Urban India is not known for its orderliness. But Bish Sanyal says there's reason to be hopeful.
When I tell Indians I cover urban planning in India, the response is almost predictable: ‘What planning’?
Urban India is not known for its orderliness. Indians everywhere view the government as uniformly crooked and inept, unable to provide adequate services. And cities, where services are strained by swelling numbers, are held up as the object lesson.
Bish Sanyal disagrees. Ford International Professor of urban development and planning at MIT and a Kolkata native, Sanyal has researched Indian cities for years. In 2007, he organized a competition around the notion of their hidden success: examples where India's cities manage to buck conventional wisdom by delivering decent public services. An upcoming book, coming out in spring of 2013, will expand on the research. The following is a condensed and edited version of our conversion.
Why did you write this book? What was the central idea behind it?
Basically, what motivated us was this question: 'How is it that some cities are coping better than others in dealing with these kinds of problems?' You have a large number of poor people living in the periphery of cities; you don't have large enough city budgets; there is not enough city autonomy. And yet, we found out that some places were doing a little bit better, in certain sectors, than others.
Generally, in India, when you ask people how things get done, their first response is, 'they do not get done.' There's a pervasive pessimistic approach to municipal service delivery.
I was at a meeting recently organized by the Indian embassy in Washington, D.C. There were hundreds of IAS [Indian Administrative Service] officers. All of them work closely with politicians; these are very high-level bureaucrats. Most argued that if they don't agree with the politicians, they are transferred. But what struck me at the meeting is that some are not transferred, and actually got progressive things done for poor people.
So I am questioning the stereotype we make of politicians and bureaucrats—that the former is corrupt, and the latter is inefficient. Those stereotypes do not explain how things get done.
One part of Indian cities that first struck me was this turn toward car-centric development. Much of the planning does not seem centered on supporting existing public transit.
That is probably true. But if there is a public bus system in a city, and now the city proposes that they want to do something about it—change it, upgrade it—there's federal money for those sorts of initiatives.
Yet, government policy is definitely biased towards large-scale road construction and infrastructure projects; because, I think, connecting different cities together with a network of highways, like you have here in the U.S., policy makers do see that as necessary for expanding and integrated markets.
The metro in Bangalore recently celebrated its first year of running and its expansion plans are moving forward. A similar sort of metro is in the works for a few more Indian cities. Do you believe these are wise urban planning projects?
It’s not an area I directly work on. The only thing I can tell you is that there is a growing view in American academia about these metro projects: that they are constructed not necessarily to provide transport in the cheapest way, but mainly because there are a set of interest groups who push for it.
The location of the metro is also very important, because it influences land values. And many of them are highly subsidized. True, some are trying to raise revenues, like the Delhi metro, and there are signs of some gains but still none have become self sufficient.
What is interesting is that, meanwhile, bus-rapid transit (BRT) has gained popularity as an alternative to the metro. This was started in Colombia first. Now it's being replicated in many other places. India has a very good BRT in Ahmedabad, which won an international award. Transport planners are saying that the buses—if routed well, and you have a system where people can predict when the bus will come—may actually be a much cheaper and effective option than the metro.
Personally, I have mixed feelings about this issue. In some cases, like the Delhi metro—some people like it while others say it’s very expensive. My main concern is that when these construction projects are implemented, they really affect land values. What I am intrigued by is how much land value increase is created by the government and what are the mechanisms by which government can recapture some of these values.
Are there any noteworthy examples of land value recapture happening in India?
Yes, in Ahmedebad. I did a paper on this where we look at efforts at value capture. But we found that the land value increases sharply at a much higher rate than what the government was able to capture. We think that is one reason why the project was accepted by the elites, because they benefited immensely from the land value gains.
The government is not able to ask for a sharp increase in property tax rate because they don't have good records. This is complicated, because any such effort to streamline property values must go between the city and the state, and then go back and forth like 6 or 8 times before anything is done. The process is very bureaucratic and too long.
You’ve mentioned Ahmedabad, the northern capital of Gujarat, a couple of times. Do you think it's one of the most innovative cities in India now?
I think it is, but it is not perfect.
It drew my attention because it was the first Indian city that floated municipal bonds. As you know, people would only buy local bonds if they are sure the local authority is going to pay back. Ahmedabad has been able to create this very sensible business environment that it really means what it says. I don't know to what extent it is because they have a very strong Chief Minister—although not one with a good record of communal harmony.
In the meantime, national government is asking the cities to take on new initiatives. And it is willing to give a lot of money. In the past, national government did not have that level of money. The JNNURM [the federal policy launched in 2005] is a very interesting effort in this regard to influence urban policy.
If you look at the data as to which state or local government has used some of those new resources, you will see that there’s a pattern. Some cities are more concerned, more aware, and more capable than others to take advantage of this moment, which has come after a long wait, because India has finally begun to have decent economic growth rates. Cities can also have some revenue from the federal government. There's a move to decentralize governance, though it is not clear what exactly is meant by decentralization. The cities are still under the control of the state.
The bottom line is that Indian planners now acknowledge the benefits of a growing city, and don’t treat it just as a problem. The property values are growing by leaps and bounds in Ahmedabad. And there's a decent planning system in place. Ahmedabad is trying to use the new moment to create a new social consensus about what the city should be in the future.
Top image: A boy plays on a swing suspended from a tree in front of a residential estate under construction in Kolkata. (Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters)