Fixing India’s decrepit cities

Fixing India's decrepit cities

Making Indian Cities Great Again: The Case of Bhubaneswar

Bhubaneswar Renovations

Bhubaneswar, an east Indian city and the capital of Odisha, stands out among its counterparts as a shining example of what a well-governed city can achieve. With its abundance of greenery, efficient bus system, clean streets, and inviting public spaces surrounding its ancient temple at the city center, Bhubaneswar has become a role model for other Indian cities. However, this is not the case for most Indian cities, which are often characterized by overcrowding, decay, and a lack of basic amenities. In fact, according to the UN, roughly half of India’s urban households lived in slums in 2020. This dire situation poses a significant challenge as India’s cities are expected to accommodate increasing population growth and drive the country’s economic development.

India’s urban centers play a crucial role in the country’s economy, accounting for 60% of its GDP. By 2036, it is estimated that 73% of population growth will occur in urban areas. Moreover, workers in cities command a wage premium of 122% over their rural counterparts, and the poverty rate for urban residents is significantly lower. Recognizing the importance of urban development, recent governments, including Narendra Modi’s administration, have made promises to address the multitude of challenges facing Indian cities. While previous attempts failed due to competing demands from rural areas, the current government has shown a greater commitment to urban infrastructure investment.

Under Modi’s leadership, the central government has allocated substantial funds to projects aimed at improving urban housing, water supply, electricity, metro systems, and other critical infrastructure. This increased attention to cities reflects a shift in political dynamics, with urban issues gaining prominence in national discourse. However, the neglect of Indian cities can be traced back to historical roots and ideological preferences. The founding father of India, Mohandas Gandhi, believed that “the soul of India lives in its villages,” which disadvantaged cities from the start. As a result, cities were largely ignored in India’s constitution, and municipal authorities remained weak, with state governments handling most urban policymaking. In contrast, China recognized the importance of cities and incentivized local governments to prioritize economic development, a strategy that India has yet to adopt.

Modi’s government has injected a staggering 18 trillion rupees ($220 billion) into urban development projects since coming into power in 2014. Furthermore, a new Urban Infrastructure Development Fund, worth 100 billion rupees per year, has been launched to support second- and third-tier cities, where substantial growth is expected. States have also been encouraged to follow suit and invest in urban development initiatives.

Bhubaneswar exemplifies what can be achieved when cities prioritize the welfare of their residents and involve them in decision-making processes. The city’s approach focuses on helping the poor and ensuring their access to infrastructure, amenities, and services. Thousands of slum dwellers in Odisha have been given land titles, leading to improved access to water, lighting, waste management, and other essential services. Furthermore, Odisha has introduced a “fourth tier” of governance, involving slum dwellers’ associations in decision-making processes. This approach recognizes that local communities are best equipped to identify and address their unique problems and find solutions.

Recognizing the success of Bhubaneswar’s model, officials from ten other Indian states have attended training programs in Odisha to learn about its urban policies. Punjab, for instance, has adopted Odisha’s land-titling scheme and plans to extend it to 1.4 million slum dwellers. The key to fostering innovation and progress in Indian cities lies in allowing cities to learn from each other’s successes and replicate effective strategies.

However, the lack of autonomy remains a significant obstacle hindering Indian cities’ progress. City chief executives are often unelected bureaucrats, answerable to state governments, while mayors face limited powers and short terms. For instance, Mumbai has had no elected local representatives since March 2022, highlighting the minimal role of local governance in running the city. In most cities, multiple entities and authorities control crucial aspects of urban governance, such as water supply, sanitation, policing, public transport, and urban planning. Consequently, the lack of accountability leads to fragmented decision-making and dilutes the potential effectiveness of city governments.

Bhubaneswar is fortunate to belong to a state that prioritizes urban development, but many cities face challenges in utilizing resources effectively. While the central government provides funding through urban development schemes, the funds are restricted to municipal boundaries, which have often been outgrown by cities’ rapid expansion. This situation leaves cities struggling to provide services to the majority of their populations. To address this issue, the central government has incentivized states to establish more local governments, creating additional layers of governance.

To truly transform Indian cities, a bottom-up approach is needed. This includes granting cities more autonomy and empowering them to make decisions that affect their residents directly. Unlike the current perception held by central and state government officials that cities would “fall apart” with increased autonomy, giving cities more power can lead to more effective governance and better services.

While challenges remain, it is not uncommon for cities in rising economies to face difficulties. Even cities like New York and Beijing had their share of struggles before becoming desirable places to live. For Indian cities to reach that status, Modi must focus on empowering them further. As G Mathi Vathanan, the urban affairs overseer for Odisha, wisely states, “Trust the people. They are better than you.” By embracing this philosophy and fostering greater autonomy, Indian cities can serve as true engines of growth, capable of transforming the lives of millions of their residents and contributing to the nation’s overall progress.