“We Need a National Conversation on Our Urbanisation Journey”- Feroze Varun Gandhi

Feroze Varun Gandhi, a third-term Member of Parliament, is always known for speaking his mind. His most recent book, The Indian Metropolis: Deconstructing India’s Urban Spaces, which was written over “three tumultuous years,” addresses the difficulties of living in urban India and makes an effort to start a conversation about “humanising our cities.” Tridib Raman, Editor-in-Chief of Parliamentarian, discusses the difficulties Indian cities confront and how to make them more sustainable

  • All our cities, across geographies, are increasingly unliveable. And with climate change approaching, the writing is on the wall
  • tumult faced by urban migrants during the lockdown was a seminal moment in understanding the lack of humanity and inclusiveness in our urban model
  • We need more empathy for the bedevilled urban Indian and the marginal farmer, helping to shape policy choices that improve their lives
  • This book hopes, through a series of vignettes, to elucidate answers to such queries, with their constraints and potential solutions

Please throw some light on the salient features of your new book.

Ideally, India, with its well-established cities during independence, most of which hark back to the classical age, and with its well-documented historical urban tradition, should have led the world in building and maintaining historic cities, with job creation and a good life. And yet, increasingly, all our cities, across geographies, are increasingly unliveable. And with climate change approaching, ever so quickly, the writing is on the wall.

Solving such challenges, all at the same time, while pursuing sustainability and circularity, will require us to rethink our urban systems from the bottom-up. Something has to give in our statist mindset to foster a change. A few questions need to be probed on – what is our urbanisation model going forward? How do we re-equip our cities to solve challenges faced by ordinary Indians living in them? How do we improve the quality of water and sanitation, while ensuring the nearby streams and rivers remain pristine? How can we enable a walkable city, with affordable public transportation, while reversing the burgeoning car culture that has emerged? How do we generate jobs in our urban landscape, from the public and private sectors, while encouraging businesses? Finally, how can we make our cities more sustainable, by radically reshaping our urban planning processes? We need a national conversation on our urbanisation journey.

Why do you say it took you three “tumultuous” years to write the book?

As the past few years have gone by, the challenges we face living in cities with decrepit infrastructure have gotten worse (most dramatically during the waves of the COVID-19 pandemic). As I spoke at select colleges, universities, panels and even in mohallas, the state of our cities was not easy to close one’s eyes – the sheer tumult faced by urban migrants during the lockdown was a seminal moment in understanding the lack of humanity and inclusiveness in our urban model. Indians still migrate to cities, but face limited income, irregular work, and are challenged by crime, lack of sanitation and limited options for housing. Their aspirations have been dulled by the effort to move up the social ladder. Understanding this pain and aspirations was a tumultuous experience.

I had to travel far and wide, across a multitude of Indian towns and cities, listening to the ordinary urban Indian’s everyday stories, and admiring the dignity with which they face the daily struggle. From meeting a set of labourers looking for work in Guwahati, to listening to a watchman in Patna, to having discussions with sanitary workers in Kota, I have been humbled by the interconnected relationships that help keep our cities ticking

What groundwork do you have to cover before you start writing it?

In writing this heartfelt and admittedly exploratory pamphlet on urban India, I had to rely on India’s rich tradition of urban policymakers, historians, urban development experts and journalists (especially those on the city beat), whose contribution and debt is recognized in footnotes scattered across this document’s pages. I had to travel far and wide, across a multitude of Indian towns and cities, listening to the ordinary urban Indian’s everyday stories, and admiring the dignity with which they face the daily struggle. From meeting a set of labourers looking for work in Guwahati, to listening to a watchman in Patna, to having discussions with sanitary workers in Kota, to learning from an entrepreneurial housewife in Meerut, to walking with locals as they rescue those stuck in flooded neighbourhoods in Haldwani, I have been humbled by the interconnected relationships that help keep our cities ticking. I have been humbled by the interconnected relationships that help keep our cities ticking. Hope remains – one I hope that our policymakers will respect and fulfil.

Your previous book was on the rural areas and the new one is on urban areas. How much will both of them help the dispensation to formulate policy for Indian villages and metro cities?

After spending almost half a decade understanding and discussing the travails of rural India, the idea of writing a dense synthesis of facts and personal anecdotes on how Indians live in urban India was always a tall order. We need more empathy for the bedevilled urban Indian and the marginal farmer, helping to shape policy choices that improve their lives and alleviate hardships, while setting up the infrastructure to further growth and build climate resilience. This book hopes, through a series of vignettes, to elucidate answers to such queries, with their constraints and potential solutions. It hopes to highlight experiences from my decades long public life, serving as an MP and a stakeholder for mostly rural and urban constituencies, while drawing lessons from sociological experts and development policy.

With your writings, you have established yourself in a different league of politicians. Do you think you have been duly rewarded for your exceptional leadership qualities?

Imbibing this tome’s themes has left me with a greater appreciation for the challenges that our municipal administrators, urban policymakers and leaders face, as they seek to shape our cities. I have travelled far and wide, across a multitude of Indian towns and cities, listening to the ordinary urban Indian’s everyday stories, and admiring the dignity with which they face the daily struggle. Pushing to solve their daily pain points is far greater aspiration for me than any personal reward.

Don’t you think Prime Minister Narendra Modi should have included you in his Council of Ministers so that his government would have gained out of your knowledge and experience?

India has a rich tradition of urban policy specialists and has thousands of reporters on the city beat, who are helping to highlight the very same issues that I have raised here. I’m humbled and enriched by their contribution and insights. Any government of the day should seek to tap into their expertise – the case of Joshimath is a stark example of what happens when a tone-deaf development policy overrides recommendations of scientists and policy experts.

The idea of an urban employment guarantee scheme is one whose time has come. There are murmurs already – in 2019, in Madhya Pradesh, the government initiated the ‘Yuva Swabhiman Yojana’, which offers employment to skilled and unskilled workers. Kerala, since 2010, has run an initiative (termed as ‘Ayyankali Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme’ which offers 100 days of wage-employment to urban households in return for manual work

In the book, you have stressed on the need to ‘rethink’ how cities should be managed and how local governments are often playing catch-up as it is unable to provide infrastructure. What according to you are the key issues that need immediate attention? Are the state governments and the Centre doing enough to make urban areas future ready?

Every year, without skipping a beat, some of Mumbai’s priciest real estate sinks under the deluge of monsoonal rain. A similar plight awaits Gurugram in North India too. In particular, land use change, and the push for more infrastructure projects can have a grievous impact, with Bengaluru and Hyderabad seeing their local lakes vanishing, and Delhi seeing the Yamuna floodplain area encroached upon. Going forwards, India will see a higher frequency of high intensity rainfall, with recent incidents (when Mumbai received 78% of an entire typical month’s rainfall in July and August 2020, becoming more common). Bad urban planning, combined with climate change, will mean that Indian cities are perennially besieged.

We need a different model of urbanisation – our current one seems to keep existing cities in squalor, while seeking to expand their dysfunction to our villages in the name of urbanisation. There are few elements that can help make our cities more affordable in a transformative manner. Firstly, we need to pursue more economic integration within our cities. We need to fix transportation across urban centres; gone are the days when simply a bus service, running infrequently, in a Tier 1,2 or 3 city would do. We have favoured a skew towards private transportation in urban centres; we have to shift back, with a focus on moving people instead of vehicles. We need to radically shift our urban realty markets towards provisioning for affordable housing; for too long, our developers and municipal governments have sought to increase the provision of high-end housing, in the hopes of profits and stamp fees. We need to consider the plight of the urban poor and their sense of malnutrition – this is not an affliction that affects only rural India. We need greater focus on education and healthcare, with a focus on improving quality and making the provision of such public services affordable to the urban poor. Our cities need to become safer, with better law and order, offering a hospitable environment for women. We must move away from prioritising large cities – breaking them up into separate units if required, to improve governance.

In the past few budgets, the Centre’s focus has been on addressing challenges due to rapid urbanisation. Do you think the government has taken adequate measures to address the issue? If not, what needs to be done?

Historically, the Indian state has neglected its cities, not recognising their role in driving economic growth. While there has been some progress in the recent past, much remains to be done. Our cities have been witness to multiple transitions over the last century, with barely any time to recover and adapt – the British creation of three metropolitan port cities, combined with the rollout of the railway network transformed India’s urban landscape, relegating erstwhile prominent Mughal era towns like Surat and Patna into provincial backwaters. The creation of hill stations in Northern India (over 80 were created in the colonial era) and the advent of plantation economy, including tea and coffee, along with industrial townships (eg: Jamshedpur) transformed trading networks. Finally, the creation of cantonments and civil line areas, along with railway stations, in our major cities, led to the haphazard growth of our urban areas away from bazaars and towards railway terminals. Transforming them into sustainable and organised urban spaces will not be easy.

There needs to be better cooperation amongst different transport agencies particularly at the city level. The National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP) has recommended that unified metropolitan transport authorities be created in all cities with a population greater than 1 million. An integrated management of urban transport systems would help improve the route, schedule and fare integration between different modes of public transport. This would also enable urban authorities to coordinate policies associated with land use, parking, suburban development, car use and non-motorized transport.

The Centre has launched various schemes and missions (AMRUT, PMAY-Urban, Smart Cities Mission etc) to create or upgrade urban infrastructure. Do you think these schemes/missions have delivered the desired result?

Over the past decade, there have been notable investments in urban infrastructure as well as healthcare, food provision, education and other areas. However, India’s urban challenges are vast in nature and much remains to be done. It is often said that Indian cities have the same problems, repeated a hundred fold across the urban landscape – from flooding happening in Chennai and a range of other cities on an annual basis, to garbage fires in Mumbai (e.g. in 2014; 2018) to Bengaluru’s annual lake frothing. India’s urban governance has chaos writ large. Over 55 percent of our urban citizens live in cities where a mayor has had a term of 2.5 years or less; meanwhile, only 13% of all cities have enacted town and country planning acts post the liberalisation era. Just 2 cities have actually bothered to create ward committees and area sabhas. Meanwhile, the average tenure of a municipal commissioner is just 10 months. Meanwhile, over half of India’s cities do not generate enough revenue to meet salary costs, despite limited growth in municipal staff over the past decade, and a significant ongoing vacancy.

The Centre recently announced the setting up of an Urban Infrastructure Development Fund, on the lines of RIDF, for developing urban infrastructure in tier-2 and tier 3 cities for which Rs 10,000 crore will be given annually. Your previous book was about rural India. What’s your take on RIDF and the newly announced fund? Do you think the newly announced fund will benefit tier-2 and tier 3 cities?

It is heartening to hear the Centre push for the creation of a Urban Infrastructure Development Fund. The modalities of the fund and its remit are in the process of being set up – it would be premature to comment on it before it has had a chance to make a mark.

Much more can be done on urban financing. With India’s municipalities seeing significant fiscal stress, we need a multi-pronged strategy to bridge the gap. Firstly, many such urban local bodies and municipal corporations need to be provided a fiscal stimulus, while accounting for fiscal stress, with a push for funding committed expenditure and boosting the local public health system. A revolving fund, which offers budgetary stabilisation measures, can be considered, along with the provision of an overdraft facility when revenues and fiscal transfers are delayed. Additionally, green bonds need to be pursued with gusto, along with a joint corpus fund, funded by the Centre and states. 

Property taxes also are fit for rationalisation, to stimulate the local real estate market – it will be important to raise the share of registered urban residences which pay property tax – tools like GIS mapping, along with cross-checking with other identification databases could help bridge this gap. Concessions will need to be rationalised, with state and local bodies incentivised to move away from fiscally ruinous measures (for e.g. offering water or electricity for free to urban citizens). Expenditure efficiency will also need to be boosted, by pushing for outsourcing (e.g. for garbage services) and exploring PPP models (e.g. hybrid annuity models), and participatory budgeting. Further commonalities with other government schemes and programmes (e.g. the Smart City Mission) should also be explored, including integration with disaster management cells.

Affordable housing for urban poor continues to be a challenge. A large percentage of people in cities continue to live in slums. What’s your take on providing affordable housing?

We need to accept that the role of the government in urban housing is that of being a facilitator as well as one involved in creating the housing stock. One must understand the true nature of our housing market – migration within India is fundamentally cyclical, with migrants moving from rural to urban spaces and back again, depending on seasonality. Our affordable housing initiatives have focused only on permanent migrants to urban areas, while ignoring the millions who move with agricultural seasons. A focus on seasonal migrants would lead to policies to create low-rental accommodation which are better suited to this population’s transient nature. Our housing schemes need to cater to both segments – permanent job seekers and seasonal migrants.

In particular, we need to focus on affordable rental housing. Rent control laws that now seem draconian need to be reconsidered in order to incentivize investment in the rental space in India. Slum creation is fundamentally the consequence of a lack of provision of affordable rental housing; slums are created by government and market inaction. Affordable housing needs to be considered an immutable principle in our urban land use planning, with appropriate distances ensured between affordable housing spaces and employment hubs, along with access to transportation and groceries. Ideally, the optimum utilisation of land resources would help in keeping real estate prices low in the long term. Our overall housing strategy needs to be sustainable, with a focus on efficient allocation and correcting market distortions.

We need to consider the plight of the urban poor and their sense of malnutrition – this is not an affliction that affects only rural India. We need greater focus on education and healthcare, with a focus on improving quality and making the provision of such public services affordable to the urban poor

In the book you mention that broadening MGNREGA to an urban locale is “most natural extension”. Please elaborate.

The idea of an urban employment guarantee scheme is one whose time has come. There are murmurs already – in 2019, in Madhya Pradesh, the government initiated the ‘Yuva Swabhiman Yojana’, which offers employment to skilled and unskilled workers. Kerala, since 2010, has run an initiative (termed as ‘Ayyankali Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme’ which offers 100 days of wage-employment to urban households in return for manual work. Even the Supreme Court has weighed in on the debate, stating that the “right to life”, offered under Article 21 of the Constitution, is not simply one enabling individuals to exist but is also broad enough to offer a “right to livelihood” and a “right to dignity”. MGNREGA, as often cited, is arguably an implementation of the “right to livelihood” albeit in a rural context while offering a “Right to Work”. Broadening this to an urban locale is the most natural extension for the Indian state.

Naturally, such a scheme can be combined with the need to create green jobs and improving our urban landscape. Most cities in India are expected to face significant water shortages over the coming decade – with small ULBs like Bangerpat, Hubli, Bidar etc being primary hotspots. While larger cities like Bengaluru can make do with importing water tankers and having water delivered from canals, smaller towns are often left to fend for themselves. Building capacity would also double up in the creation of green jobs; such jobs can be associated with traditional sectors as well (e.g. manufacturing) along with other segments that have traditionally been under the remit of public services (e.g. water conservation, waste management..). A typical town with a small municipality could easily create ~650 green jobs, while a city sized municipal council could have ~1,875 jobs; a large metro sized municipal corporation could lead to ~9,085 jobs being created. Many of these jobs would be in the renewables sector, waste management, urban farming etc.

Over the past decade, there have been notable investments in urban infrastructure as well as healthcare, food provision, education and other areas. However, India’s urban challenges are vast in nature and much remains to be done

Indian cities continue to struggle to fix the urban transport problem despite the government’s push towards sustainable transport. Why are cities unable to fix the problem? What needs to be done?

Historically, our cities have neglected buses, and instead encouraged and embraced private transportation or in select cases, building a metro line. Beijing has ~30,000 buses for public transportation, Delhi’s Transportation Corporation had 3,910 buses in Aug 2022. Bus capacity for public transportation matters – heavy traffic routes should have a bus running every 2 minutes on dedicated routes. Only then can we incentivise the public to shift away from private vehicles.

We need to provide priority to buses on roads – traffic management options like bus lanes, priority signals etc are virtually absent in India. Where bus lanes have been designed, priority has not been enforced, providing little speed advantage to any buses. As buses get stuck in congested traffic, Indian commuters are increasingly incentivised to buy their own personal vehicle, adding to the congestion. Our policymakers should shift their focus away from building fly-overs to providing priority right of access to buses.

We need a different model of urbanisation – our current one seems to keep existing cities in squalor, while seeking to expand their dysfunction to our villages in the name of urbanisation. There are few elements that can help make our cities more affordable in a transformative manner

Tridib Raman

TRIDIB RAMAN is a senior journalist with over 35 years of experience in Print, Broadcast and Digital Media. As a political journalist, he has closely tracked politicians and politics of every kind, educating readers to nuances. He has founded Parliamentarian magazine with the sole objective to encourage pro-people politics.

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