent of our GDP each year, may not deliver the best outcomes if the state doesn’t include local governments, and if these local governments don’t, in turn, involve citizens. However, creating good plans also requires adequately skilled government personnel, an aspect lacking in India’s cities today.

‘Project spending’ can only take us so far

The focus, to date, has mostly been on spot-fixes and ‘projects’, and not governance, particularly on empowering local governments- an aspect without which, our cities may not sustainably develop. While increased infrastructure spending in cities is important, because of poor governance systems, it is akin to pouring water down a leaky bucket.

Of all central missions, it can be argued that the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), launched in late 2005, was the first major urban mission, given the resources that were rallied behind it. JNNURM was also a welcome departure from earlier models as it pushed states to implement several governance reforms. However, by 2014, it was clear that the reforms push of the mission had failed to create the impact it aimed to.

For instance, two of the mandatory reforms at the state government level included the passing of the Community Participation Law (CPL) and the Public Disclosure Law (PDL). As per Janaagraha’s annual study on the state of governance in some of India’s largest cities, out of the 20 states studied, only 10 had both enacted PDL and passed rules for its implementation. The figure for CPL is even lower at six states out of the 20.

The benefits that cities would have reaped had these laws been passed- meaningful citizen participation in governance and an increase in accountability would have been immense, to say the least.

The Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) continues the approach of pushing forward reforms along with projects, but it too hasn’t been able to drive governance reforms successfully— and with the last year’s announcement of the 5-point transformational reforms agenda, it too appears to have dialled down the reforms push.

Lack of government capacity is a significant hurdle

Why is this happening? This is a question that may take us back to how this piece began— the lack of attention India’s policy-makers give to cities but also a reluctance of state governments to let go of the stranglehold they have on cities.

This is exercised through the myriad departments and agencies operating in cities and performing the functions that urban local self-government (ULSGs) should— such as urban planning and water supply and sanitation. While there are arguments on the ability of ULSGs to handle such large networked infrastructure-based services, the situation is more ‘chicken-and-egg’ with states not doing anything to build capacities or even make state agencies operating in cities accountable to ULSGs. Even central missions do not focus much on the capacity building aspect.

Whatever the arguments may be, the larger question is of the route we want to take towards economic and social prosperity. Countries such as the US and UK have shown that empowered cities, with strong governance systems, are the way to go.

The task in the next few decades for our cities includes welcoming over hundreds of millions into their fold to good quality infrastructure, generating millions of jobs each year and sustaining growth rates at seven percent and above; all of these seem daunting given the current state. The pathway to achieving these will have to be through urban governance systems reforms that make the recurring images of floods and potholes in cities a memory of the past.

This article was originally published in India Development Review. You can read it here.

About the author:

Vivek Anandan Nair: Vivek is currently Head – ASICS & Partnerships, at Janaagraha, a Bengaluru based non-profit working towards transforming the quality of life in urban India. He has handled roles across policy research, M&E and advocacy, and has authored several reports and opinion pieces, particularly on evaluation of governance, and voter list management. Before joining Janaagraha as a development researcher, he worked in the corporate sector, first as a consumer insights and data analytics professional and later, as market research and intelligence professional. He is an engineering graduate with an MBA from IBS, Hyderabad in Marketing and Banking.

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

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campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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