governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘public expenditure’

SmartCities: Making the rich smarter

The latest public “dog and pony show”, unveiled on Thursday in Delhi, is the selection of 20 cities across the richest 11 states of India for accessing the governments Smart Cities fund.


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The near-complete exclusion of the poor “cow belt” states, except Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, can be explained by the need to first push public money to where elections are to be held in 2016 — Assam, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Kerala — West Bengal being a surprising exclusion.

But what takes the cake is the inclusion of the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC), comprising just three per cent of Delhi’s area, which is directly administered by the Centre. The Central government owns nearly 90 per cent of the 44 sq km it comprises with marginal ownership in and around the prestigious Lutyens’ zone of power brokers, lobbyists, old-economy business people, big time realtors and other hangers-on of this rarified ecosystem — the Indian equivalent of the Washington DC Beltway.


Lutyens Delhi a lush, green bubble in the heart of the capital. photo credit:

The NDMC is already a profitable municipality, as indeed it should be. It spends over Rs 3,000 crore ($450 million) every year on serving just 300,000 people — a per capita expense of Rs 1 lakh ($1500) per resident, per year. Compare this with the average spend in the other three municipalities of Delhi of just Rs 7,300 ($110) per capita per year — all currently managed by the Bharatiya Janata Party. More starkly, the average spend for all urban areas, across India, is a shockingly low Rs 1,000 ($15) per capita per year.

Why is the selection of NDMC for yet another barrel of “pork” so disappointing? Three reasons strike out:

First, that this should happen days before the “reformist” budget expected to be presented by the Union minister of finance for 2016-17 is unnerving. The budget is, or should be, about spending public money well and wringing out the maximum public value from it. Allocating subsidies to the rich cannot be part of a pro-poor paradigm. It symbolises all that is wrong with a bureaucracy which is all “spin” and no heart.


Second, the bane of China style “big government” has been soft budget constraints and poor accountability. Big budgets lead to profligate spending. Bureaucrats are more interested in shovelling money out of the public door into private pockets and marking up their “performance” sheets, than in ensuring that the money is spent in areas where growth and poverty reduction can most be impacted. The casual allocation of Rs 500 crore to the richest local body in India, with the highest per capita income, just so that it can shine even better, speaks of a pernicious tendency in new public financial management to mimic private finance by allocating money where it can be quickly absorbed, rather than risk it where it would create the maximum social and economic value.

Third, it is no one’s case that redistribution of wealth can be done by pulling down those who are well off. But Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan’s recent diatribe against the lack of public concern about the optics of vulgar displays of wealth strikes a chord.

Lutyens’ Delhi is the “Kohinoor” of Delhi. A small self-absorbed bubble of power, privilege and wealth. One acre of land here costs Rs 500 crore and sales happen rarely. Why can’t the power elite pay for the privileges they enjoy? Why is it so difficult to convince the 4,000-odd large private property owners — each with a minimum net wealth of at least Rs 100 crore — to pay for retrofitting their beautiful municipality? Isn’t that what participative governance means? Why must poor Trilokpuri in east Delhi comprising the marginalised, poor and the shabbiest of public services pay for keeping Lutyens’ Delhi shining?



Trilokpuri, East Delhi, a festering sore where only the marginalized exist. Photo credit:

Had Thomas Piketty been part of the Smart City selection committee he would have torn out his hair in a fit of Gaelic rage at the callousness with which public money has been wasted and inequality worsened. What indeed was the selection process which has generated such a warped result?

The allocation instrument is a “challenge fund” devised by the usual suspects: Fly in, fly out consultants. As expected, on paper, the process appears transparent and efficient. It is a beauty contest. Municipalities send in their proposals seeking Central government funds for up to Rs 500 crore ($75 million) over four years. But they must match the Central government allocation and also meet the criterion of performance efficiency which includes standard metrics like collection efficiency, proactivity, etc. Nothing wrong with that at all. The killer is that there is no criteria on what impact the project will have on reducing urban poverty or on reducing the depth of deprivation in access to basic public services in poor localities.

Is it any surprise then that the Smart City fund is merely ending up elevating the “boats” which are already afloat? And how is that so different from the infamous National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) of the United Progressive Alliance, which similarly incentivised the ability to use funds quickly? Rich states like Tamil Nadu, with average informal wages way above the national average national, quickly pulled out most of the funds, whilst the poor, badly organised states faced an empty treasury by the time they got their act together. As before, the mightiest wins yet again.

Political pork, lazy bureaucrats, the use of public funds for private gain by the elites is all old hat in India and across the developing world. Nothing new in that. The pity is that it needn’t be this way. The anguish is that old style cornering of public funds with no regard for ensuring equity, persists like a deep-seeded rot.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of all people, should know the negative feeling generated from being excluded by the establishment. He must have experienced the chagrin of public money being wasted on “gilding the lily” whilst millions of poor children, like him, had to make do with a subsistence existence. Or is human memory so frail that one quickly forgets the bad times? Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was fond of establishing his humble roots by saying that as a child he studied under the village lamp post. But in the 10 years that he was in power, millions of children continued to study in exactly the same way.

street light

The preoccupations of the “Delhi Durbar” are pretty compelling. That is why they say you can wear a crown in Delhi. But don’t sleep easy — it isn’t permanent.

crown 2

The lonely statue of King George V after it moved from under its domed canopy  in India Gate – since awaiting another incumbent-and relegated to a museum.

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age January 30, 2016

Mega-cities are inhuman

Unlike monkeys, it is not in the nature of humans to huddle though we take to cuddling quite easily. The instinct to explore new frontiers and the excessive demands which we impose on natural resources; both push us to put space between each other. The ancestors of today’s Indians trekked all the way from Africa to the sub-continent around 500,000 years ago, possibly to put space between themselves and their African cousins. It is not for nothing that the self- sufficient, “Marlboro Man” was an icon for three decades starting from the 1960s albeit now discredited in a tobacco-less World.

monkeys huddling

There already are too many humans at 7 billion. Of these, 1.2 billion souls are concentrated in India, making us the most densely populated, large country in the World. Worse Indians are huddled in habitations in just 9% of the land available. The rest is forests (an implausible 23% in government data), private groves, pastures and agricultural land.

Humans huddle in cities more out of necessity than choice. Group living does not come naturally to humans, unlike lions, elephants, antelopes and penguins. The Swedish alternative lifestyle experiments in the 1960s, demonstrated that whilst cuddling was definitely in, huddling was out. Commune members tended to pair off, even if temporarily. More evidence on human choice is available from the preferences of the rich, who sprawl in gardens, whilst the poor are crammed into tiny, multiple stories precariously piled on houses.

Babus, in India, are willing to serve the government, even without pay, for the privilege of living in Lutyen’s green, heritage, garden city. The nouveau rich meanwhile are busy buying up unauthorized, “farm houses” in Delhi suburbia. Part of the fascination of “going West”, particularly to the US, is the affordability of sprawling houses as compared to the tight, modular, frightfully expensive “paper” abodes of the Japanese.

Neither time not technology, augur well for huddling or cuddling. Thanks to digitization of information; the internet and social media, human relationships are now virtual and often best conducted remotely. Many a face to face encounter has spelled disaster. Business is also increasingly digital and even government is going that way. All of this reduces the need for huddling in cities. The modern “Morlboro Man” is a woman with her Iphone.

Gandhiji’s vision of “self-sufficient” villages and Julius Nyrere’s vision of “Ujama villages”, on which the Washington Consensus smart set poured scorn, now increasingly seems not only a reality but a potential option for preserving the best of humanism. Consider that with the revolution in printing technology, it is already possible to print out a plastic tumbler or bowl in one’s home. Consumer durables are most likely to follow suit. This will completely change the “scale economy” for manufactured goods. The most scalable part of the new technology would be the software, which in all probability may have been conceived in a garage! Of course we would still need some “old industry” type factories to make the chips, the computer accessories and most importantly the printer, which makes all this possible.

Old age technology and industrial habits have fueled the international trend in urbanization towards mega cities (population of 10 million and above) whose number increased from 2 (Tokyo and Rome) in 1970 to 28 in 2013 and will likely go to 37 by 2025. India today has 3 mega cities and Mumbai is the second most densely populated megacity after Dhaka. The demise of the mega huddle of a mega city is not immediately imminent because the available “industrial age” technology still makes them scale efficient. But in India recent data indicates that growth in the mega cities is slower than in second rung cities which shows that they have reached the economic limits of their efficiency.

Mega cities are bad news for the following four reasons.

First, humans are bad huddlers because with the existing technology, cities with a density in excess of 4000 persons per sq km, end up severely polluting the air, land and water. Our mega cities have a density of around 12,000 persons per sq km and are unsustainable, as are China’s.

Second, as population density increases, the pressure on land drives up the price of realty, making “land intensive” business like “international scale multi-brand retail” uneconomic. Contrary to popular criticism, the AAP knows that no international multi brander would want to locate in Delhi because land is too expensive and hence had no downside in siding with the populist naysayers.

Third, increasing population density requires a higher spend on environmental mitigation of local pollution further driving up the cost of doing business.

Fourth urban led growth is inherently iniquitous. It creates pockets of luxury amidst vast swathes of wretchedness. The IMF (the bastion of the erstwhile Washington Consensus) estimates that in the US, 90% of the incremental wealth from growth benefits just 1% of the population.  Inequality is a growing concern and a key driver of political and social instability and crime and a major threat for poorly governed countries.

The term SMART city is the current buzzword to make cities efficient. This is a misnomer since cities by definition are not SMART. SMART is to digitize; connect electronically; disperse population; integrate rural and urban areas seamlessly and not to huddle.

Our cities should be self-financing and not draw on central or state funds. Public spending on infrastructure should focus on making rural areas more productive. It should improve the quality of life for rural residents since dispersed habitations make market based solutions for basic services unviable. At the best of times, making sensible public investment is tough. It becomes unconscionable when public funds are used to artificially drive up the demand for realty through public expenditure on creating cities. This growth pattern has also been a key source of corruption with elite capture of the land just prior to its development into an urban area using State finance.

The US is the best example of publicly funded investment in highways since the 1950s. However, even they found it difficult to do so efficiently. They also have bridges to nowhere. The recent publicly financed programs of demand creation since 2008 have been downright wasteful. California, for example, is persistently broke because it is wedded to “big government”. Publicly funded research and infrastructure can only be attempted by very efficient governments and India is not one of them.

We should go back to our roots in communities. Public finance should be used primarily to subsidize connectivity (ports, airports, rail, roads, airwaves and electricity)in segments where market solutions are not available and private investment unviable. Building and maintaining stuff is best left to the private sector.

The urban-rural divide is an artificial cleavage. Gandhi’s village need not be devoid of modern facilities. Migration should be a choice enabling people to vote with their feet but it is demeaning as a necessity. Spending public money on urban areas is like giving a hungry woman a fish to eat. But investing seamlessly across the country is like teaching people how to fish. Only the latter is sustainable.

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