Cry, the beloved city!

Bengalureans took the news of their being ranked No. 1 on ease of living with a bag of salt
Last Updated 24 March 2021, 20:49 IST

Older residents of Bengaluru who have the lived experience of its beautiful past perhaps grieve at its seemingly inevitable decline. Gone are the water bodies, the gardens, the open spaces, the fresh air and the salubrious climate. The pride of living in an evergreen city, 3,000 feet above sea level, is dying a slow death, as is the city itself, unrecognisable for the monstrous metamorphosis that has overtaken it. So, the residents recently woke up nonplussed to read that their city was ranked No. 1 on ‘ease of living’, from amongst 111 cities in the country.

The Government of India recently released the Municipal Performance Index, 2020. The index, prepared by the Institute for Competitiveness, ranks the cities on two verticals: the ‘ease of living’ based on an assessment of outcome indicators; and ‘municipal performance’ that serves to assess input indicators. The two verticals rely on five pillars each: ‘ease of living’ includes quality of life, sustainability, economic ability, and citizen perception; and ‘municipal performance’ includes services, finance, planning, technology, and governance. While Bengaluru, arguably, was ranked No. 1 on the ease of living index with a score of 66, the residents of the city, doubtless, received the rankings with some degree of circumspection, because the lived experience of Bengaluru tells a different story.

The index, however, is not to blame. As a composite assessment, the index does its work rather well, and since the devil is always in the detail, Bengaluru’s performance deserves closer attention to better understand where policy attention and programme design must focus on in the future. First, a quick look at the framework of the assessment will help situate the ranking in context.

The weights assigned and the functions used to construct the composite index and thus to arrive at the ranking are: Services – 30% weight, comprising: education, health, water & wastewater, solid waste management & sanitation, registration & permits, infrastructure; Governance – 20%, comprising: transparency & accountability, human resources, participation, effectiveness; Finance – 20% weight, comprising: revenue management, expenditure management, fiscal responsibility, fiscal decentralization; Technology – 15% weight, comprising: digital governance, digital access, digital literacy; Planning – 15% weight, comprising: plan preparation, plan implementation, plan enforcement.

Services include an assessment of all functions that citizens experience on a daily basis. Finance measures municipalities based on how they manage public funds and how their agency is accessing financial resources. Planning examines the level of preparation, implementation and enforcement of urban planning. Digital coverage of municipality services and the extent to which it empowers its citizens to access such services is measured under Technology. Finally, Governance deals with aspects of municipal bodies and their governance mechanisms.

Ranked 31 among 111 cities on overall municipal performance -- relative to Mumbai (8), Hyderabad (17) and Chennai (18) -- some of the features of Bengaluru’s performance should receive closer scrutiny and the future prospects for the city’s development and sustainability should be debated, with concern and a sense of urgency. It is important from the perspective of the State, the market and the community, to generate a set of actionable interventions that might prove crucial if the city is to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 -- of making Bengaluru an inclusive, safe, sustainable and resilient city -- at least by 2030.

The assessment throws up disconcerting facts:

*One particular outcome indicator score -- Economic Ability (78.82) - skewed the rank in favour of Bengaluru emerging as the best on ease of living. Otherwise, on the quality of life, the city ranks 12, and on sustainability, 13.

*On Finance, Bengaluru performs the worst of the five input indicators, with a rank of 40, and a score of 47 against the national average score of 51.

*On Planning, Bengaluru ranks 36, with a score of 30 which is significantly lower than the national average of 34.

*The surprise for a city that boasts of being the IT capital is on the use of Technology: Bengaluru ranks a low 25th, with a score of 26, barely above the national average score of 24.

The crisis in the management of our city, characterised by urban sprawl, congestion and overcrowding, slums and squatter settlements, housing shortages, water scarcity, and pollution, poor roads and poorer public transport, needs urgent policy attention. The continued failure of urban planning, poor programme implementation, weak enforcement of municipal and urban development laws, and the gap between law and practice, together pose a serious challenge to the future growth and orderly development of this once-beautiful city.

Urban agglomerations like Greater Bengaluru represent centres of economic growth. Empowering city governments and empowering urban communities is an important political dimension of future urbanisation. This entails revisiting the structure of the city government, the authority vested in it, the sustainability of its finances, and the powers and functions devolved upon it. Restructuring the city government and empowering it has been constrained by inter-government relationships. This is beginning to manifest in the signs of visible urban decline in Bengaluru, and unplanned and often adhoc patterns of urbanisation that appear beyond control.

In turn, this has seriously compromised delivery of essential services, notably garbage disposal, solid waste management and water supply and sanitation. It has also constrained infrastructure for growth, including essential infrastructure like affordable housing, and healthcare services, impacting migrant and informal sector workers.

The core paradox in the governance of the city is that it entails a voluntary relinquishing of political power and resources by State actors – political parties, the legislature and the executive – that manifests as the commitment of a benevolent and monolithic state to empower the city government for the common good. The consequence of the reluctance of the political class to part with sovereign power and vest it in the local government has meant apathy or outright opposition from key actors who, over time, decide that reform is not in their best interests, thus allowing vested interests to proliferate. India’s urban governance compass is of colonial vintage. Cry, the beloved city!

(The writer is Director, Public Affairs Centre, Bengaluru)

(Published 24 March 2021, 17:04 IST)

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