“Not Chandigarh, but Dharavi", said Gurcharan Das, author of India Unbound, making the case for thriving cities that rest on an organic logic of how citizens actually inhabit and use the city, as opposed to cities created though dated, inflexible planning instruments. Das drew the contrast between Chandigarh, one of India’s few planned cities, and Dharavi, the Mumbai slum that’s counted among Asia’s largest shantytowns, at the annual conclave on ‘Shaping India’s Urban Agenda’ held on 16 March at the Imperial Hotel in New Delhi. The conclave was organized by the Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, its sister organization Jana Urban Space Foundation, and the IDFC Foundation.

The conclave followed the release of the report on the third Annual Survey of Indian City-Systems 2015, which argued that the appraisal of and interventions on urban development in India have been short-sighted and temporary, focusing on quick-fixes that treated the symptoms instead of the systemic causes. The study evaluated the ability of a city government to deliver better quality of life outcomes to its citizens and highlighted the corrective actions that need to be undertaken.

The survey ranked Mumbai first among 21 cities, while cautioning that a score of 4.2 on 10 was nothing to write home about. All Indian cities surveyed fared poorly against the global benchmarks of London and New York. Srikanth Viswanathan, coordinator (advocacy, research and capacity building) at Janaagraha, said at a press conference on 14 March that the scores notched up by the cities have not changed much over the past two years of the survey. “This is because governments have consistently underestimated the scale of the problem", he said.

On March 16, some of the finest minds and most experienced hands discussed what cities are direly in need of. So what do we talk about when we talk about cities?

We talk about roads. There are no design standards for urban roads in India. Road infrastructure is plagued by outdated procurement systems, absent inter-agency coordination, and weak maintenance. It is an accepted fact that a road laid today is dug up tomorrow.

In a spirited presentation, Swati Ramanathan, co-founder of Janaagraha and the chairperson of the Jana Urban Space Foundation, contended that building good city roads is one of the most democratic investments a government can make. Referencing the former Reserve Bank of India deputy governor Rakesh Mohan, Ramanathan said the paradigm of road infrastructure has been to “build poorly, neglect and rebuild".

The Tender S.U.R.E (Specifications for Urban Road Extensions) examples in Bengaluru, such as the Vittal Mallya road, have shown it is possible to build roads that don’t need to be dug up. Moreover, it demonstrated the ability of various government and private agencies to work together in a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model. Vikram Kapur, who formerly served as commissioner to the corporation of Chennai, cautioned against private financing of urban roads.

“From a private contractor’s point of view, the PPP model is a high-risk proposition since they are bound to face delays in payment due to the lack of operational coordination," he said. The case of Thiruvananthapuram was cited as an example, wherein a Road Fund Board was set up, which created a steady revenue stream by earmarking a percentage of the transport budget. This ensured payments on time to the contractor and built trust between the government and the private sector.

We talk about mayors. The 74th Amendment to the Constitution of India, 1992, mandated that urban local bodies, such as municipal corporations, municipal councils and nagar panchayats, would be constituted through universal adult franchise in each notified urban area of the country. Jay Panda, a member of the Lok Sabha, argued that the devolution of powers as per the amendment has not happened in India, and so we have a case of over-centralized governance where cities are run by the state government.

“Fiscal and administrative devolution is what we have to fix first if we want to fix our cities," he said, citing the examples of empowered city governments across the world.

Shashi Tharoor, another member of the Lok Sabha, discussing the sheer powerlessness of a mayor in an Indian city, said “this has nothing to do with democracy, but rather the kind of democracy we have created". Citizens simply do not know the powers and jurisdiction of a ward corporator, municipal commissioner, member of the legislative assembly, and a member of Parliament. Such haphazard diffusion of powers has created a situation where citizens do not know whom to hold accountable. Would directly elected mayors who have executive powers and longer tenure solve the problem? Perhaps. The time is ripe for experiments in participatory governance, for a skilled municipal cadre that is paid well and is accountable to its constituency.

We talk about the future. N.R. Narayana Murthy, co-founder of Infosys Ltd, said that India’s understaffed, mismanaged, revenue-deficit cities are in need of enlightened political leadership that recognizes justice. He said, “smart cities are technological interventions that will make only the lives of elites better. We need to think about ‘just cities’, not just smart cities."

In a rebuttal to a point about the physical form that our future cities could take with increased citizen participation, Ramesh Ramanathan, co-founder of Janaagraha, countered, “Don’t expect this to look pretty... We must resist the temptation to look for visually appealing solutions."

We talk of the future with foreboding. Subir Roy, the associate editor (South), Business Standard, wagered that substantive change in urban governance can only be brought about through a 1991-style financial crisis, adding such a crisis “could happen soon on the banks of the Yamuna itself." We laughed at Roy’s remark, though we knew it could be all too soon a reality.

This is a critical moment for Indian cities. There is renewed political and academic attention on urban and peri-urban areas. We move seamlessly between cities for work, residence, leisure, and romance, and compare them on subjective measures of how they made us feel, what the place did to us and for us.

When we talk of cities, we are talking about places that we will invest a significant part of our lives in. We are talking about re-imagining the spaces that shape us. We need to talk more about cities. Hopefully, we have enough time.

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