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Thursday, October 6, 2022

Infrastructure revival of Bharatiya cities, the engines of economic growth

There is growing discontent with the state of living in Bharat, particularly in urban tier 1 cities. While generating two-thirds of Bharat’s GDP, Bhartiya cities lack appropriate infrastructure and this is stalling growth and leading to billions of dollars of economic loss.

Bharat has a rich history and capability to drive change. The citizen’s movement, inclusive of the government apparatus, must push for concerted action, setting aside political, ideological, or any other differences. A transformation that can be achieved in 1-3 years ahead. We have the opportunity, in this post-pandemic crisis period, to leverage a change our country can unleash. Let us sound out a clarion call for action to transform our urban and rural centers in a planned and concerted manner.

Crisis as in natural disasters, epidemics or any major conflicts bring us all together to action, unlike seen in any other nation in the world. It also presents our country with the opportunity to address the decades of neglect of planned infrastructure development. This is across urban, semi-urban cascading to the rural areas. We have the capability; the rallying cry and unifying purpose are to be established. We have little time left, to let this inertia and chaos continue, and remain isolated in our own routines. This may otherwise lead to chaos no one can control thereafter.

Macroeconomics or larger factors at play

Many eminent economists of repute in this country and internationally, have written or spoken on what ails our country’s economy and the impact of international changes. The governance at all levels is grappling with reviving the economy, the engines of growth. The demographic dividend can be fully capitalized. Need to overcome the political or ideological dissensions, archaic economic order, chaotic banking situation straining the country.

Six thousand years ago, we had a sophisticated urban settlement in Harappa. We have had thriving cities built by great rulers in the past. We cannot continue to fault the historical events of past decades or few centuries, or other macro or micro policy reasons through the governance in the past. We the citizens and our governance hierarchy are all equally responsible for it and we must act on it now. 

Focus on the local urban actions

The infrastructure in Tier 1 cities is stretched to its seams, with migration from Tier 2 and 3 cities, small towns, and villages. Let’s take the case of Bengaluru. Spread over 709 sq. km, with the population in the range of 12.5 million, with an increase of nearly 4 million in the last decade. The density and traffic jams drain away an estimated 40 thousand crore INR per year. It is at a low 146th in Mercer index for quality of life, 177th for infrastructure. While there is change and execution in many initiatives, they are only the barest minimal that is being done not visionary actions.

The city consumes 2 billion liters of water every day, generates about 6000 tons of garbage per day that is a huge 2.2 million tons a year. The city that draws nearly 100 million units of power is mostly supported with generators in every major office, residential, or shopping premises. The estimated economic annual value generated ranges from 300 to 700 thousand crore INR and we still are grappling with infrastructure issues that are budgeted at 8 thousand crore INR for 2020, about 1 – 4% of the GDP of the city or 20% of the economic loss due to poor infrastructure.

It is not an argument that the “Silicon Valley” of Bharat is fast moving to a “difficult to do business in” state of infrastructure, that will impede its growth. There are sporadic reactions to fixing the problem of proper design and quality by the government periodically. We have a need for a top-down focus on optimal planning and execution.

Work towards the common good and eschew personal gain

Those governing public and private organizations need to understand the basic principle: “responsible economic growth benefits everyone”. This sensitivity needs to be instilled at all levels and particularly in decision-makers. The integrity to eschew personal gain has to go beyond accountability and legality. Local communities should come together to stop acts for personal gain, and impose discipline in lawmakers and implementers. They must be given the space to participate in the city’s transformation. Making the city a place for a joyful living should not be seen just as political grandstanding, but as a responsibility towards the public good.

Prioritize necessary actions

With the large complex urban sprawl and action across different disciplines, planned action and monitoring is a challenge. Addressing it requires internalizing the base expectations. Fix the water run-off, with local rainwater pits every kilometer, filter and contain the damage greywater intrusion causes to these stormwater drains, enforce the water pollution law stringently across the city.

Garbage generation and disposal must scale to keep the city clean daily across every locality’s garbage dump. Then in parallel proceed with the roads to be laid as per construction manuals. Our engineers have followed to perfection and executed so well even within Bengaluru say in the airport road stretch if not in projects in the middle east, or in the Lutyens Delhi zone.

There is no substitute for the right balance of cost, effort, and time. Work improperly executed is the worst sin, for any reason. Show it as a moral, societal transgression that is not acceptable to any citizen. If the base expectations are so ingrained in every citizen, it will be a good driver for establishing a responsible governance system. Our democracy is driven by electoral votes that need citizens to vote for the meaningful representation of their concerns to make change really take root. Our international airports, many IT parks, and industrial complexes show we can achieve the standards if we have the governance will and, for those who execute, the desire for it. 

Focus on conserving water and reducing pollution

Rainwater conservation is of the highest importance and should be made a priority development activity. Just allocating money for dredging lakes or fencing them with stone embankment is useless. Outcomes are to be measured in absolute terms of rainwater volume and quality of water retained. We have to fix targets for raising the groundwater table and show that it can be achieved if there is concerted action. And most importantly, we have to fix the sewage network of the city at scale, not in short term STPs dotting the city or letting sewage pollute a lake or a river stream.

All forms of pollution are a menace now, highly visible to the individual resident of the city. For decades we have had ministries devoted to ameliorating the impact, but positive outcomes are hardly visible. Many measures are currently taken ironically end up having an adverse impact by the time they are scaled up to the level required.

Unfortunately, we are still experimenting with measures, not clear about what is effective and what is not.  From CNG vehicles to electric ones is a measure that may boomerang, if battery disposal is not contained. The production of lithium batteries is also a matter of concern. Waste disposal needs to be made sustainable by drastically reducing waste generation at the level of individual households and establishments.

Retain historical uniqueness

Every Bharatiya city has its unique history unlike cities in the US. This distinct history, culture, and social ambiance need to be preserved while improving infrastructure. One way of doing this is to decongest the major cities with the development of satellite cities.  Planners and executors need to be provided the legal protection to think and work freely without political pressure and interference. Smart cities project is perhaps a nice motivational exercise to push for change, but we must focus on the basics of a city to even dream of becoming a smart city, any place, any time in the future.

Take a calculated financial risk

Given our demographic dividend, we should boldly revamp infrastructure through loans from global development banks for the faster realization of projects. We still have a margin of deficit financing with about 35000 INR/person or 600 billion USD, debt overall owed in our bonds. We need to project the healthy growth of revenue from the city in the form of property, local sales, and other taxes to get the best deal from global financial organizations. Phased drawing down of lines of credit and giving the track record of cash flows should yield a win for both sides. Each city should be entrepreneurially driven with the strong legal backing to overcome the inherent vagaries of democratic processes and to protect good initiatives from being stalled on whimsical grounds.

Concluding Note

This is not a prescriptive note on actions or solutions. It is an appeal to the government and, the members of the public, particularly the youth who are willing to participate in national development. There are many competing demands on the government. However, rebooting our cities is an immediate concern as it impacts the millions who are chasing the dream of a developed Bharat. All stakeholders in every Bharatiya city must put in the effort to make this revival succeed.

A word of caution is also needed here when talking of economic gain as the driver for change. Economic prosperity cannot be our only goal.  As citizens of the world, we have to be responsibly materialistic.  We need to produce less but of the highest quality and use it for a longer period so that our development is sustainable for the environment.

-By Sudhakar Krishnamachari

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