[Urbanstudy] Why our cities cannot be run as businesses

Vinay Baindur yanivbin at gmail.com
Sun Jan 3 12:56:20 CST 2016


Why our cities cannot be run as businesses

   Very simply, cities cannot be run as businesses because urban governance
   is more than just government. It is government + people. And while a
   business can clearly classify all its stakeholders (share-holders,
   management, workers, suppliers and distributors), how does a city draw the
   lines – between the property owners and the squatters? Between the
   tax-payers and the indigent? Between the empowered citizens and the illegal
   migrants? Between the rich and the poor? Between the natives and the
   newcomers? Between the producers and the consumers? Between the governed
   and the government? Between local demands and regional priorities? And so

Thus while a business can be satisfied with mere *efficiency*, a city needs
to look at *effectiveness*. There is little merit in computerized property
tax bills, if the tax base has not been updated for the last twenty years,
is there? Ditto with completing a pumping station on time, if the water
delivery continues to be erratic and unreliable. City dwellers are more
interested in the water in their taps than the technology which gets it

Similarly, a business doesn’t really care about *participation*, *equity*
 or *inclusion* while an urban government must necessarily provide for it.

*Accountability* in business is often merely a matter of financial
accounting and compliance with various government norms – if they were
accountable to society at large, we wouldn’t need a law of torts, or
liability clauses in every business contract. A city on the other hand, is
held to account in every election by its citizens, and there are a large
number of mechanisms available today, for citizens to monitor and pull up
their local governments.

These thoughts have come to mind because the Indian media are rife with
news of grand new urban initiatives being announced by the Central
Government. The urban rejuvenation programme (AMRUT) is essentially a
reworking of the erstwhile government’s Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban
Renewal Mission (JNNURM) which this writer had an opportunity to closely
observe from conception to execution to demise… and the summary judgment on
JNNURM across the country has been – *too many private sector consultants
at every stage*! Again the proclivity to run a city like a business…

Brazil seems to have had a similar experience as the mayor of Sao Paulo
admitted in an interview in 2013: “The previous economic model was very
private-sector orientated, so the reaction of the local community was very
negative. We need to rebalance the equation so development is not seen as a
threat,” he said. “People consider politicians as bad people so it is
important to get them involved personally. If they feel a sense of
ownership then they don’t complain.”

The fact that the *JNNURM* then, and *AMRUT* now, are deeply influenced by
organizations like USAID and the Asian Development Bank explains this
‘cities as businesses’ approach, where a Business Development Plan got
renamed as a City Development Plan, and almost all reforms made mandatory,
had a financial angle – and somewhere along the line we forgot what a
mish-mash the urban scene in India is, with thousands of small market
towns, ancient pilgrim towns, bustling cities, and dysfunctional megacities
with huge informal sectors, all getting the same treatment.

The present Indian government is already receiving a lot of flak for
massive cuts in social welfare programmes, discontinuing the consent and
Social Impact Analysis from the Land Bill, and replacing unconditional
transfers in the social security net with contributory (and therefore
conditional) insurance schemes. It appears to put infrastructure and
industry before people and the environment – and this attitude is again
coming to the fore as India launches a very ambitious Smart Cities project.
The many IT consultants are of course looking enviously at *Songdo* in
South Korea or*Masdar* in the UAE, and hoping to create something similar
in India. But do Indians really want this kind of super-efficient but
impersonal urban experience? And what minute percentage could eventually
afford to live in such a place? Well nobody’s asking these awkward

As the Prime Minister attends a BRICS meeting, he can perhaps pick up a few
tips from Brazil about a more participatory and humane approach, seen in
the Smart City Initiative to prepare Rio for the Olympics:

[image: Rio Smart City]

Only such a *holistic *approach; which balances the *human development*,
*infrastructure* and *environmental *aspects; and formulated with the *active
participation* of the residents of a city, can make it SMART in the long
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