Panel Discussion on Urbanization and Ease of Living


Kunal Kumar, Mission Director (Smart Cities), Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs
Vinay Kapoor, MD, Westcourt
Avinash Pandey, CEO, ABP News

Ashwani Singla, Founding Managing Partner, Astrum

Moderated by Yatish Rajawat, Fellow, Institute for Competitiveness

Yatish Rajawat: Ease of Living means different things for different people. In this panel discussion, we will try to find this problem called Ease of Living, and try to give you a view of what the government is doing around it and what are the different stakeholders involved.

How does the government look at ease of living, and what is the government currently doing to realize it?

Kunal Kumar: Ease of living has various definitions. Its meaning at a personal level is different from its meaning at a familial level or a societal level. When there are so many layers of ease of living,

it’s very difficult to aggregate that and make it into a program of improving ease of living as a collective. From the city’s perspective, there are four things. One, to create cities which work, that is, a water tap should give you water, a streetlight should give you light, and a road should give you good mobility. Second, to create more out of less, which involves reducing the waste that you generate, using lesser energy and having a cleaner and more sustainable path to your future. 

Third, you are not only anticipating today’s problems, but are also prepared for the problems of the future, so you are creating a city which is working for the benefits of the people going forward in time while anticipating the problems that can arise in the future. Fourth, creating affordable excellence. The general perception is that affordability and excellence do not go together, but there are a lot of examples, and one of them is our mobile phones. It’s an innovation which has cut across every segment of income. So, this is about creating access equality. This is how we want to create cities of the future.

It is about recognizing that that the citizen and the community matters, and their wellbeing is the centre of all projects, initiatives and policy decisions

Yatish Rajawat: In your experience, where are we in terms of planning for our cities? Are we planning for the future or are we still struggling with the problems of the present?

Avinash Pandey: Compared to global cities, India is in a position where it has a lot of problems to solve and plan for the future at the same time. To take mobility as an example, it is important that a city has sidewalks that are functional, that the public can walk on. It is equally important to have a public transport system, which requires planning for 10-30 years into the future. Mobility helps move people, to get to work, and so productivity is affected by mobility. It is linked to many issues, and in the end, it saves time, which is the biggest luxury one can have today. Indian cities have a long way to go, both in terms of solving current problems, which can be done with focused efforts of the government and private sector, and in terms of planning for the long term, which is a lot more difficult to achieve.

Public transport is arguably the biggest issue. If we don’t address it, it will lead not just to chaos, but it may choke the cities completely. A major city with a population of 5-15 million cannot exist without public transport. The lack of public transport cannot be substituted by any number of roads or by fixing other things.

Yatish Rajawat: Is the government right in thinking about ease of living from a city perspective?

Ashwani Singla: Urbanization is becoming critical now. By 2030, 70% of our GDP will come out of our urban cities, 58% of the world’s global population will be within the urban centers of India. Clearly, the turnout rates in the last several elections increased in urban cities. This means that cities matter for politicians. 

In the ‘80s and the early ‘90s, cities didn’t matter because a large part of the focus continued to be around rural areas. There is a move towards urbanization in terms of numbers now. To me, Ease of Living as a subject is not about urbanization at all. Having covered 75% of this country to understand voter sentiment, I have found that the fundamental needs of the electors are centered around ease of living, in terms of infrastructure like clean drinking water, sanitation, healthcare, etc. So, electability is a fundamental function of what we call the hurdle rate of living, the opposite of the ease of living. 

Yatish Rajawat: Will ease of living or any of the parameters that define ease of living ever become so important that they will be the reason a government is elected in this country?

Avinash Pandey: Unfortunately, no, and we have a long way to go for that. However, there is certainly going to be voter swings in the flood-hit parts of India. But voting in India largely happens over current happenings, and people vote based on a lot of agendas which are not necessarily related with governance. This is the sad part of our politics.

Ashwani Singla: Avinash’s point may be relevant in Maharashtra or in current elections, but for six state elections and one national election that we won, each and every time the issue was around governance issues. Despite some economic setbacks, Prime Minister Modi is still popular because the government is addressing the fundamental issues. For example, Ayushman Bharat is addressing fundamental health and bringing down the cost of health. Ujjwala, which is putting gas cylinders into the homes, addresses a very big issue of pulmonary issues of health plus energy cost. So, we may not overtly be talking about ease of living, but the fundamental issues of governance will remain with the government. 

Yatish Rajawat: Ease of living is a multi-ministry, multi-mission, multi-program agenda. Give us a sense of what will finally emerge out of the exercise each of the ministries are doing in putting this agenda together?

Kunal Kumar: Ease of living is about having the citizen at the centre of everything. It is about recognizing that that the citizen and the community matters, and their wellbeing is the centre of all projects, initiatives and policy decisions. Their wellbeing is not something that the government decides. Their wellbeing is a collective choice that the community makes for itself, and everything else from governance structures, technology and how services are delivered has to align to make the realization of that aspiration possible. 

Therefore, this is a very broad agenda. It will not materialize in a year or two but it’s very important to have that agenda right up at the centre of the table to convey that this is what matters the most to the government.

Yatish Rajawat: Where does improving the air and water quality in the country as a goal lie for any of the ministries? Does it lie with the city government?

Ashwani Singla: This is a local government problem, because at the end of the day, the interface between the citizens and the government is not with the central government. It is with the urban local bodies or rural local bodies.

The biggest problem of cities in India is that they don’t have any incentive to make a change.

Yatish Rajawat: If our ease of living is at local levels, do you think the problem will be solved by a grand plan that the central government makes, or would it be something that would be driven grounds up?

Sandeep: As a common citizen, if I see a pile of dust or trash somewhere in my half-mile radius, I click a picture, write an application to the local municipality asking them to do something about this. For fun’s sake, I write down that the CC is being sent to the Prime Minister, the Chief Minister, the minister, the DC and so on so forth, and it gets mended. I don’t need big governments or any big reports or big media discussions to uplift my area. 

We have to look at governments as if we are adolescents or children, and the government is like a guardian. Don’t ask for big plans and Millennium Development goals. They have some budget and small discretion to get the job done if you demand for things like getting the pothole in your area filled or getting the garbage piles cleared. Reaching out and connecting to people in government brings governance. You don’t need laws, media or threats.

Yatish Rajawat: Citizens do not always care to report the problems in their city to the government.

It seems to be the case that the bigger the city, the higher is your sense of detachment with that city.

Avinash Pandey: The biggest problem of cities in India is that they don’t have any incentive to make a change. In the developed countries around the world, the central government or the federal government is an enabler. They incentivize the state governments, municipalities and corporations to do the right thing. There is no water ministry in the United States, but water is so clean you can drink tap water. There is no state transport corporation or central transport corporation in United States but the roads are so good you can drive 120 kilometers per hour on any road. It is because the sub-national governments are incentivized to do the right thing. 

If the current government thinks about incentivizing municipal corporations for doing the right thing, it will work. 20 years ago, Delhi Government decided to privatize electricity. Within five years, the state government started generating cash instead of incurring the cost of subsidy, which led to development of roads, underpasses and the metro. The water issue is Delhi still persisting because it is not privatized. The solution is that the government should be an enabler and allow the private parties to participate. The ease of living is just a matter of allowing private businessman to perform.

Yatish Rajawat: What is that one thing you believe can make ease of living or the index improve across cities?

Vinay Kapoor: Maybe we are oversimplifying the issues a little. There are definitely things that communities can do and should do. In fact, that’s the lower hanging fruit that can be done quickly. People come together and they do clean their own homes. If they extend it out to the street and then extend it out to their neighborhood, a lot can be done. Similarly, there are a lot of things that the private sector can do probably better, and the government simply has to facilitate, but there are issues like public transport, which the whole world has tried to privatize but public transport later went back under public control because it requires a lot, both in terms of expense and coordination. These are the things that have to stay in the government sector or at least led by the government sector. 

Yatish Rajawat: Do you see this whole problem as being a planning problem which is ground up or is it something that can be driven from central government downwards?

Kunal Kumar: Governance is best localized to the entity which can do it in the best possible manner, which is best connected to the people it is going to serve. So, localization of governance is indeed very important, but it’s not government versus private. It’s about the partnership between the government, communities, academic institutions, industries, entrepreneurs, and all the stakeholders. 

We talk of things in a very transactional manner. If there is privatization of electricity in Delhi, there is, of course, some government at the back end which has enabled that to happen. It would not have happened otherwise. But that’s not the end of the story. There should be a collaborative approach in solving the problems. In fact, the best place to have support for family and community has to be within communities. The state governments or city governments cannot take all the roles. So, communities are important, and so is the industry. In a scenario where IIT-Kanpur does a research on what Kanpur needs, the entrepreneurs take the technology that IIT-Kanpur develops and turns them into solutions for the city, and the city then absorbs those solutions into the city itself, it would be a complete lab-to-land approach

In such an open innovation community, all partners ¾the academic institutions, the city, the entrepreneurial community and the industry¾ benefit, and by benefiting themselves, everybody is actually partying on the benefit to the entire society. Those are the kinds of partnership we require instead of making about government versus the private. This is the future of ease of living in the country.

Yatish Rajawat: What is that one thing that you think should be done if ease of living has to be better across the country?

Ashwani Singla: The most important thing is that things get done, and that can only happen when there is accountability and ownership. At the end of the day, two or three things are critical. Do we have legislation that holds bureaucracy or local governments accountable to citizens? Are there incentive mechanisms that built into for performance? The index is only one way of creating the evidence.

There is some level of work that needs to be done at the level of local administration. There needs to be integration and a seamless movement of services and departments, which often has a breakdown. So, there is a level of reform required in local government. Secondly, a lot of the central government resources, plans and funds flow into state governments. Thus, if there is a resource mobilization, which is both local and central, then we also have adequacy of funding much larger part of our ambition, which then stops at local government.

Sandeep: Firstly, if citizens make an oath to begin looking at all the issues around them, compiling those issue and reaching out to the government, a certain level of amelioration would definitely happen. One can simply create a community on any social media platform to execute this; there is no need for anything fancy.

The second most important thing is that ease of living is not about numbers or some parameters. It’s about quality of life and personal enrichment. It’s about purpose, which is a higher thing than happiness and happiness only from materialistic thing is such a small thing. So, we probably need to redefine for our own sake only.

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