Tag Archives | Cities

In Mint: Let India’s urban poor pay for good water

I write in Mint this week on how thinking along the lines of micro finance principles can change how we approach water pricing. Instead of an ideological stand on keeping water free, it’s better to ask how we can make clean water cheaper and more affordable for urban India’s most deprived.

In microfinance, people also acknowledge that it costs more to lend to the poor. When most people have to take a big loan from a bank, they have a steady income to show. They have a credit history. They also have assets they can pledge as surety, in case they default on the loan. The poorest of the poor don’t have salaries to showcase. They don’t have assets to pledge. The risk of defaulting on a loan is higher, and it is humane that they be allowed to default when the circumstances are dire. By allowing microfinance institutions to charge higher interest rates, the policies allow them to service these needs.

Similarly, the costs of supplying water for a city’s poor can be high. People often don’t have address proofs or any proofs of legal residence, making installing water connections harder. Getting even basic piping to reach the heart of a slum is not always cheap, given that there is hardly any road space to dig up. Maintaining pipes is even tougher. Installing and maintaining water meters is difficult, thereby making bill collection costlier.

It is highly disingenuous to ignore all these real issues and shout for a right to free water.The better approach is to ask, “how can we make water cheaper for the poorest?” And that line of thinking can birth an entirely new range of solutions.

Read the full article at Live Mint, February 13, 2015.

Live Mint e-Paper - Mint - 14 Feb 2015 - Page #11 Pavan Srinath

 

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A Tale of Two Cities

The tale of Bangalore and Chennai’s growth is also the story of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu’s urbanisation.

The Indian growth story has included two actors in the past two decades, Bangalore and Chennai. Along with their parent states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, they have been the face of Indian progress, on everything from software to manufacturing to higher education.

Bangalore and Chennai are quite distinct from one another, and this post traces the differences in their urbanisation and their respective roles in their states. Chennai (formerly Madras) was designated as one of four ‘metro’ cities in India from independence, having been the capital of a British presidency before then. Bangalore was a more modest state capital. Till the mid-1980s, Bangalore was almost  two decades behind Chennai in its total population size*. Bangalore has since seen more rapid growth, and in 2011 the city was only a couple of lakh people smaller than Chennai.

BangalorevsChennai1

It is tempting to view population growth as a competition between two cities, but cities urbanise within the context of their states. While both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are among India’s more urbanised states, but it is here that Tamil Nadu leaves Karnataka far behind. Tamil Nadu is the most urbanised large state in India, with almost half its population living in cities. For context, the Indian average of urbanisation is just one third. In Karnataka, about 38 per cent of its population lives in cities and towns.

Urbanisation and the successful movement of large numbers of people out of agriculture is key to prosperity for Indians, so it pays to examine what Tamil Nadu got right.

One feature of Tamil Nadu’s success is its lack of dependence on Chennai for all its urban growth. In 1991, Chennai was about 30 per cent of urban Tamil Nadu. The state’s largest spurt of urbanisation came between 1991 and 2001, increasing by over 10 percentage points. Most of this growth came from outside Chennai, with Chennai’s share of the state’s urban population steadily declining since 1991.

BangalorevsChennai2

Much of the urban growth in Tamil Naducame from the reclassification of land and the setting up of town panchayats after the 74th amendment to the constitution was enacted. A lot of it also came from other large cities springing up. Today, Coimbatore, Madurai, Trichy and likely Tiruppur all house million+ people each.

Karnataka’s urbanisation, on the other hand, continues to be led by Bangalore. The primacy of Bangalore in the state is paramount, with Hubli-Dharwad and Mysore having a population of barely a million each. Bangalore was over 35 per cent of urban Karnataka in 2011.

Not just that, but almost half of the urban growth in Karnataka came from Bangalore’s growth between 2001 and 2011. In comparison, only about a fifth of Tamil Nadu’s urban growth came from Chennai in the same decade.

BangalorevsChennai3

This stark difference can perhaps be explained by extensive industrial growth in Tamil Nadu, which is conspicuous in its absence in its neighbouring state. From the city of Hosur giving competition to areas on the far side of the TN-Karnataka border to bustling ports trying to compete with Sri Lanka’s, Tamil Nadu has been more successful in providing an alternative to agriculture for large numbers of its people. Kerala’s urban spurt last decade appears to be similar, with habitations becoming larger and denser, as well as more people leaving agriculture as a profession. When and whether this can happen in Karnataka is an open question.

For now, Karnataka and its politics are still frequently dominated by agrarian concerns. The Western Ghats continue to pose a formidable barrier to the development of the state’s ports, with its largest port Mangalore competing with larger ports at Mumbai, Kochi and Goa. Connectivity – perhaps in the form of all-weather roads and tracks across the Western Ghats and high volume ports – may be just be the most potent driver of urbanisation in the state.

As the Karnataka government is trying to figure out how to split the Bangalore city corporation into more manageable pieces, more people should start reflecting on how to get more centres of urban growth going in the state.

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*This is the population of the entire urban agglomeration. Since the Bangalore Municipal Corporation became the Bruhat Bangalore Municipal Corporation in 2006, all urban areas around Bangalore (with the exception of small census towns and Electronic City) have been governed under one municipal authority. Chennai, on the other hand has a metropolitan corporation that is co-terminal with the Chennai district and houses a little over half of the people in the Chennai urban agglomeration. Several other city councils and town councils govern the rest of it.

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In Business Standard: Indian Cities, New and Improved

I write in Business Standard today on the 100 smart cities plan announced by Venkaiah Naidu and the lessons they must learn from JNNURM almost a decade of centrally-sponsored urban development schemes:

JNNURM had a tantalising premise when it was first launched: the Union government will give cities money for infrastructure as an incentive for states to devolve power to cities, and for these cities to reform. The Union government was a third party in the state-city equation, hoping to tip the scales in favour of cities and true decentralisation.

The promise of JNNURM was lost for two broad reasons. One, the ministry of urban development had to perform two conflicting functions: it had to spend money by disbursing it to states, but it also had to audit and verify the reforms process. The outlays were conditional on meeting reform targets. Though the ministry did a lot in checking whether cities had completed enough reforms, the spending mandate usually won through, and poor reformers were rarely punished. This made it a weak incentive for genuine urban reform. Some cities like New Delhi also received large infrastructure funds from sources such as the Commonwealth Games, making JNNURM irrelevant as an impetus for reform.

Two, the Union ministries demanded an extraordinary amount of scrutiny and control for the projects approved. For example, if a town in Karnataka wanted to finance a water supply project under JNNURM that improved the lives of its residents, often the project had to meet extremely trying norms such as 24/7 water supply or complete metering of connections, which were enforced by Union ministries and attached bodies. While these are desirable, the lack of state-level decision-making led to the projects losing local relevance, apart from being subjected to an excruciatingly long and difficult process of approval. If the intent of the Union government was to incentivise reform, then perhaps it should not have controlled the type of infrastructure projects beyond setting broad norms.
[Full Article: Building Blocks to Smart Indian Cities, June 3, 2014]

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Hybrid buses: An exercise in vanity environmentalism

Missed opportunities outweigh any gains hybrid buses make in terms of  fuel efficiency.

In a move that has been in the making for several months, the Ministry of Urban Development has decided to fund the roll-out of hybrid buses as a part of JnNURM:

The urban development ministry plans to fund hybrid buses — that use a combination of electric battery and diesel engine — as part of the next lot of buses under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM).

During the budget session, finance minister P. Chidambaram had announced that the Centre would fund 10,000 buses under the mission. The ministry has not put a cap on the number of hybrid buses, as it will depend on proposals coming from states, but officials said they may not exceed 50.

While normal low-floor buses cost between Rs 60 lakh and Rs 70 lakh, hybrid buses — which are more fuel-efficient than normal buses — cost around Rs 1.25 crore.

The urban development ministry had proposed that there should be additional financial assistance for hybrid buses.“We had suggested that since hybrid buses are expensive but at the same time we want to promote them for their fuel efficiency, we should give state governments 10 per cent additional financial assistance,” said a senior official.

However, last week, the expenditure finance committee, while sanctioning Rs 4,900 crore for the project, rejected the idea of additional monetary help. [The Telegraph]

At first glance, this looks like a good pro-environment move, where switching to fuel-efficient hybrid buses reduces both carbon emissions and urban air pollution. Though the buses cost almost two times what other modern low floor buses cost, it feels justified because of the fuel savings incurred.

Clean air in urban India is a quickly disappearing public good. Just like we feel the need to purify water before its use, commuters in cars effectively purify and control their air through air conditioning before breathing it in. But are hybrid buses in any way a solution to this problem? In foreign cities with widespread public transport, hybrid buses may indeed be the solution. If we assume that the share of public transport in city commutes is mostly saturated, for every regular bus that can be replaced with a low-emission hybrid, the city reduces its overall pollution.

This is hardly the case in India as public transport’s share in intracity travel is far from optimal! Most of our cities do not have metros or commuter rail, and have to rely solely on city buses, private buses and “share-autorickshaws” as modes of public transport. The environmental gain in Indian cities comes from people switching from cars and personal vehicles into public buses. So while a hybrid bus might be low on emissions, the opportunity lost because of its purchase is the acquisition of an extra regular bus – which would have taken more private vehicles off the road. If 50 hybrid buses could be replaced by 100 regular buses, the transport service might spend more on fuel and have higher emissions, but the city as a whole will spend less. Investing our scarce financial resources in hybrid buses is not a very environmentally friendly move.

City buses in India

The chart above (Source: *, **) shows you some quick numbers on buses in India and Karnataka. The first three cities have other modes of public transport that coexist with buses (commuter trains and metros). However, as the graph shows – even the best performing cities have too few buses for our public transport to be saturated.

The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission has been India’s flagship programme to finance urban infrastructure and catalyse urban reforms since 2005. It is noteworthy that the acquisition of buses was not a valid item of expenditure under the mission for the first four years. It was in 2009 that under a union stimulus package, the Ministry of Urban Development decided to finance the procurement of about 10,000 high tech buses, to ‘transform city bus transport in India‘.

It is beyond the scope of this blog post to evaluate whether bus acquisition and deployment served Keynesian ends, but the move was politically astute and was fairly well received. The JnNURM labeled buses on Indian (and Bangalorean) roads today are the most visible output of the mission. The move to deploy high quality buses with low floors, pneumatic doors, good suspension and comfort was also a welcome one. By providing a means of public transport that is on par with cars on comfort and safety, these Volvos and Tata Marcopolos were likely able to get more cars off the road than regular buses. In cities like Bangalore, these high-end buses have appropriately priced tickets, are profitable and are even able to subsidise other bus fares.

In the mean time, many bus manufacturers have come out with hybrid buses, including Tata Motors with a CNG-hybrid. Tempting as they may appear, policymakers in the urban development ministry have to seriously consider whether these are necessary – or an exercise in vanity. As the Telegraph article points out, the ministry correctly ruled out the provision of extra assistance for hybrid buses. However, even giving an identical percentage of assistance is too much – as it can buy two regular buses in its stead.

Good public transport has several outcomes that benefit cities: less air pollution; reduction in congestion and in travel time; and also an opportunity for social mixing. This blog strongly believes in the single-minded pursuit of better public transport in Indian cities – but alas, hybrid buses are an expensive and unnecessary detour from that road.

Note. 40 buses per lakh population appears to be a subjective norm fixed by the JnNURM. One World Bank initiative recommends between 50 and 120 buses per lakh population. That said, these are but useful guidelines to follow. What matters most are outcomes – and among them, the public share of total city transport, a control of travel time with urban growth and an overal reduction in urban air pollution.

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Urban water supply without groundwater?

Earlier in January, Rohini Nilekani (Chairperson, Arghyam) was invited by the Finance Minister to a pre-budget consultation along with other social sector representatives. From Arghyam, we made a recommendation to the minister to Launch a Research Initiative to Mainstream Groundwater into Urban Water Supply:

Universal provision of clean water to all of India’s cities and towns is not feasible without adequate policy attention directed towards the sources of water. Groundwater has been and will remain an essential source of urban water supply, especially in smaller cities and towns. Surface water is an increasingly scarce and expensive resource and cannot be solely relied upon to service urban India and can exacerbate rural problems if promoted unchecked.

In the long run, it is paramount that groundwater be mainstreamed into urban water supply planning and policies. Today, however, there is insufficient knowledge to effectively tackle the twin problems of overexploitation and contamination that plague urban groundwater. There is insufficient data and research to formulate sound policies
that can incorporate groundwater sustainably and safely into drinking water supplies in cities.

It is proposed that in the Union Budget of 2013-14, the Government of India launch an Urban Groundwater Research Initiative with an allocation of Rs. 50 crores spent over three years, with a mandate of knowledge creation in the sector. Existing groundwater usage, its potential in augmenting other sources, the role of urban water bodies in groundwater recharge, and the nexus between sanitation and groundwater all need to be understood much better than they are today. A commitment to high quality research through partnerships with premier research institutions and competitive grants are necessary for robust policy formulation on urban groundwater. This will be a small investment that adds to the water security of India’s towns and cities.

You can read the full pre-budget note here [PDF]. You can also read about the same on India Water Portal and see Rohini Nilekani talk about it on Mint.

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