Mumbai tops survey of India’s city-systems

Interventions in urban governance have focused on symptoms rather than underlying systemic causes

Mumbai has topped the third Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Mumbai has topped the third Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

New Delhi: Mumbai has topped the third Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems (ASICS), which covered 21 cities across 18 states.

The survey is a departure from recent city rankings in that it evaluates the fundamental ability of a city’s institutions to deliver a better quality of life over the medium and long term.

It also makes the case that all the cities surveyed perform poorly because interventions in urban governance have focused largely on the symptoms as opposed to underlying systemic causes.

Mumbai moved eight places from last year’s survey to take the top spot. Kolkata, last year’s topper, is in third position in this year’s listing. Thiruvananthapuram retains the No. 2 spot.

Overall, the survey clearly indicates that all 21 cities have very low scores when compared to the global benchmarks—London and New York. Indian cities continue to score in the range of 2 to 4.2 out of 10, as against London’s 9.4 and New York’s 9.7.

The survey for 2015—carried out by Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy; Jana Urban Space Foundation (Jana USP); and IDFC Foundation, a wholly-owned subsidiary of IDFC Ltd—is intended to be a “health diagnostic of cities” which will aid “elected and administrative leaders”.

The report accompanying the survey states that the exercise has less to do with “dysfunctional aspects of Indian cities that stare out at citizens—potholed roads, lack of 24x7 water supply, unfettered proliferation of slum settlements or over-stretched public transport”. Rather, its aim is to focus on flawed “legislations, policies, processes and practices that lie at the root of these issues”.

Srikanth Viswanathan, coordinator (advocacy, research and capacity building) at non-profit Janaagraha, said that headlines on urban problems keep repeating themselves. Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy and Jana USP are arms of Janaagraha.

“It’s because we have never managed to solve the problem. The same set of issues and patterns keep occurring. The response of the central (government), state (government) and municipal corporation has been to band-aid them. Trying to focus on the symptoms rather than the disease. We are assessing the root causes and drivers of theses cities,” he said.

The survey uses the Janaagraha City-Systems Framework as its basis and asks 11 principal questions with 83 detailed parameters on four major subheads—urban planning and design, urban capacities and resources, empowered and legitimate political representation, and transparency, accountability and participation.

The parameters studied include whether a city has a centralized system of spatial development planning, adequate skilled human resources, and if leaders have adequate power.

The data is collected over a period of six months and factors in the latest amendments in laws and policies, municipal budgets, audit reports and phone calls to relevant government officials.

The lowest ranked city is Chandigarh, perhaps one of the few “planned cities” to have the dubious distinction of coming last for the second time in a row.

Delhi slips one place and is now at No. 6, while Bengaluru moves up to 12 from 18 in 2014 and Chennai to 7 from 12.

Interestingly, Bhubaneswar which ranks first in the government’s smart cities mission, comes in at 18 in the survey.

“The focus of current urban development policies is infrastructure-related. They do not address important issues of building capacity within the municipalities, whether it is for raising their own finances or delivering basic services”, said Kulwant Singh, honorary adviser to UN-Habitat, a UN programme working towards socially and environmentally sustainable development of human settlements.

Cities face governance challenges on multiple levels. Most fail to disclose audited accounts. Thiruvananthapuram is the only city that has an ombudsman for service-related complaints. The survey shows that cities have no evaluation mechanism for the plans that are implemented by the municipal corporations.

“There is no mechanism to evaluate the plans and if they have managed to deliver the objective they were brought in for. Most cities also have extremely weak finances. Only Mumbai and Pune have a higher share of own revenue...” said Anil Nair, senior manager, advocacy and reforms at Janaagraha.

Some of the surprising results that the survey focuses on is how no city among the 21 reviewed has an effective system to monitor and prevent violations or mechanisms in place to undertake punitive/corrective action.

It also highlights how many of the city leaders don’t really have the power to formulate a long-term vision or the length of tenure to execute the same.

Seven out of the 21 cities don’t give their mayor a five-year term and in 13 cities, the mayor is not a directly elected representative.

According to Nisha Singh, a councillor in Gurgaon, “Elected representatives have a peripheral role in urban governance, yet since the councillor is accountable to the constituency, the people blame them for all the ills in the city. Municipalities are crippled financially and structurally.”

Mumbai and Pune score high on human resources due to the availability of municipal cadre and stable tenure for their commissioners with relevant experience. Kolkata is the top scorer on stability of tenure of the commissioner, with two in five years. On the other hand, Bengaluru and Jaipur have had six commissioners in five years and Raipur has had eight.

“In my five years as councillor of Gurgaon, I have seen 14 municipal commissioners come and go,” said Singh. The official is appointed by the state and is not accountable to the municipal council or the people.

The survey shows that most cities have a severe staffing crisis. “It is time for us to recognize that it’s (urban planning) a specialized area and needs specialized skill sets,” Viswanathan said.

The survey outlines a reform agenda to ensure sustainable development of cities. “To sustainably fix our cities, under urban planning there needs to be a three-level planning system. Cities are large economies. They don’t retrieve even a small percentage of their revenue. Schemes like AMRUT (Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation) and Smart Cities will not be able to fund themselves,” Viswanathan added.