Why cities are difficult to master and serve

Why cities are difficult to master and serve

Quality of life and ease of living are the new benchmarks to determine the success of Smart City initiatives. Soon the Niti Aayog’s data analysis is also likely to rate cities on implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, unified governance alone can bring better qualit...

Quality of life and ease of living are the new benchmarks to determine the success of Smart City initiatives. Soon the Niti Aayog’s data analysis is also likely to rate cities on implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, unified governance alone can bring better quality of life in cities, says E Jayashree Kurup in our three-part analysis of human resources, digital technologies and economic independence. The spotlight has been on cities in crisis in India in the recent past. Delhi-NCR and many other North Indian cities choked on polluted air for the fourth year in a row. While the jury is still out on why it happens every year in these land-locked cities, sea-facing Mumbai too is facing problems of severe air pollution. Chennai has been battling intense rain and consequent flooding, despite the fact that the city has made a concerted public-private-NGO effort to restore and clean some polluted and silted lakes and ponds. And Bangalore has barely seen sunlight for many days in November. For the past five years since 100 Smart Cities were identified and announced by the Government of India, many issues related to quality of governance and participation of citizens to promote ease of living have been studied. How often have you rebelled against invisible processes that allow for delivery of laws, policies and institutional implementation? “One of the key metrics (of a Smart City) is how well citizens are participating in the process of delivery of services,” VR Vachana of the Janagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy said at an NIUA podcast - ‘Complexity of City Systems. Janagraha divides the city governance system into four components: 1) Urban planning and design 2) Capacities of cities - from the perspective of human resources, finance and usage of IT 3) How empowered are the mayor and councillors? 4) Citizen’s participation for accountability and transparency Cohesive urban planning and design normally takes place during masterplan exercises. However, masterplans not only take time to create, but also do not carry the promise of complete execution. Smart City selection was on the basis of credible City Development Plans (CDPs). But either because of resource constraints or multiplicity of agencies, execution on the ground suffered. In many cases plans have to be regional in nature. Water, transport and other civic services remain incomplete unless the entire region’s requirements are taken into consideration. The same is also true of air quality, where stubble burning in far-off Punjab and Haryana impacts the air quality of the National Capital Region. To solve the same problem, Delhi waters roads and trees, Gurgaon halts construction while Noida and Greater Noida have a very different plan. The 100 Smart Cities chose parts of the cities to smarten as a pilot on how the city can solve its problems in an integrated manner. Water, power, drainage, sewerage and utilities in tunnels as well as connectivity are the basics. Ease of use of services were enhanced with digitisation. Central integrated command and control centres measured the level of governance. The logic being that what can be measured, can be fixed. The efficacy of this approach showed up in cities that were able to manage their health crisis better during the pandemic. Capacity building of operational resources has not become a practice in cities. While there are various systems of capacity building and resources for the same, the documentation of the skills acquired and assessment of effectiveness in operations has not begun. As a result of lack of follow-ups, capacity building as an institutional activity to reorient or upgrade skills for effective city management has not begun. The latest effort at sprucing up cities has been to digitise services. While the logic of ‘what can be measured can be fixed’ makes sense, what doesn’t is the lack of enthusiasm among those who are within the system. Says Ananda Nair of the Janagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy said at an NIUA podcast - ‘Complexity of City Systems’, “Across states, we have seen governments take huge leaps of faith in injecting technology to get things working with some success. State after state has invested in ERP to digitise a bunch of things. What is missing is that the ecosystem has to change and people have to get used to it.” Despite being a deal breaker, there is not enough effort at capacity building at the lower, operational levels. The funds crunch in cities results in perennial short-staffing, leading to a severe crunch in governance capacities in the manpower. Explains city governance consultant in Pune, Manojit Bose, “As city systems become more complex, the capacity of city management staff also has to increase. China focussed on training the city staff on how to use these systems to optimum levels. These workshops are for training the government's machinery to manage modern city governance effectively,” he says. However, as things stand, cities today remain unequal partners with the private sector, as hordes of multinationals descend on cities with most modern technologies. In many cases, says Bose, while state IT systems are mapped to central systems, city systems often function in isolation or are at different stages of modernisation. Today consultants have been appointed to support cities. However, in such a niche area in India as city governance, the skills of the consultants too are being fine-tuned on the job. In the US, for instance, the government employees, who evaluate projects and buy technologies, are the best in the world. In India, cities are looking to shore up capability from companies like Cognizant or Infosys. Explains Nair, National Urban Livelihoods Mission started in the late 1990s or 2000s. Many systems’ operators were taken in and they are still in the system as computer operators. They are now trying to get the hang of the new complex digitisation. The issue also is if there are 60,000 people in town, are they capable of executing digital transactions? The chasm between what big cities can do with technology and what small cities can do with the same technology is also widening, based on the quality of its manpower. In Bangalore, for instance, the command and control system can manage and use technology but can all 4,372 cities do the same? The reclassification as 500 AMRUT cities does not reduce the difficulty of the people to use technology. In some cases, residual laws of the past take away from the impact and execution of new processes. “By mandating the digital way of collecting money, are you tweaking the municipal law that demands the use of a register,” Nair asks. “Are we making ecosystem changes in the city to make that law effective, which is super critical to bring in technology effectively,” Nair queries. Today in the Smart Cities Mission, funds have been allocated at various levels for capacity building of municipal staff. Proper assessment frameworks with input and output metrics and tying them up with results on the ground would help address these issues. The various awards for waste-management, water management and other smart features has brought cities one step closer to result orientation. The critical citizen partnership and capacity building at citizen levels is still in the works. Once the tenure of the smart projects for 4-5 years is up and consultants exit the system, councillors and citizens will have to rise to the challenge of being able to run them in perpetuity. Therefore, it is critical to prepare for that in a structured fashion. The Niti Aayog’s assessment framework on city abilities to plug into the SDG framework may well be a step in the right direction. E Jayashree Kurup is Director Wordmeister Real Estate & Cities and Communications Advisor, National Institute of Urban Affairs

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