The biggest non-issue in the just concluded Lok Sabha elections was the sorry state of civic amenities in our fast-growing metropolises. A look at rival manifestos shows that city governance found no mention in the BJP manifesto while the Congress document only mentioned the need for a directly elected mayor. In fact, all political parties seem to be perennially obsessed with caste and rural vote-banks to the exclusion of urban tax-paying citizens ~ whose problems appear to be of no consequence to politicians

Around 80 per cent of our income-tax collection comes from the eight metropolises; with Mumbai alone accounting for 35 per cent. The collection of GST follows the same broad pattern. Municipal taxes are also collected from city dwellers; the budget of Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai exceeds Rs 30,000 crore ~ greater than many small States. However, all metropolises perpetually remain starved for funds, which are spent at more politically rewarding locations.

According to the 2011 census, India had 13 cities with a population exceeding 20 lakh and 46 cities with a population exceeding 10 lakhs, which did not include the urban agglomerations associated with these cities. As of now the population of Mumbai and Delhi exceeds 2 crore, Kolkata is third at 1.6 crores while Chennai is fourth at 1.2 crore. None of these cities was designed to accommodate so many people. In their heyday each of these cities was a pleasure to live in, but unplanned growth has turned them into virtual hell-holes.

Owing to poor administration and unchecked migration from villages, the civic infrastructure in all metropolitan cities has reached breaking point. Even a small trigger can bring a metropolis of millions to a halt. Unseasonal rains can flood Chennai to make it unliveable for months. On the other hand, despite its natural endowments, Chennai always faces a water famine in summer. Kolkata is unbelievably dirty and fire prone, despite having a municipal corporation since 1876. Delhi, our capital city, has the dubious distinction of being the world’s most polluted city. The population density of Mumbai, our financial capital, is approximately 73,000 persons per square mile, which makes it one of the most densely populated cities in the world. A major part of the population of Mumbai lives in slums like Dharavi. Every winter, crop burning in adjacent States can worsen the air quality in Delhi to the extent that residents cannot step out of their homes for days together. A cooperative effort to control pollution should have been the top priority for the multiple Governments concerned i.e. Union Government (BJP), Delhi Government (AAP), Punjab Government (Congress), Haryana Government (BJP) and the various Municipal Corporations (BJP). Instead of all stakeholders sitting down together and hammering out a solution, what we witnessed last winter was a slugfest with each Government agency blaming the other and doing precious little to alleviate the deathly pall of pollution. The only lesson emerging from this tragedy was that our politicians cannot quit politicking even in emergent times

Despite being the headquarter of most of our blue-chip companies and the residence of most of our billionaires, slum dwellers outnumber other residents in Mumbai. Many slum dwellers are middle class people. Real estate is so prohibitively expensive in Mumbai that they can never dream of moving out of the slums.

Life is not easy for all except the ultra-rich; commuting is a time consuming, hellish experience because of Mumbai’s potholed roads and severely overcrowded local trains. Aging infrastructure and a chalta hai attitude of the authorities adds to a perfect recipe for disaster which manifests itself in random fire accidents and collapsing overbridges and buildings. Visit any big city and you would find that open spaces have vanished, parks have been encroached, trees have been cut down, vehicles and factories are spewing smoke worsening the air quality to unacceptable levels. Municipal Corporations are ineffective and corrupt with most of the power being concentrated with the Municipal Commissioner and not the elected Councillors.

Compared to other countries, the quality of life in India is so bad that High Net Worth Individuals (HNIs) are flocking out in large numbers ~ 5,000 HNIs left India in 2018 alone. The basic cause for urban decay ~ a huge load of continuously increasing population ~ is never acknowledged. As soon as new roads and overbridges are constructed, traffic increases to make them inadequate; by the time new houses are built the population increases to make them insufficient. Moreover, concentration of population in a few cities has stretched their civic facilities to breaking point and has created a host of social problems; clashes have often erupted between migrants and original inhabitants, who face loss of jobs and livelihood.

Satellite towns like NOIDA and Navi Mumbai have merged into the cities for which they were satellites. Urban planning has failed to address the rot in our existing cities because every inch of available space is built up, leaving little scope for reallocation of space. Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) a massive city-modernisation scheme, with an investment of $20 billion, was launched by the Government of India in 2005 to improve the quality of life and infrastructure in cities. However, JNNURM did not achieve the success expected of it.

After coming to power, NDA 1 launched the Smart Cities Mission in 2015. The objective was “to promote sustainable and inclusive cities that provide core infrastructure and give a decent quality of life to its citizens, a clean and sustainable environment and application of ‘Smart’ Solutions.” A total investment of Rs 2,01,981 crore was proposed to develop 99 cities under the Smart City Mission. However, till date only the cities that would be developed as Smart Cities have been identified. The Government offers a host of subsidies and incentives to entrepreneurs to start manufacturing activities in backward areas but most industrialists claim incentives by building sheds in the designated areas where the goods manufactured elsewhere are packed, thereby complying with the Government policy in letter but not in spirit. Thus, despite spending a tidy sum, due to lax administration, the Government’s purpose of dispersal of industries is not achieved.

Obviously, the urban rot in metropolitan cities can be tackled only if they have an efficient and responsible municipal administration and sufficient funds are allocated by the Central and State Governments to improve civic infrastructure.

Simultaneously, the Government should also aim at providing good quality civic amenities in smaller cities so that people do not have to migrate to metropolises in search of a better life. Thereafter, efforts can be made to generate jobs in smaller places. Decentralisation of Government offices from capital cities could kickstart job creation in small cities.

If we look at the national capital, Delhi, or any State capital, we would find that a large part of its population consists of Government employees or small businesses dependent on Government employees. With the advances in communication technology, physical proximity is not a must except for the most sensitive jobs. It would not hurt governance if all but apex level offices are shifted out to smaller places.

Only when urban migration is checked and the population in metropolises stabilises would we be able to start the process of improving the living conditions in metropolitan cities.