Equal Budgets for Equal Streets

[This is the original submission for an article which appeared in a much edited format in TOI as here  and there is more if this interests you in response to my FB post]

How can we have equal streets unless there is an equal provision in our municipal and MMRDA budgets towards equal streets? This is the only thought which comes to my mind when I see the enthusiasm of thousands of residents of this great city who come on to Linking Road and S V Road for a short period of time on Sundays to enjoy the feel of streets free from cars.

As one of the most vocal opponents of the coast road project and also a member of Mumbai Transport Forum and Walking Project, bodies which are championing for improvement in public transport and walking conditions in Mumbai, I can see the disproportionate enthusiasm in the government toward the two issues. While the coast road has been declared as a project of national importance (no less) we see that millions of people using local trains, buses, the metro and who are also pedestrians by default find themselves short changed and deprived of receiving any such enthusiasm and response from politicians.

The municipal corporation intends to spend Rs. 8000 crore of public money to develop a 36km coast road from Marine Drive to Kandivali, which is to most of us in sustainable transport is representative of furthering the already unequal nature of our streets.

The budgets of urban local bodies appear esoteric to most and befuddle even some of us who spend our lives discussing urban issues and governance but these are very important documents, which shape the quality of life for the residents of the city. The budget is a fairly accurate insight into what are the issues of the people, which our politicians and bureaucrats observe, are affected by and consequently decide to impact for the better. Budgets are a statement of intent, of how public money collected from taxes by all the residents of the city will be used and hence need the attention of everybody who pays taxes.

Among the many budgets of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai there is a budgetary provision for the Road Department, which in the current year stands at approximately Rs. 2300 crores. Do citizens have even a modicum of equality or opportunity to shape the road department budget or philosophy? Have those who come on Sundays seen the budget lately?

Having worked with the road department significantly I clearly realise that this is a department whose officials are fundamentally tasked with designing and developing infrastructure meant to facilitate the movement of cars. In 2010, when I was an early employee at EMBARQ India the first proposal I had submitted to MCGM was to set aside funds in the budget for setting up a dedicated unit for Non Motorised Transport which would be staffed with people who are trained to design infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists and have a fundamental belief in Equal Streets. The then Additional Municipal Commissioner had jovially remarked to me that this was a very important but not urgent issue.

Being among the founding members of the Equal Streets movement (though not active subsequently) it is my thought and concern that those who are having fun on the streets on Sundays will also decide to become active citizens who truly champion the cause of Equal Streets and not just leave it at fun and games.

[Rishi Aggarwal is an advocate for sustainable mobility policies and is a Research Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai]

Sincere City not Smart City

Smart City is the new lingo being banded about in context of Indian cities. It seems to be the Mantra for cities for the new Modi government in place. Having been involved with improvements in the quality of urbanisation primarily in Mumbai for a fairly long time I think foremost the most critical and essential requirement for India’s urbanisation today is sincerity and not all the technological imagery that is being bandied about. The existing top 50 cities and urban agglomerations of India are completely capable of delivering the highest quality of life for a significant amount of India’s population if they are governed well and with sincerity. When there is sincerity and integrity then the right technological solutions flow effortlessly; in the absence of integrity it will be impossible to apply the right solutions to existing Indian cities or build new ones..

Today what is stopping the existing Indian cities and agglomerations from delivering is the complete lack of transparency and accountability in the way they are governed. Public money is squandered in unaccounted projects and there are blatant manipulations of various urban policies to benefit vested interests while millions suffer a poorer quality of life. Urban areas for good or bad will be the centers of economic and human development in the foreseeable future and yet what is happening in Indian cities currently is a complete betrayal of national interest.

It is more than a decade now that I have been involved with urban issues in Mumbai as an activist making noise about irregularities and pushing for the right governance construct in which decisions should be taken. While there is progress, overall there is no improvement in the quality of life. I will pick examples of gross insincerity from a few of my involvements. None of this is limited to Mumbai; I follow other cities in India and being in touch with activists and technical experts in those cities suggests it is the same tale of woe across all the top metros of India.

Let us start with whether we have smart citizens in the first place? In all my interactions over the years with that segment of people which consists of the audience or ‘market’ for improved cities I have found in most a singular lack of understanding about how their municipal corporations work, simple understanding about budgets, various committees which decide on multiple issues in the city and the way these committees sanction public money for various projects.

Civil society members are squeamish about discussing the conduct or character of the elected representatives and senior officials who take decision not wishing any personal confrontation and hoping things will somehow change by talking in generalities.

If this is the case with budgets, the case with understanding public policy is far worse. The numerous ways in which the working of a city can be distorted with decisions about how to use land or how much to build on each unit of land or the kind of transport to be encouraged is beyond the understanding of even the well educated. How can we have a smart city without smart residents? The politicians are perfectly happy with such dumb residents who can easily be swayed by ‘smart’ rhetoric. A smart city would be one where at least ten percent of its residents are smart enough to understand the ABC of governance.

The city gives its purse strings to the incompetent and the downright diabolical but will not make available a paisa to those with integrity and passion and enormous competency. Is such a smart city? Is it a function of technology to provide your citizens with information about how you have used their money for which you are only a care taker as an elected representative or an IAS officer who is trained to supply good governance? Those who were sincere could provide that information even before the computer or typewriter was invented, those who are insincere will not do so in the day and age of ERP software and smart phone apps.

Mumbai’s pathetic roads is a good place to discuss next. You cannot drive for two minutes without having to slow down on a bumpy stretch. Even some arterial roads where the surface will be good will see a few sections which are broken. If not anything then almost all the traffic junctions of the city have the most potholed sections reducing the throughput during signal cycle and causing traffic to pile up during peak hours. This is leading to high levels of stress for the citizens, wear and tear of vehicles, high productivity loss for some of the most hard working people in the country, increased vehicular emissions and enormous fuel wastage which impacts our foreign exchange position.

Year after year crores of public money are spent on filling potholes and fixing broken stretches which in no time reappear. The whole process is nebulous and many a person in the administration and the contractors have been able to build a fancy lifestyle for themselves from this racket. Here too smart gets bandied. There is a lovely lingo of various technologies to fix potholes, machines from Germany and Austria to be imported, fancy processes and all that. Had there been sincerity then the nagar sevaks would have been delivering rather than going for visits abroad to get the right ‘smart’ technology for Mumbai.

Then there are vendors and bureaucrats who offer to sell ‘smart’ IT solutions to monitor traffic congestion using GPS and data from cell towers and cameras and what not. They are a separate set of solution providers unconcerned with the road department and how it functions. There is no integrated unified planning for transport in the city. Every cartel finds its own niche in controlling a part of public money and seeks to ‘optimally’ leverage the control. It is these cartels which are now firmly in control of the smart city propaganda. Is anybody talking sincere city?

Now the latest fancy project of the politicians and bureaucrats is to develop a 36km coast road along the western coast of Mumbai at a cost of Rs. 9000 crores which they are touting as the one final solution to all of Mumbai’s traffic congestion problems. The report prepared by the municipal corporation reeks of insincerity, makes no pretense of hiding its biases and violates all basis norms of report writing. Just so as to defuse the opposition from the sustainable transport advocacy groups the same bureaucrats who have sabotaged a BRTS for Mumbai are even dangling a carrot that they will run a BRTS on this corridor.

Would it not be smart to have your 2000 kms of road network in good shape and improve throughput by a minimum of 20 percent from the same roads rather than spend Rs. 9000 crores on a 36 km coast road with a false promise that it will solve all of the cities traffic congestion problems? Is it not insincerity and cheating when you do not look into the travails of 12 million people as they go about using the existing road network? And the money and other resources are all there.

All of America is now realising what a public finance nightmare it is to create funds for renewing highways and all those flyover which looked so cool and ‘smart’ in the 60’s. America has the luxury of printing as much money as it wants to fund its infrastructure and is still not able to put it all together. In the 21st century smart would be defined as learning from the mistakes of the 20th century. Smart would be what is happening in Europe today and the incredibly experience rich public transport and non motorised transport infrastructure that is coming up in its top 50 cities. All of this is happening with a lot of technology but determined by a smart vision founded on a strong base of integrity.

A smart city is one which can understand terms like mixed land use and sustainable mobility and which can have the vision before the technology as was again and again exhorted at a conference in July by a team of technocrats from EU nations who had been flown in to give some insight to Indian bureaucrats for suggestions on how to solve the waste and other environmental problems of Mumbai. The bureaucrats not surprisingly were looking only for technology and could care much less about all this vision nonsense.

Smart is seen to be a function of technology, of vendors who can supply the right gadgets and IT enabled services and of big budget spends. Thus you will have dustbins fitted with RFID tags and weight sensor which will monitor when a dustbin is full and send out a radio signal to a collection van to collect before it starts over spilling. Not mixing waste and doing high level of segregation at source is not advertised because that will affect the business of those companies which in cahoots with politicians have the contracts to transport waste to dumping grounds. Solid waste management is one area where this fraud of ‘smart’ and technology has been played to the hilt. Mumbai itself has seen itself cheated by its officials and elected representatives in the name of using technology to alleviate the city’s garbage problems.

The Smart agenda has existed around for sometime now. As any of the biggies in the space – IBM, Siemens, CISCO and the like – about how much business have they got? Completely non-descript low key companies make the mark in whatever IT work goes on. I am not saying for once that small and medium enterprises should be discriminated against. All that I am saying is that we need the best value for our money and merit should win over any other parameter. Here the space is crowded with companies which win in an L1 contract and after tying up with some front company of a politicians son. Is this smart?

I hope the PMO and the MOUD will start an aggressive agenda to first bring sincerity into the way Indian cities are governed.


This blog post has also appeared as article on Scroll.in


No criminals in politics

March 25th I spoke at the No Criminals in Politics function organised at Prabhadevi. The general position on the subject is that people should not vote for candidates who have a criminal background and parties should not nominate candidates who have a criminal background. A criminal is defined as some one who has been charge sheeted in a police station.

The point I had to share with the audience was that in the past 30 days I have been hearing numerous tales from people I meet at the grassroots and people who have contested elections in the past about the huge amounts of money which is distributed in slum areas in the 24 hours before the election. 500 and 1000 rupee notes flow liberally with the intention of influencing the voter to vote for a particular party. And I have by now heard the names of almost every politician in the city, Page 3 or non-descript. All this activity is done for the MP in layers and layers away from the MP shielding him or her from any embarrassment and it would be naive to suggest that the MP does not know about it. The lure of being in power is sufficient to let the conscience conveniently over ride any discomfiture.

Now the moot point is that are there necessary and sufficient conditions for having “No criminals in Politics”? Is it sufficient that only a person should not be charge sheeted himself and it is perfectly okay if his/her party distributes money for him/her to win elections? Or that there is a grassroots army of thugs and criminals doing things by proxy? Are these stories of money flowing around baseless allegations? How do we find the truth?

I also agreed with Mr. Indur Chughani’s position that we should be saying no to parties across the country which field candidates from anywhere. Thus a Congress fielding criminals from UP should be boycotted in Mumbai also.

The interconnectedness of issues

On March 19th I along with Janak Daftary of Jal Birdari and Mr. Jagdish Gandhi met MMRDA officials at the site of the retaining wall that is being built next to the Vakola Nala  mangroves Рfollow the picture and details below


The meeting was inconclusive but valuable all the same. As far as I am concerned the meeting the issue no longer remained one of protection of mangroves. The issue is a confluence of three important public interest areas. For far too long mangrove conservation has been considered as an issue which should be left to a few people who ‘understand’ the issue and the issue has nothing of interest for the vast majority. The following three issues should provide clarity:

1) How are decisions taken within the government about issues of public interest? The engineers present for the visit could not answer critical questions beyond a point and their only defense for the wall was that the same had been suggested by CWPRS and IIT-Bombay and they were only carrying out the execution based on the said directives. That any real public good was coming out of it was left for everyone to guess. Everybody who has no interest in mangroves but interest in governance needs to be concerned about the decision making.

2) How is the tax payers money utilised? It is a fundamental premise that funds should not be blown on projects which are unnecessary and should be instead directed towards essential infrastructure and needs. In this case Rs. 2 crores has been spent on constructing a white elephant which is of no use at all. People who cry hoarse about the amount of money Mumbai sends to the Center and how much it gets back in return should first question whether each and every existing rupee being sent in Mumbai is being used wisely or half of it is being siphoned off? Should stopping this leakage be the top priority?

3) Everybody who is interested in the illegal proliferation of slums and a control on the illegal nexus which helps them come up needs to be interested in the issue. From one end of the mangroves dumping is progressing at a slow rate. If not stopped in 5 years you will have no mangroves and in its place a ground avaiable for encrocahment and in in another decade you will have a bursting slum. Public memory being the way it is everybody would forget that this was a mangrove plot which could have been saved with a little bit of vigilance and effort.