From pollution to stray animals, why do cities in India offer such low quality of life?

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On October 23, Parag Desai, the executive director of one of India’s largest tea companies fell and fatally hit his head as he was trying to flee from a pack of street dogs in the city of Ahmedabad. The problem of street dogs has long been a matter of debate between people scared of them and animal lovers, as my colleague Vineet Bhalla reported in this detailed piece. Desai’s death, however, really brought home the problem. So acute was the problem that even one of India’s richest people was safe.

This of course comes after multiple reports of people, many of them children, being attacked and killed by dogs. While some of this is media hysteria, the data is clear that dogs are actually a major problem in India’s cities. Around 36% of all rabies deaths in the world are from India. This when India has less than 18% of the global population. In effect, an Indian is, on average, twice as likely to die from rabies compared to a person from any other country.

Poorer than poor

With a low per capita income, poor living standards in Indian cities are not surprising. However, as that rabies statistic demonstrates, Indian cities might lag even other poor countries in their quality of life. A similar inference arises when one looks at pollutants statistics. Swiss air quality technology company, IQAir, compiled a list of most polluted cities using data from 2017 to 2022. An incredible 39 of those were Indian.

Dirt and safety aren’t the only metric. On almost any parameter, an Indian city offers up terrible quality of life. Indian cities, for example, have some of the slowest traffic.

Centralised governance

Why are Indian cities such a mess? The answer, it would seem, lies in a host of factors.

The first and possibly most important is weak city governments. Even the largest of Indian cities – some of them with populations bigger than actual countries – have governments which are crippled both in terms of administrative remit as well as financial powers.

Urban bodies in India have very few sources of revenue and are inordinately dependent on their state governments for funds. This trend has been made even worse with the introduction of the goods and services tax which killed off the highly remunerative taxes such as octroi. For example, before the GST was introduced, octroi made up more than a third of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai’s revenues.

A similar trend is seen with powers. City governments in India have powers fewer than seen in other places around the world. Police, for example, do not lie with them but are controlled by the state government. In many cases, even mass transit such as rail systems are not controlled by the city government but by the state or, incredibly, sometimes by the Union government.

Placing so much of the responsibility of city governance on politicians at the state or federal level produces an inefficient incentive structure. The leader who provides civic services does not depend on the city for his reelection. Hence, her only real incentive would be to use the city as a cash cow to funnel into her constituency and/or party.

Not surprisingly, state governments often go out of their way to hamstring city governments, withholding funds and undercutting their powers. The Union also has little incentive to strengthen the third tier. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, launched as late as 2005, was the first large-scale effort by the Centre to invest in Indian cities. However, even then it only covers a third of India’s urban population.

State capture

To add to this is the fact that a weak state means that special interest groups can often capture policy and often override even mass public opinion. In the case of street dogs, for example, it is now well-recognised that sterilisation programmes for dogs were often a source of corruption, with non governmental bodies intentionally sabotaging the process to ensure a continuous source of public funds.

In the case of the other animal that dominates Indian streets, the cow, religious and political sentiments around the animal override any dangers they pose to commuters. This is in spite of the fact that stray cattle are now a major issue in states in North and Western India. In Haryana for example, nearly a thousand people have been killed in accidents involving stray cattle in the past five years.

Alarmed city governments have passed a number of measures to curb the citation. The Vadodara Municipal Corporation, for example, will fine cattle owners if their animal kills or injures someone. But, of course, these measures almost always fail given the ban on cow slaughter means there will always be massive numbers of stray cattle in a country where dairy is a mass economic activity.

India’s urban population is an incredible 675 million – twice that of the entire population of the United States. So just in terms of human welfare, improving its cities should be an important goal. This becomes doubly so given that cities are economic engines. Urban India produces 60% of India’s gross domestic product. Moreover, cities are centres of innovation given their ability to collect talent. For India to become richer, its cities – like cities in every other country – will have to play the leading role. And for that, urban India needs to offer a better quality of life to its residents.

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