Creating Liveable Indian Cities

traffic_2Urban areas are fast becoming hellish. Too much of crowd, too little resources and too far from satisfaction. Incompetent administrators coupled with corruption is contributing for this mess. Despite announcing Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission there is not much of progress in the Indian cities. Crores of rupees are invested in shining advertisements about the shining cities. But in reality all the Indian cities are suffering. Each city should have a group of visionaries and stakeholders to develop into clean and liveable city. Without such group of people striving towards cities development none of the Indian cities will be liked by their own people and outsiders.

Varun Gandhi writes in The Times of India on 29 October 2013

India is a reluctant urbaniser. The Indian city is chaotic, unclean and unsafe. Lothal, Pataliputraand Ujjain were once cosmopolitan centres, planned around commerce and geography. Bad planning and governance scarred our cities, with the middle class driven away by rigid ideology, massive migration and industrial tension. Urban planning remains a farce.

We face a magnified situation today. In 20 years, 590 million of us will live in 5,000 cities and about 400 urban agglomerations, with little institutional and administrative machinery. According to the UN, 309 million internal migrants will swamp these centres working in temporary professions, while facing a denial of basic public services. We lack 19 million urban houses, offering an average water supply of just three hours, with urban sanitation provided to just 37%.

Journey times in our cities could fall to just 6-8 kmph with a concomitant rise in pollution, far beyond WHO standards. The tilt towards tier I cities will lead to bad governance and “elite capture”, with little exposure to state development schemes and private sectorinvestments in tier II and III cities. Agricultural and forest land will continue to be lost to development projects, characterised by poor urban infrastructure and weak democratic institutions. Our polity lies imperilled.

Urbanisation can be managed. According to McKinsey, we need $1.2 trillion of capital investments over the next two decades, with our road and subway network requiring a 20-fold expansion. The rate of job creation needs to be accelerated, reskilling the urban poor with provision of basic public services and financial inclusion. Our urbanisation strategy needs to be focussed on five key elements – inclusive governance, urban planning, local financing, capa-city building and smart cities.

Urban governance is shackled, with limited fiscal autonomy and rampant rent-seeking behaviour. Planning Commission suggested the transfer of all 18 functions identified in the 74th constitutional amendment to urban local bodies (ULBs). An independent utility regulator is needed, to monitor and adjudicate disputes on public service quality and pricing, with a published Citizens’ Charter containing comprehensive information on guaranteed public service quality levels.

An elected and empowered mayor and a metropolitan system with single-point accountability for all urban localities is needed, providing unified authorities for transport, water supply and sanitation. We need Lokayuktas at a locality level to challenge bureaucratic incompetency.

Financing this sounds steep, but need not be. Municipal finance needs to be strengthened, with access to land monetisation and municipal bonds ring-fenced with city development funds. At least 25% of GST and all property taxes should be shared with ULBs – they generate most of the revenue, they ought to keep some of it.

FSI indexes need to be increased, leading to greater land revenue and less environmental pressure. Public services should be indexed to inflation and operating costs, offering a minimal return. Public-private partnerships can help raise investments from the private sector. The JNNURMallocation must be trebled, at least for short-term financing.

We lack efficient capacity in urban management. We need a dedicated municipal civil service, focussed on relevant technical skills, offering lateral entry. JNNURM and NSDC can be tasked with developing an appropriate framework that addresses staffing, training and skill deve-lopment issues. ITIs and ITCs need to be strengthened, with private sponsorship encouraged. The Indian Institute of Public Administration, National Institute of Urban Affairs and a proposed Indian Institute of Urban Management must be encouraged to provide policy advisory services to the urban development ministry and state bodies.

Most city residents can no longer afford housing. The scar-city of land, partially due to regulation-mandated suboptimal land usage and cartelisation, along with stratified house financing options, prevents a step on the housing ladder. At least 25% of new development area should be mandated for affordable housing, with appropriate monitoring. Slum redevelopment can be triggered through partial rezoning, capital grants and interest rate subsidies. A national mortgage fund, akin to Fannie Mae, must be created to spur lending to low-income groups.

Our cities can be smarter. We can experiment with new ideas like the aerotropolis concept, building cities around airports, or Paul Romer’s charter cities, with maximal autonomy in governance.

The overhyped industrial corridors between our metros must be aligned with local urban planning to ensure sustainable development. Inner city transport could be revolutionised using straddling buses (demonstrated in China), cycle rent schemes and elevated monorails. Age-old concepts like ‘baolis’ should be revived to serve as rainwater-harvesting pools. The advent of big data systems implies the potential to utilise effective monitoring systems, adding cachet to local e-governance.

Long the neglected child, with the rural hinterland praised as the civilisational heart, cities are powering our economic build-up and need attention and funding along with autonomy. They create new local businesses, helping foster indirect employment. Our urban citizens put up with political and social neglect, whilst helping to create social value. They struggle amidst an economic slowdown, with rising food prices, uncertainty about their children’s education and a constant shrinkage of public sector opportunities. It’s time we heed them.

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Foreign Education Craze in India

07-india-foreign-institutesHuman tendency to think that others are better than themselves is an age-old issue.If this thinking is very limited then there is no harm. Problem starts if it crosses the limit. The Indian education sector is crossing the maximum limit in leaning towards foreign education providers. The craze for foreign education is getting stronger day by day. Apart from 2 lakh students going annually abroad for higher education, the government of India is hell-bent on allowing foreign universities to open their shops in India. The clever Indian public may welcome foreign universities with open arms but they will never patronise in a big way. This is evident from the foreign retail chains. They are sad because the Indians have not embraced their products as much as they were projected. Similarly the foreign education providers will feel disappointed and dejected once they set up their India campuses.

The Indian government should strengthen the quality of local higher education. Despite infrastructural bottlenecks and pythonic procedures in the academia, performance of the Indian academics is not very bad. In order to tap the full potential of the Indian academics it is essential to provide stress free and harassment free ambience for excellence research outcome.

Gaurav Vallabh writes in The New Indian Express on 22 October 2013

The government of India’s decision to allow foreign educational institutes to operate independently in India has opened the doors for new debate. Till date foreign institutes needed an Indian educational institute as an active partner for their operation. Those who advocate the recent move of the government see this step as some sort of a breakthrough and are expecting a huge change in the higher education system of India. However, detractors suggest to take a pause and analyse the socio-economic impact of the move before becoming too optimistic.

Let us look at the developments so far. The department of industrial policy and promotion (DIPP) and department of economic affairs (DEA) have agreed to allow overseas universities to operate under Section 25 as non-profit companies under the newly passed Companies Act. Earlier, this was to be considered under Foreign Education Providers (Regulation) Bill (pending in parliament for about three years), but now it is covered under the University Grants Commission (UGC) Act. The government took this decision in haste, without even making efforts to pass the bill in parliament. This act of government is questionable. Question also arises about the motivation behind the move. Is this an effort by the government to attract foreign investments in the country? The present regime at the Centre has been criticised enough for its failure to bring investment into a developing India.

From India’s perspective, it is not a great idea to aim for foreign investment in education when there is underutilisation of domestic capital in the sector. From the perspective of foreign varsities, they will only come when there is an incentive of returns on their investment. But companies registered under Section 25 of India’s Companies Act cannot distribute profit or dividends to members. This means that the foreign varsities will not be allowed to repatriate money. Then, why will some foreign entity come to India if it is not allowed to send back profits to its parent entity?

Another challenge for these foreign universities will be the cost they will have to bear to bring up their Indian campuses. Most of our institutes get subsidised land to build their facilities. It is unlikely that the government will provide land to these universities and with the Land Acquisition Bill being already passed in parliament, it will not be easy for these institutions to build their campuses in India. Add to this the deposit an amount of Rs 25 crore that the foreign universities have to maintain with the human resources development ministry, which they will forfeit in case of any violation. Moreover, for opening a campus in India, an educational institution needs to be in the top 400 in one of three global rankings — the UK-based Times Higher Education Ranking; the UK-based Quacquarelli Symonds ranking; and the China-based Shanghai Jiao Tong University rankings.

This will be difficult considering the fact that high-ranking educational institutes are reluctant to open new campuses for the fear of brand and quality dilution.

If one looks at the global trend, it would be found that generally top-ranked universities open small centres and not full-fledged campuses in foreign countries.

Another supporting argument that has been given in favour is that this move will help Indian students get foreign education at an Indian price. Additionally, it will help those Indian students who are unable to go abroad due to financial constraints. The above reasoning is based on the assumption that fee charged by these universities will be lower in local campuses.

This assumption might not hold because tuition fees are likely to match their parent institution. Other expenses might be lower but the overall cost of education in these foreign universities will be significantly higher than their Indian counterparts. Moreover, this might also lead to Indian institutions increasing their fee to match the standards of foreign universities.

Some experts are of the opinion that, by having foreign universities in India we will be able to reduce the number of Indian students going abroad. In India, we have over Rs 2.1 crore annual enrollment in higher education and around 2 lakhs go abroad for pursuing higher studies. This is not a very high percentage and students studying abroad not only add to our intellectual capital but in some way represent India in a global community. India’s higher education system is the world’s third largest but it only educates around 12 per cent of the age group. China educates around 27 per cent.

What we have to ensure is to increase the annual enrollment rate in higher education and that will not happen by having foreign universities with a high fee. Relying on foreign players is not the ideal way of achieving self-reliance.

Only, a clear vision of the government and continuous investment over a long period of time can help our educational system to mature and be capable of fulfilling the needs of a nation. Currently, we spend about 3 per cent of our GDP on the education sector, which is not enough for a nation with 50 per cent of its population below the age of 25 years.

Having a mature higher education system has its own benefits and many nations in the world such as the USA, the UK and Australia are reaping those benefits. They attract a significant number of students from countries all over the world. This not only brings foreign money but also adds to their diversity which has its own intangible benefits for a country.

Ancient India was renowned as a centre of higher learning and we must aim to regain that status. This will only happen when our central and state governments increase their spending on quality higher education.

Today’s requirement is not for foreign universities but upgrade of existing universities which are able to compete with foreign universities. There is no doubt that there is a huge demand and supply gap in our higher education system. Inviting foreign universities to fill this gap seems attractive, but what stops us from building our higher education system indigenously? The Indian education system should not be degree-driven, instead it must be dividend-driven.