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India’s rapid global growth rate is not translating to quality of life in its cities

Five Indian megacities featured in the Global Liveability Index 2022. And all of them had very poor ranks.

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India’s economic rise among the comity of nations has been a cause of national celebration. In a period when most nations are struggling with growth, and several are struggling to avoid or fight recession, India appears to move ahead with one of the highest global growth rates. Decidedly, Indian mega and metropolitan cities have made a formidable contribution to the national economy. Over one-third of the national population is spread over several thousand urban settlements. Still, the big Indian cities have a disproportionately large demographic share and generate much of the 60 percent of the national GDP produced by India’s urban conurbations. Since the number of such large cities is growing, it augurs well for the country as even larger contributions to national wealth will flow from this growing basket of million-plus settlements.

This is not exceptional but a global phenomenon. Cities propel an inordinately large proportion of national economic growth worldwide. The largest cities of countries have a major share in generating national GDP. Tokyo, with the world’s highest city GDP, occupies 0.6 percent of Japan’s area and contributes 21 percent of Japan’s GDP. Shanghai, China’s premier city, contributes up to 5 percent of the national GDP with a land area share of 0.1 percent. New York City, the United States’ largest city, occupies 1 percent of the nation’s geography but produces 8 percent national GDP. Greater London occupies about 0.6 percent of the United Kingdom’s area but is responsible for 23 percent of the UK’s economy. Similarly, Mumbai, the largest Indian city, occupies 0.01 percent of the country’s geography but generates 6.6 percent of the national GDP.

All this generation of wealth in Indian mega and metropolitan cities is not contributing to a rise in the quality of life in any one of them. Five Indian megacities featured in the Global Liveability Index 2022, an annual exercise undertaken by the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) in 173 cities worldwide. All of them had very poor ranks. The national capital Delhi was placed at rank 140. Mumbai followed with rank 141. Chennai and Ahmedabad were positioned at ranks 142 and 143 respectively. Bengaluru, India’s IT capital, fared the worst among Indian megacities and figured at rank 146. The index was based on a basket of five broad factors: political stability, healthcare, culture and environment, infrastructure, and education. Infrastructure included a group of services comprising roads, public transport, international links, provision of energy and telecommunications, water and housing.

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Coincidentally, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) also carried out its survey called the Ease of Living Index (EoLI), 2022. The objective was to provide a comprehensive understanding of 111 participating cities across India based on the quality of life, economic ability, sustainability, and resilience. Quality of life was assessed by factors such as affordable housing, access to clean water, basic education, affordable healthcare, safety and security, sanitation, solid waste management, and access to recreational avenues. Sustainability was determined by evaluating a city’s green component, energy consumption and step taken to reduce the same, promotion of green buildings and spaces, air and water quality and ability to withstand natural disasters.

EoLI put Bengaluru, with a score of 66.70 out of 100, at the top, followed by Pune, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Surat, Navi Mumbai, Coimbatore, Vadodara, Indore and Greater Mumbai; Delhi ranked the thirteenth. The top 10 cities were in the band of 57.56 and 66.70 and the national average was much lower. The complete contrast between the global rankings that put Bengaluru at the bottom of the Indian cities and the national rankings that placed Bengaluru at the very top illustrates that their results are based on the indicators and the ranking mechanism used. Hence, while they may give a broad understanding of cities and their status, it is necessary to consider other benchmarks and events that stand out, specifically in regard to the quality of life, to gain reliable insights.

This article is not looking at the economic profile of urban settlements. While the economy undoubtedly remains the raison d’etre of cities, their quality of life is equally significant in terms of their productivity, attractiveness, health and overall well-being. The point this article emphasises is that the economic rise of cities normally ought to catalyse their quality of life. Unfortunately, there are enough indications that India’s robust urban economic productivity is not translating into better liveability of its cities.

Let us pick a few benchmarks from the basket of indicators used by EoLI – affordable housing, traffic congestion, quality of air and the city’s ability to withstand natural disasters. The situation of affordable housing in all large cities almost without exception is tragic, exemplified by the draft Delhi Master Plan 2041, which estimated that 85 percent of residents cannot afford a regular shelter. They live in unauthorised settlements. Affordable rental housing faces a similar backlog. The air quality in Indian cities is deteriorating, highlighted by air quality measurements and the rise in respiratory diseases. Climate change has ravaged almost large cities with floods every year and no city appears in a position to effectively deal with them.

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Most quality-of-life inputs in a city are provided by the urban local body (ULB). In some cities, they may be shared by parastatals. However, the substantial increase in city wealth translates into minuscule growth in the revenues of ULBs or parastatals that are charged with the responsibility of providing numerous services to their citizens. GST and income tax revenues illustrate the substantial rise in national tax collections by the Government of India and subsequently shared with the states. However, the falling share of ULBs as a percentage of national GDP demonstrates that the ULBs are left high and dry. No wonder, most cities cannot go to the bond market because they will not be able to procure a good credit rating to raise debt.

Sadly, the rise in economy adds greater pressures on quality-of-life providers. Enhanced economic productivity puts more consumption money into the hands of many citizens, primarily the middle class, increasing their expectations from the ULB for quality services. With more disposable income in their hands, the well-to-do citizens generate demand for a whole group of services. They want better roads, more parking, more packaged food and more recreational space. These infrastructures cost big money. However, given their slender revenue base, city governments are unable to fulfil any of these demands. The rising economy creates rich citizens and poor ULBs.

This is best illustrated by TomTom, the leading geolocation technology specialist measuring city traffic congestion. In 2021, it placed Bengaluru as the 10th most congested globally. In 2022, it jumped to second place in global congestion rankings and was joined for the first time by Pune, ranked as the world’s sixth most congested city. The average speed for the two cities during rush hour was 18 and 19 km per hour respectively. New Delhi and Mumbai were not far behind at 24 km per hour.

Clearly, the national economic rise seems to be contributing little to city liveability. Attention to some fundamentals would lend a hand in increasing their liveability quotient. Governments must focus on affordable housing. We cannot continue to talk of liveability if half the population have to live in unauthorised shelters. Growing traffic congestion has a huge negative impact on productivity, the environment and health. Public transport is receiving attention; however, what is needed is heightened engagement with enhanced and systematised parking provisions. Importantly, a decision on the inflow of automobiles based on parking availability in megacities cannot be postponed further. Demographic densities of large metropolises are rising unsustainably, creating problems for the environment and climate resilience. Capping urban density needs to be urgently debated. Above all, cities should be adequately funded so that they do not carry large unfunded mandates on their shoulders.

The author is a distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. Views are personal. This article originally appeared on ORF website.

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