1. Governance
May 4, 2015updated 24 Aug 2023 3:38pm

Rapid buses, air pollution, and schools that no one goes to: urban India's next challenges

By Andrew Harrop

This is the second part of a two-part article. You can read the first part here

The Ahmedabad slums may be engines of prosperity, but every success story draws in another penniless rural migrant. The jobs the cities offer suck in more people, to start at the bottom of the economic escalator: the next generation of slum dwellers and slum builders.

So, for the foreseeable future, India’s cities will continue to grow at a staggering pace, as the nation’s population both expands and urbanises. As with everything in India, the challenge is scale and speed. India’s cities find themselves running to stand still: just as the authorities and NGOs work out how to support development in established slum communities, they have to start all over again, as newcomers occupy fresh land.

But the next crisis facing India’s cities is not a product of poverty, but affluence. The staggering growth in the urban population and the cities’ success in creating new escalators to prosperity has a by-product: the rise of the internal combustion engine. Indian cities are already stymied by congestion and air pollution. But today millions more urban Indians are within touching distance of affording their first scooter, motorbike or car: even modest economic growth will lead to a surge in vehicle ownership.

Cities like Ahmedabad recognise that congestion and air pollution are mortal foes and that a revolution in transportation is required. Indeed, unless they change, India’s cities will be unable to continue as functional economic entities or tolerably healthy communities. Decades before the impacts of global warming become a serious threat, Indian cities must embrace low carbon transportation to meet the present dangers of immobility and respiratory disease.

Ahmedabad is far from being the worst case. It is smaller and more densely populated than cities like Mumbai or Bangalore, so travel times are shorter. But even in this “tier two” city, a revolution is needed; gradual adaptation won’t cut it, not when the pace of change is so rapid. New flyovers here or there fill up instantly, and just create fresh bottle-necks further up the road. More buses serve little purpose, if they can’t move either.

So big-picture, city-wide intervention is essential. And this is exactly what is being attempted, by a cadre of academics and senior administrators with technical skills and global networks that rival those of their European peers. Sometimes that does mean grand projets, for all their human-scale costs. For example, metro systems, despite their huge cost, are quickly turning from expensive luxuries to tools for survival in urban India. But while the solutions need to be grand in scale, they need not all be so expensive: indeed if they were, there would be no hope.

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So for example, in the last 15 years, the air quality of Ahmedabad has been greatly improved by paying auto-rickshaw drivers to convert to compressed natural gas. In a country where £100 is enough of an incentive, £4m can change a city. And Ahmedabad has developed a Bus Mass Transit System, which can carry almost as many passengers as a metro for a fraction of the cost. Strictly policed, cordoned bus lanes run down the central reservations of major highways, with intermittent stations near to junctions. It brings the benefits of the modern trams of Manchester, Croydon or Edinburgh with hardly any of the cost. And incredibly, it took under five years from conception to the system coming into in service, despite public consultation and judicial oversight: Indian cities need to act swiftly.

The challenges of transportation are huge. But India has the technical skills, financial resources and democratic pressure to take action. City administrators are now thinking with a 20 year time horizon, working through staged approaches to meeting transport demand: smart technology to use existing roads better, intermediate solutions like the bus-ways, and then on to metros for the long term.

Ahmedebad’s bus rapid transit system. Image: PlaneMad/Wikimedia Commons.

When it comes to other forms of carbon emissions, there is less of a burning platform compelling action (although energy security is a strategic concern). Yet, the carbon intensity of India’s cities is set to climb rapidly. For example millions of Indians are on the verge of being able to afford air-conditioning: it is the same story as for motor vehicles, but without the externalities being so obvious or immediate.

It made me reflect on the decarbonising of our own economy. We often think the West should lead the world on climate change, because we consume more than developing countries and can afford to act sooner. But perhaps the real reason we need to sprint in Europe is to make adoption possible and affordable in poorer countries. It is down to us to take-up green technologies at pace and volume, to drive down the costs until the Indian middle classes can afford them. Micro solar generation is perhaps the most immediate example: why should India’s sun-drenched urban homes not sell power into the grid? Before long it will be electric vehicles. When it comes to carbon emissions, India cannot be a late adopter, for the sake of the whole planet.

Major system change will not be easy: after all, India is a delightfully disorderly nation. Change will be organic not regimented, driven by what makes sense for millions of consumers. The role of the authorities is to provide the strategic leadership, make the investments to create capacity and create “nudges” and price signals to shift social norms, in cities facing collective action problems on so great a scale.

But India is a dynamic, fast-moving society. It has governing institutions which are accountable to public pressure and the rule of law. And its technical experts and public leaders have world-class expertise and an appetite to adapt and innovate. There are reasons to be optimistic.

A creaking public realm

However, not all is well with the public realm in Indian cities like Ahmedabad. The expertise and dedication of the city’s elite rivals the best in the world. But we heard how everyday interactions with the public authorities are too often marred by incompetence, corruption and deadening bureaucracy. It is the street-level bureaucrats and the gamesmanship of petty politicians that seems to attract the nation’s scorn.

As a result, bottom-up, endogenous improvement of the kind that works in British public services is very hard. The professional elites instead reach for big-bang system change and apply technology to bring accountability. For example, Ahmedabad’s city council has just introduced sophisticated software that provides a portal to handle every complaint raised about the hundreds of services it provides. The system has forced integration, breaking down silos between services; and it has driven accountability, with unresolved complaints chased with increasing intensity, and any case that is re-opened escalated up the chain.

But still there is a long way to go for public services in the city. A hundred metres away from those new build social housing blocks stood a school built as part of the project. It is mainly empty for much of the day, swelling with children only when it’s time for the free lunch. Within metres, children play in dusty yards, with little to fill the day. The semi-literate parents we spoke to told us the school was terrible, and the local NGO staff seemed inclined to agree. Maybe they were being unfair, but the word had got around. And back in the slums we’d been told how the free municipal schools were shunned in favour of fee-paying establishments, just as soon as parents could afford the switch. The same story applies to free healthcare too.

As a consequence, the number of free schools and clinics is apparently going down, despite the booming population. For an outsider it was hard to disentangle under-investment in supply from declining demand; and genuine concerns about quality from urban myth (in a city with a literacy rate of 90 per cent, the education system cannot be a total failure). But whatever the cause, it seems that essential public services in the city are on a downward spiral towards residualisation – and as the UK has known for many years, “Services for the poor are poor services”.

Indeed, from slum dwellers to business professionals, no one seemed to have a good word to say about municipal public services, despite the broader evidence of powerful public leadership manifestly changing the city. It is a story of macro-level capability and micro-level failure, with the scale of urban India creating huge barriers to standardised consistent provision on each street corner. Middle class Indians find it hard to believe that their London contemporaries opt for NHS hospitals by choice and are happy to use the capital’s rapidly improving state schools.

Students swim across a river to reach their school, in a village about in Sajjanpura village of Chottaudepur district, some 180 kms from Ahmedaba. Image: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty.

For now, in Indian cities, many welfare functions are being taken on by cooperatives and NGOs, which are often seen as more reliable vehicles for public funds than state bureaucracies, though they face their own challenges. On top of that, the private sector is expected to play a role. A 2013 law requires India’s 8,000 largest companies to spend 2 per cent of their profits on Corporate Social Responsibility; while fee-paying schools are supposed to reserve a quarter of their places for disadvantaged children, although this seldom happens in practice.

This patchwork of social welfare feels a lot like the UK before Beveridge, Butler and Bevan. So will India ever have a 1945 moment, where people embrace universal public services? The historic context is not the same, so there is no reason to assume that provision should end up entirely free or state-provided. But as India becomes more prosperous can it edge, in one way or another, towards an inclusive welfare state?

As things stand, it feels like the nation’s evolution may take it towards American self-reliance, not the European social model. India is, after all, a nation of soaring inequality, and although this has always been the case, the gap is widening. If millions continue to be lifted out of poverty then inequality is likely to be tolerated: that was Ireland’s experience when it was the Celtic Tiger.

But India, once a socialist nation, will face a dangerous future if its people forget their rising prosperity is the result of better government, not just the magic of markets. It is the agency of the state – working in partnership with the private and non-profit sectors – that unblocks institutional bottlenecks which thwart aspiration. And it is the public sphere which provides the macro-level leadership Indian cities depend on simply to survive. In time, government can become the organising force behind high quality, universal services too.

In Ahmedabad the power of public action is vital and present, but it is also patchy and flawed. It seems it will be traffic engineers ,not primary school teachers, who will prove to urban Indians the value of the public realm. But as urban India tackles its crisis of mobility, it must also build a social model that can equip every citizen for a bright future.

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society. He visited Ahmedabad in March as part of the UK-India Dishaa programme.

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