This month, the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, released what it called “India’s first ever Ease of Living Index”. This was “an effort to assess the Ease of Living standards of 111 Indian cities”. The exercise comprised cities covered under the Smart Cities Mission, capital cities and a few more million-plus cities. Various national/international indicator sets and service-level benchmarks, UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and lessons from extensive consultations were weaved in to come up with the final set of indicators.
The framework readied by the ministry includes 78 physical, institutional, social and economic indicators across 15 categories – governance, identity and culture, education, health, safety and security, economy, affordable housing, land use planning, public open spaces, transportation and mobility, assured water supply, waste-water management, solid waste management, power, and quality of environment. Primary data for the purpose was collected through dipstick surveys and secondary data was collated by city governments. An elaborate mechanism was deployed to cross-check data.
The results of the survey placed Maharashtra’s Pune at the top of the ladder. Navi Mumbai was second and Mumbai third. The fourth and fifth positions were bagged by Tirupati and Chandigarh. Uttar Pradesh’s Rampur, Nagaland’s capital Kohima, Bihar’s capital Patna and two other cities – Bihar Sharif and Bhagalpur – found themselves at the bottom of the list. Of the mega cities, Chennai was 14th, Ahmedabad 23rd, Hyderabad 27th, Bengaluru 58th and Delhi 65th. Kolkata received no rank since West Bengal refused to have anything to do with the survey.
City dwellers received the results of the survey with mixed reactions, ranging from utter disbelief to celebration to despair. Punekars saw their own participation in city affairs as positively contributing to Pune’s stupendous victory. Some extolled its educational backbone, cultural assets, its pleasant weather, its industrial hub and the collaboration among corporates, NGOs and activists. While some Mumbaikars were prepared to concede that there were many positives about Mumbai, such as its abundant water supply, uninterrupted power distribution and safety, others were surprised that despite the many woes of Mumbai, including roads and traffic, it found place among the top three. The most oblique assessment was that “if Mumbai is third, others must be really bad”.
Some experts were skeptical about the data and the methodology. They pointed out that the quality of municipal data in India is poor and many cities struggle to provide credible data on any parameter.
Hence, such exercises should be preceded by building a robust data culture. However, one has to remember in this context that data submitted by urban local bodies was in addition to secondary auditing of public documents, physical audits carried out in cities, and a survey covering 60,000 citizens, which preceded the finalisation of rankings.
While there is always room to do things better, this initiative at ranking cities on the base of an Ease of Living Index is a commendable first step. Multiple agencies such as ‘Mercer’ and the Economic Intelligence Unit of ‘The Economist’ have been ranking global cities. Other quality of life ratings are also undertaken. As India urbanises and lives more and more in cities, efforts to improve urban living have to be essayed. Cities have to be made aware of how they fare related to other urban settlements. A process such as this affords an opportunity to cities to fix their problems and get better in terms of delivery of services.
In this regard, however, we are reminded of some previous attempts at rating Indian cities. One of these was undertaken by CRISIL, one of India’s top rating agencies during the last decade. These annual exercises continued for a few years. What increasingly became apparent was that each year, it was almost the same group of cities that was found eligible for the awards. This group of was small and dominated by ULBs (Urban Local Bodies) from the west and south of India. Despite attempts at altering or diluting the benchmarks, other cities were not able to make an entry into the select ULB club.
An analysis of the current results in this latest survey of Government of India shows that not much has changed. If we take the top twenty-five cities ranked in the Ease of Living survey, they are dominated by the west and the south. Sixteen cities are from the west of India (states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, MP and Chhattisgarh) and seven cities are from the south (states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telengana). Bhubaneshwar and Chandigarh are the only exceptions.
On the other hand, if we take the bottom 25 rankings, eight are from the north-east (States of Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Sikkim, Tripura and Assam), eight from the north (States of Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana) and five from the east (Bihar and Orissa). This establishes a clear pattern and divide. Barring a few exceptions, it could be asserted with some certainty that whereas Indian cities in general are in poor shape and do not meet global standards, cities in the north-east, east and north are in worse shape in comparison with other Indian cities.
There are clearly fundamental weaknesses in the Indian municipal architecture that will have to be addressed if we wish to improve our cities. These relate chiefly to governance and finances.
While these afflict all Indian cities, they are not all plagued in the same measure. Western urban local bodies are functionally more complete and the stranglehold of the State over the ULBs is comparatively less severe. While all Indian cities suffer from acute financial deprivation, cities of the west and the south are relatively better off. For instance, the top city Pune with a population of 3.12 million (Census 2011) has a budget of INR 5,870 crores (2018-19) amounting to INR 18,787 per person. Patna, the third lowest ranked city with a population of 1.68 million (census 2011), has a budget of INR 792 crores (2018-19) with an availability of INR 4,702 per person. This is about one-fourth of Pune, one-fifth of Mumbai and one-sixth of Navi Mumbai. Cities of the northeast have an abysmally low revenue stream. The cities of Bihar, UP and northeast are in predominantly rural States and are consequently politically less significant. These States, however, have witnessed large populations that have migrated to select cities in the west, south and Delhi, adversely impacting the sustainability of those cities. It is, therefore, in the interest of the nation and balanced urbanisation that cities of the north, east and northeast are specially nourished so that they can support and retain larger populations.
One of the stated objectives of ‘Ease of Living’ Index 2018 is “to provide citizens with useful and practical information about how their city performs on the various parameters included in the index”. It is hoped that this information “will enable citizens to understand how 'livable' their city is and will allow them to compare its performance vis-à-vis other cities of the same region. This could provide the basis for constructive dialogue between citizens and decisions makers on areas demanding greater attention”.
While such a dialogue that encourages civic participation is welcome and can improve governance, it alone will not solve the fundamental weaknesses of ULBs.
If the Government of India and the States do not provide governance and financial antidotes that overwhelmingly lie in their hands, we may end up doing this exercise every year, finding no new cities joining the top ranks and no city substantially improving its score.
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Dr. Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. He works on urbanisation — urban sustainability, urban governance and urban planning. Dr. Jha belongs ...Read More +