Smart Cities


Way back in the 1980s, M.J. Akbar, then founding-editor of The Telegraph, said only half in jest that Indians might soon need a visa to travel to Bombay. Akbar is now Minister of State for External Affairs and Bombay is Mumbai. But the sentiment he expressed then still holds: Mumbai contributes around 35 per cent of tax revenue to the Indian treasury but gets a fraction of it in return to develop the city’s infrastructure. The problem of course isn’t just money. It’s governance.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is India’s wealthiest municipality with an annual budget larger than that of some states. And yet the city’s 22 million inhabitants receive appalling civic services from the BMC. The recent deaths of citizens due to potholes on Mumbai’s roads, building collapses and falling trees have brought into sharp focus the corruption that has made the BMC one of India’s most irresponsible municipalities.

It is run by the Shiv Sena but all local parties, including the BJP, NCP and Congress, are complicit. As a recent Times Now investigation revealed, road contractors pay up to 30 per cent of the price of road tenders as a bribe to a pyramid-like structure comprising BMC workers, corporators, MLAs and — at the top — senior party leaders. All get a cut, in ascending order.

Most cities across India suffer from similar problems though not on the same scale as Mumbai. Delhi is fortunate in having a city government with a large budget. An elected chief minister like Arvind Kejriwal, however unpopular he may be, ensures a modicum of accountability. Sheila Dikshit in her 15-year tenure as chief minister vastly improved Delhi’s infrastructure, including giving the city its excellent metro network.

In Mumbai, as in other Indian cities, the head of the municipal corporation is a bureaucrat. However well-intentioned, an IAS officer in a transferrable, short-term job has no stake in the city’s future. Mumbai’s municipal commissioner Ajoy Mehta, for example, has limited power while corporators have limited accountability. The city falls into the deep crevice between the two.

Every major city in the world has an elected mayor who functions as a chief executive. With him or her vests both power and accountability in the city’s daily management. It took tough-as-nails Rudy Giuliani, New York’s former mayor, to clean up a city that had fallen victim to crime, drugs and sleaze. Another mayor Michael Bloomberg, who served three terms from 2002 to 2013, restored New York’s reputation as the world’s financial centre after the 9/11 terror attack.

In London former mayor Boris Johnson, now Britain’s Foreign Secretary, backed the congestion charge introduced by his predecessor Ken Livingstone in 2003 to decongest traffic in central London. His successor Sadiq Khan, London’s first Asian-origin mayor, has been proactive in the city’s fight against recent incidents of Islamist terrorism. Both London and New York have benefitted from having directly elected, accountable mayors.

In sharp contrast, Mumbai’s mayor is a figurehead. The current mayor, Vishwanath Mahadeshwar, has no powers, no accountability and no visibility. It is time urban centres across India are run by elected officials voted directly to office, as the London and New York mayors are, with both power and accountability. An elected, empowered mayor will mitigate corruption and run the city with a degree of professionalism.

Why don’t large infrastructure companies like HCC (which built the outstanding Worli-Bandra sea link), Gammon India or Larsen & Toubro bid for Mumbai’s roads? They build super-smooth highways in the Gulf and even excellent national highways across India but will not touch roads in Mumbai. The contractors’ cartel which underbids for the city’s roads has a deep nexus with Mumbai’s politicians. The result is roads built at rock-bottom prices with sub-standard materials to take care of bribes paid out from within the low bids. Potholes that claim lives are a lethal outcome.

Mumbai is poorly served not only in its roads the BMC builds but also in traffic management, sanitation, housing and healthcare. A local municipality cannot be a law unto itself — left unsupervised or controlled by corrupt politicians lining their pockets. Mandating elected heads to run a city is the only way to transform urban India’s crumbling infrastructure.

City mayors can seek direct election for a five-year term and contest from a political party or as independents. The BMC is a colonial creature headed by a civil servant who before Independence was answerable to British parliament, not Indian citizens.

The current quasi-colonial system suits the BMC. Its officials, apart from having virtually no accountability for Mumbai’s infrastructure, are largely immune to prosecution when badly maintained buildings (which the BMC is supposed to periodically check for structural safety) collapse causing death and injury.

One of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s key schemes is Smart Cities. While communications, Wi-Fi technology, water management and sanitation are part of the scheme, it ignores governance of India’s cities. No amount of high-tech embellishments will make ‘smart’ cities livable urban centres unless they are accompanied by governance reforms.

This is how the government defines a smart city: “A smart city is an urban region that is highly advanced in terms of overall infrastructure, sustainable real estate, communications and market viability. It is a city where information technology is the principal infrastructure and the basis for providing essential services to residents.

“There are many technological platforms involved, including but not limited to automated sensor networks and data centres. In a smart city, economic development and activity is sustainable and rationally incremental by virtue of being based on success-oriented market drivers such as supply and demand. They benefit everybody, including citizens, businesses, the government and the environment. Many of these cities will include special investment regions or special economic zones with modified regulations and tax structures to make them attractive for foreign investment. This is essential because much of the funding for these projects will have to come from private developers and from abroad.”

But smart cities need smart governance. That implies a mayoral-chief executive directly elected by citizens and accountable to them. It is an urban reform the Prime Minister should place at the top of his priorities.