Soumyadip Chattopadhyay, Arjun Kumar

India is one of the fastest urbanizing nations in the world. This rapid urbanization of Indian cities comes with concerns for inclusive growth and quality of life. With poor urban planning comes issues of great consequences. The ongoing situation of the COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the deficiencies that exist in urban planning and has created a scope for rethinking the efficiency and relevance of existing policies for urban development. There is a dire need for new urban policies that would assure sustainable solutions to problems created by unplanned urbanization and to achieve holistic development to provide a satisfactory quality of life.

To assess the current state of urban cities in India, there is a requisite to quantify the overall development, which would consider the social, economic, and environmental aspects of the cities to make better judgments about the urbanization in the cities. There are multiple platforms and indexes which have been developed for the purpose of quantification. However, the reliability of these indexes is still unclear, and there is a need to cogitate over the same. IMRI (Impact and Policy Research Institute) hosted Prof. Chetan Vaidya to discuss the pros and cons of indexes used to assess urban development, under Demystifying Urban Ranking Indexes on July 7th, 2021, as part of The State of Cities #City Conversations series.

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The panel was moderated by Dr. Soumyajit Chattopadhyay, Visiting Senior Fellow IMPRI. Dr. Chattopadhyay initiated the discussion by highlighting the significance of the discussion and introduced the speaker of the talk, Prof. Chetan Vaidya, along with the other participating panelists.

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In his opening remarks the chair, Prof. Hitesh Vaidya, Director, National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA), New Delhi pointed out the aspects or questions he wishes the panelists touch up during the discussion and handed over the discussion to Prof. Chetan Vaidya for his opening remarks.

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Cutting the Clutter for URI

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Prof. Vaidya, Independent Urban Advisor; Former Senior National Urban Adviser, Sustainable Urban Development Smart City (SUD-SC) Project Kochi supported by GIZ; Former Director, SPA New Delhi and NIUA, New Delhi initiated the talk by giving an overview of what he would be covering during his talk. He also stated that he would not be covering certain indexes due to certain reasons and added that he would not be including awards or indexes done by private entities.

Prof. Chetan Vaidya elaborated on the indexes mentioned below:

Ease of Doing Business (Online Building Permission System)

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It is a country-level index promoted by the World Bank and is seriously taken as an indicator by the Government of India since 2014. The portal set up by NITI Aayog allows states to alter and update their status easily, therefore providing immediate status on ease of doing business. In 2009 when Prof. Vaidya was at the National Institute of Urban Affairs, a study was conducted about ten cities and recommended for an Online Building Permission System. Currently, 2000 urban centers along with 444 AMRUT Mission cities use OBPS. The use of OBPS has been instrumental in improving India’s ranking in Construction permission permits to 27th DBR in 2020.

The ease of doing business has been integral in simplifying the procedure and improving the delivery system. The South Delhi Municipal Corporation had advertised an open challenge on newspapers that one would receive their Building plan approved in the span of 45-60 days, including the inspection and joint inspection of the electricity and water board.

Ease of Living Index

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The Ease of living index quantifies the quality of life and the impact of various initiatives for urban development. The index calculates the state of 13 categories, including education, health, housing, and shelter. The EOLI for 2020 was carried out right before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The management of COVID-19 is a criteria post-EOLI 2020. This has also affected the rankings of countries in the index.

Municipal Performance Index

This index assesses the performance of municipalities based on their defined set of functions. It allows for the comparative analysis of the local government administration. MPI was first carried out in 2020. Indore, followed by Surat, ranked in the top in the million-plus category. New Delhi was on top in less than one million categories.

Swachh Survekshan: Clean India Survey

It was initially introduced as Swachh Bharath Mission. The weightage is given by assessing Service Level performance, Citizen Voice, and certification. It focuses on garbage-free and open defecation cities. The survey was first conducted in 2016, and in 2020 the survey covered 4242 cities. It is probably the largest cleanliness survey in the world.

Service Level Benchmarking

This index is important for assessing the quality of water supply, sanitation, and other services. In 2007, the Asian Development Bank funded the Indian Institute of Technology to carry out a study on ranking water utilities in India. Other than this, the government has encouraged SLB (Service Level Benchmarking) by creating a Handbook Service Level Benchmark on water supply, sanitation, drainage, solid waste management, etc. prepared by the Ministry of Urban Development in 2009.

An ecosystem was created which would support the use of SLB. This was done through the incentives provided by CFCs (Central Finance Commissions) and AMRUT missions to improve services using SLB systems. C-WAS by CEPT University developed and implemented SLB for Maharashtra and Gujarat. It helped in developing the Wai and Sinnar cities of Maharashtra as model cities of sanitation. The online system developed by C-WAS is being used by 1000+ cities in five states.

Prof Vaidya further spoke about the benefits, issues, and the way forward with indexes. The Urban Ranking Indexes have promoted healthy competition and have led to the improvement of services delivery and innovations in some cities. However, there are too many urban indexes in India, as Prof Vaidya said, “it sometimes is very confusing even for someone like me”. There is also overlapping among the URI’s as most of them are being estimated in isolation. Missing linkages of URI and SDG 1,6, and 11 are the first aspect that could be resolved. The URI’s must be reviewed to integrate them to prevent overlaps.

Prof. Vaidya emphasized the need for a centralized approach to review the existing URI, as he said, “You cannot have the mayor and commissioner…what they do is that they take one or two of the indices which helps them to promote themselves”. 

Encounters with Service Level Benchmarking

Prof Meera Mehta, Professor Emeritus, Executive Director, Centre for Water Supply and Sanitation, CEPT University, Ahmedabad focused on speaking about the Service Level Benchmarking initiative, on which she has extensively worked on. She noted that “when we came back in 2008, urban became a major agenda of the government. JNNURM put urban on the map”. There was a lot of investment in creating infrastructure, however, there was not enough effort to convert this investment into services for people. Prof. Mehta referred to her collaboration with Tata Consultancy Service to digitalize the process of inputting data for creating SLB.

Following the Data story

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Ms. Pritika Hingorani, Director and Research Fellow, IDFC Instituteritika Hingorani, Director and Research Fellow, IDFC Institute Ms. Pritika Hingorani, Director and Research Fellow, IDFC Institute, emphasized the need for putting cities at the forefront of development and understanding what cities produce to draw more investment. The use of satellite imagery can be of great benefit to analyze how cities are designed and draw a conclusion about their planning.

Ms. Pritika also complimented the efforts of CEPT University in Ahmedabad, which has made the city come up at the top of one of the most well-planned cities. She noted the importance of the raw data that back these indicators, “there is raw data backing each of these indicators that have a lot of value. Therefore, the focus should be equally on where you stand and what is that raw data and what you can do with it”. There are multiple benchmarks that certain cities cannot meet. Thus, it is necessary to measure them against benchmarks they can work. Pritika Hingorani emphasized the need for creating a data culture in our cities.

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Prof. Dinesh Mehta, Professor Emeritus, Executive Director, Centre for Water Supply and Sanitation, CEPT University, Ahmedabad further deliberated on the point raised by Pritika Hingorani about the need for meta-data at the city level. Prof. Dinesh Mehta calls for an immediate study to understand the economic contribution of cities. Prof Dinesh mentioned that “e-governance is limited very less level of citizen interaction,” they are not providing more information about the city. In his closing remarks Prof. Dinesh commented that “Citizens need even more demystification” and calls upon to simplify and prevent overlapping indices.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Prof. Chetan Vaidya had re-assured the efforts taken by both the government and bureaucracy and not giving too much importance to awards and the focus must be on improving the system for a longer period.

Acknowledgment: Arjun Sujit Varma is a Research Intern at IMPRI

YouTube Video for Demystifying Urban Ranking Indexes in India: