Tunnel Vision

Tunnel Vision

Swaniti Initiative | March 19, 2015 | The Swaniti Blog

Without know-how, jurisdiction and staffing, India’s urban planners are in the trenches even before they start digging.

Inaugurated in 2003, the Hebbal flyover in Bengaluru was once considered a shining example of modern infrastructure in the city. In 2008, the city’s airport was inaugurated down the road from the flyover.

Today, a traffic jam is nearly a daily occurrence on the flyover.

What went wrong? Simply put, road upgrades at either end of the flyover have created a bottleneck on it, as the flyover is fed into by a 16-lane road, and opens out into a nine-lane road; the resulting chaos hardly requires further explanation.

The Hebbal flyover is an instance of how infrastructure is often developed in our country to address present needs without an eye on the future. It is also an example of how infrastructure such as flyovers can aggravate, rather than alleviate problems in a city when constructed without strategic insight.

Who’s in Charge?

Functionaries at urban local bodies, or city managers, are typically responsible for determining the specifics of where infrastructure is developed, and how it is constructed. Unfortunately, this often tends to be an uphill task for them, as they are challenged by a lack of:

  • Technical expertise,
  • Jurisdiction, and
  • Human resources.

Non-profit organizations are playing a key role in helping urban bodies negotiate these challenges; on this front, the work of two leading organizations in this domain are discussed in the following passages.

 Getting Technical

The Urban Management Centre (UMC), a non-profit based in Ahmedabad, serves as a key technical resource to urban authorities across India, and assists them in reimagining their cities. It conducted a detailed study in 2013 to determine the aptitude of city managers in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh to design and implement quality infrastructure.

UMC found that a significant section – nearly half – of the city managers in these cities did not have a clear understanding of the basic principles of sustainable urban transport, which focus on developing improved streets and street networks, and on developing streets that are friendly to motorists, pedestrians and other stakeholders such as street vendors.

UMC established that city managers typically viewed metros and flyovers as the way forward, without focusing on the foundation – an effective network of roads.

Even if a flyover is deemed to be a requirement in a given area, it is of paramount importance to develop it strategically. The effective development of such infrastructure requires technical insights that city managers may not always have access too.
UMC attempts to address the lack of technical knowledge amongst city managers by conducting workshops and trainings, and by building mechanisms of peer-to-peer learning, such as city to city partnerships to foster the transfer of knowledge. The organization also assists in developing urban development plans.


UMC recently hosted a seminar on urban housing development for the state government and urban local bodies in Gujarat (Image Credit: UMC)

As part of a recent initiative, UMC assisted all 167 urban authorities in Gujarat in adopting and utilizing a web-based performance assessment system to depict current levels of service provision and the needs thereof, in the domains of urban water and sanitation, which can also be extended to other areas of city management.

Training on urban development, and providing tools to manage cities better, are extremely important, but however constitute pieces of the larger puzzle.

Whose Sewage Line is it Anyway?

Further to technical inputs, city managers often face the challenge of obtaining the jurisdiction for the development of our cities in systematic, integrated ways.

To illustrate – roads tend to be constructed over water, sewage, electricity and telephone lines; however, an authority tasked with redeveloping roads may not have the jurisdiction required to plan where sewage or telephone lines go.

For example, the municipal corporation of a city may be in charge of developing roads, but sanitation may be independently headed by a water supply and sewage board. In several instances, these two authorities may not coordinate in developing a road – a plan to overhaul a road may therefore ease congestion above the surface, but wreak havoc below!

Janaagraha is a Bengaluru-based non-profit organization that adopts a holistic approach to development, engaging both citizens and government towards making Indian cities better places to live in.

In 2011, the Jana Urban Space Foundation (JUSF), a sister concern of Janaagraha, published Tender S.U.R.E. (Specifications for Urban Roads Execution), which contained guidelines on road standards which integrate water, sewage, power, gas, and storm water drains into road design. Further, Tender S.U.R.E. prioritizes the comfort and safety of pedestrians and cyclists, and recognizes the needs of street vendors and hawkers.

Recognizing the need for a coordinated approach to the development and redevelopment of roads, the organizations began a sustained advocacy campaign for using Tender S.U.R.E. standards following its publication.

As of date, Janaagraha and JUSF have been able to successfully lobby with a higher authority, the State Government of Karnataka, to adopt these Tender S.U.R.E. standards in overhauling roads. In 2013-2014, the government sanctioned INR 500 Crore towards developing 40 roads using Tender S.U.R.E. standards in various parts of Bengaluru.


Men at work on a Tender S.U.R.E. road, organizing ducts for services below the footpath (Image Credit: Janaagraha)

Is There Anybody In there?

Municipal authorities are often unable to invest in building technical skills, and fostering collaboration with various authorities because of chronic understaffing. City managers may have the best of intentions, but may simply not have the human resources to independently pursue partnerships and technical training.

 As per data collected as part of Janaagraha’s Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems of 2014, most Indian cities have very low staff to population ratios. Delhi and Mumbai have between 900 and 1,300 staff per lakh of citizens, whereas the other 18 cities that were evaluated had between 86 and 810.

For the purposes of comparison, Durban in South Africa has 3,000 employees for every lakh of its population. New York and London, correspondingly, stand at 5,000 and 3,000 employees each.

The need of the hour, therefore, may be to prioritize investing in these institutions over commissioning the development of new infrastructure. In the long term, this could assist in developing our cities holistically and sustainably.

UMC and Janaagraha are playing a key role in helping city managers navigate the three key challenges that they face, but to change the story of urban development in India, they need all the help the government can provide.

To learn more about the work of these organizations, visit www.umcasia.org and www.janaagraha.org.

Abhay Rao works at Dasra, India’s leading strategic philanthropy foundation. Dasra works to develop the governance ecosystem in India, by engaging, building the capacity of, and directing strategic funding to organizations working in governance- related domains. As a key member of Dasra’s working group on governance, he has been involved in research and due diligence in this space. He can be reached at abhay@dasra.org.