Glitz, greed and garbage in Gurugram

The city where I live, Gurugram, has achieved the distinction of being declared the most polluted city in the world. I had moved to settle here, twenty years ago, when Gurugram (Gurgaon then) had the ambition of being the “Millennial City” of India. Three mistaken ‘theories-in-use’ about the development and governance of cities have led to Gurugram’s  failures.

A city belongs to citizens, not to investors

Cities have spurred human progress for millennia because cities, by aggregation of a large number of diverse activities in one place, provide opportunities for economic and cultural development. Cities are magnates for people who migrate to cities, seeking opportunities to be included in economic progress. Large scale in-migration has made London, New York, Tokyo, Kolkata, Mumbai, and other cities around the world into vibrant cities. Cities are the means for poor people to improve their own prospects, and they work very hard to do so, as portrayed evocatively in the novels of Charles Dickens about London, and the movie Slumdog Millionaire about Mumbai.

Investors in Gurugram were given huge tracts of land to develop into a city. They built properties to sell. Their market was rich buyers for whom they built ‘high value’ properties within walled enclaves; not affordable housing for the poor. Outside those walls, the real city grew with thousands of people who came to serve the residents within, and to work in the world-class factories, and glitzy offices and malls that sprang up. The city served its purpose of creating employment but did not serve well its citizens scrambling to grab opportunities to earn incomes.

Cities need investors to finance the building of their concrete infrastructure. But the demands of investors must not overtake the needs of the cities’ poor residents. Twenty years ago, Mumbai began to suffer from Shanghai envy. Shanghai was becoming a ‘world-class city’, moving slums out of the way, building world-class infrastructure. ‘Look at what foreign investors have to suffer on their long ride from the airport to down-town 5-star hotels! The sight of the world’s largest slums’, Mumbai’s elite complained. Get rid of the slums was the challenge given to urban planners. Move the poor people away and give the land to investors.

Investors in Gurugram were given huge tracts of land to develop into a city. They built properties to sell. Their market was rich buyers for whom they built ‘high value’ properties within walled enclaves; not affordable housing for the poor. Outside those walls, the real city grew with thousands of people who came to serve the residents within, and to work in the world-class factories, and glitzy offices and malls that sprang up. The city served its purpose of creating employment but did not serve well its citizens scrambling to grab opportunities to earn incomes. They were crammed into poor accommodation without adequate water and sewerage services.

'Private’ is not equipped to manage ‘public’

The failures of governments to deliver good quality public services has propelled the privatisation of public services in many countries. The UK is a notable example, where railways and public utilities have been handed over to the private sector. The limitations of this model have emerged. Now, the government is bailing out private sector operators who failed to provide affordable services of acceptable quality.

The inability of the government to deliver is evident all around. Roads are not maintained; traffic is badly managed, if at all; sewers are choked, if they exist; etc. A vicious circle is operating: because local governments are incompetent, there is an unwillingness to give them the funds they would need to get the job done. Citizens resent paying more taxes.

The strength of the private sector is that it is designed to produce efficiencies, and profit, by throwing out whatever does not produce a profit. If people cannot pay, do not serve them. Thus, the poor get excluded from the provision of services. And, when profits are not forthcoming, the private operator stops investing to maintain the quality of services. Since it is the duty of the managers of private enterprises to ensure that investors make profits, they are doing what appears right for them to do.

The private sector was expected to be the engine driving the development of Gurugram. Its limitations are showing up. Even within the gated communities, citizens living in expensive apartments complain that the developers have not delivered the internal infrastructure they were required to. What happens outside the walls is of even less interest to the developers.

The turn to the private sector to deliver public services comes along with a lack of faith in government’s ability to provide them. The inability of the government to deliver is evident all around. Roads are not maintained; traffic is badly managed, if at all; sewers are choked, if they exist; etc. Studies by Janaagraha, an organization that has been producing an annual report on the state of India’s cities, reveal that municipal governments in India have less staff than city administrations in other countries. They are not well trained. And do not have adequate budgets.

A vicious circle is operating: because local governments are incompetent, there is an unwillingness to give them the funds they would need to get the job done. Citizens resent paying more taxes. And, Central and State governments are unwilling to devolve more resources to urban bodies in spite of the recommendations of recent Finance Commissions. They remain under-equipped and blamed at the same time. Owners of apartments in the private enclaves pay for glitter within and complain about the grime around.

Gurugram is a sad story so far, of private greed and poor governance. A city in which people do not invest in the care of their commons will decay. Property values will reduce. Investors will flee.

Self-interest overtakes caring for the ‘commons’

A cause of the failure of governance is the extreme selfishness that is evident in the culture of Gurugram. NIMBY (not in my backyard) is a common attitude in all parts of the world that makes the construction of public works difficult. In Gurgaon (and other Indian cities) the selfishness goes even further, to misuse public property as if it was one’s own, to do whatever one may wish to for one’s own convenience, regardless of the inconvenience it causes others. People ignore traffic signals and drive on the wrong side of the road to reduce their own travel time by a couple of minutes, causing delays and hazards for others. Contractors dump construction waste in public spaces. Builders take advantage of weak governance (and corrupt and weaken it further) to encroach on public lands, destroy forests, and build over natural drainage systems.

Gurugram is a sad story so far, of private greed and poor governance. A city in which people do not invest in the care of their commons will decay. Property values will reduce. Investors will flee. Many companies who were attracted to invest in Gurugram say their senior employees no longer want to live in the pollution of Gurugram and are moving elsewhere. For the poor there is no choice. They need the city, but the consequence of ill-conceived governance is that the city abandons them.

(The writer is a former member of the Planning Commission and author)