Maximum city, minimum involvement

Time to rope in RWAs for optimal urban governance

r-swaminathan

R Swaminathan | June 20, 2011




For a city that understands finance like Tendulkar the cover drive a bit of number crunching will help us put its urban woes in perspective. Let’s take up two symbols of every Mumbaikar’s existential reality – the Bandra-Worli Sea Link and the suburban rail and road transportation network – and do some nifty comparative mathematics to see where it’s all adding up.

When it was unveiled the Bandra-Worli Sea Link was supposed to be an emerging Mumbai’s brand new icon. By all accounts it seems to have succeeded – just look at the Sea Link postcards lining up the city’s tourist spots dislodging the old favourite Gateway of India. Postcard pretty it is, but what has an average Mumbaikar shelled out for it? 

The 4.7 kilometres – 7.7 kilometres if you take the approach entry and exit roads – of the Sea Link cost Mumbaikars Rs 1,684 crore. That’s Rs 358.29 crore a kilometre to be precise. So next time you pay Rs 50 to cross the bridge, remember that each metre whizzing by is the costliest real estate, at Rs 35.8 lakh, in the city that you have ever set your foot on, or rather your car on.  Not to make any value judgements, but isn’t it ironical that in a city where over 60 percent of the population lives in slums, the costliest real estate is a metre of a road?

Before I get Shanghaied and shipped off to the favourite high priest of many of Mumbai’s urban renewal brigade Zhu Rongji – widely credited for polishing a grubby Shanghai to a nice, global shine – for a lesson in governance, speed of execution and project management, the Sea Link is a prime example of the lack of all three. Ten long years, a budget of Rs 300 crore escalating over five times to Rs 1,600-plus crore and only 4.7 kilometres to show for it is a case study of how not to execute an iconic project.

Operational issues of project management, elastic timeframes and opaque tender processes aside, there is a larger social point that has always needed urgent attention, but has been never been treated in a serious manner. If one goes by the quaint world that Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) inhabits, Mumbai has 1.4 crore people living in it. But since a city is always a living, breathing and growing organic being, very rarely in sync with atrophied bureaucratic data and files, in reality the city’s population dramatically goes up to 1.8 crore during any working day as people stream into its business districts for their daily bread.

Of this 1.8 crore who do something or the other every single day, a large part of it involving moving themselves and their goods from point A to B, only 9% own a four-wheeler or a two-wheeler. Whittling it down further, one finds that the percentage of people owning a four-wheeler is just 3%. Now, that means that the number of people who own two-wheelers, at 6%, is 10.8 lakh and those who own cars at 3 percent, is 5.4 lakh.

As I am using 2007-08 figures, and since the automobile industry is justifiably claiming a boom, at an annualised growth rate of approximately 22%, I am suggesting that the percentage increase in private vehicle ownership in the city would be another 4-6 percentage points. So assuming that we are today dealing with a 15% private vehicle ownership, and keeping the same gap between two-wheeler to four-wheeler ownership, of six percentage points, the population owning four-wheelers is 9%. That is 16.2 lakh people.

The peak handling capacity of the Bandra-Worli Sea Link per day is around 85,000 cars. Currently it is handling around 37,500 cars. Now, assuming that all 16.2 lakh people decide to use the Bandra-Worli Sea Link one sunny morning and by some swish of a magical wand the Sea Link is able to handle the horde, from a cost-benefit ratio it works out to Rs 96,000 of your and my money for plying a single car across to Worli or to Bandra. Now, considering that the bridge is being used by only 37,500 car owners today, just 0.023% of the total car owners, the cost-benefit ratio are even more obscenely skewed. So plying one car on the Sea Link today costs Rs 2,22,644, the approximate on-road price of a no-frills Maruti Alto or two of the iconic Tata Nanos. Now, even if we assume that every single car or an SUV, which obviously has a higher capacity, crossing the Sea Link is carrying an average of four people, it still works out to a healthy Rs 55,661 per passenger.

So there are two questions: Why spend this kind of money on such a niche ‘public’ utility? And, who sanctions them?

Which, then, brings us to the city’s suburban rail and road transportation network. Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) says it’s the lifeline for 88% of the population. Technically correct. But it’s not as if the remaining 12%, 15 if you take my calculation mentioned earlier, take out their cars, scooters and motorbikes every day. The number of people using public transport, say experts-in-the-know, is closer to 95% on any working day.

That’s a world record. No city in the world, not New York, not Moscow not Tokyo or Beijing, has practically its entire population depending on the public transportation network. It’s a testament to the resilience and innovation of the people who are running an overburdened and antiquated network. The only significant planned investment in the last decade or so for an integrated multi-modal public transportation system has been the World Bank-assisted Mumbai Urban Transportation Project (MUTP).

mumbai

Photo: Parveen Kumar

Plying one car on the Sea Link today costs Rs 2,22,644. If each car carries four people, it still works out to Rs 55,661 per passenger

The total cost of the project, to be completed in two phases, as per 2002-03 prices is Rs 4,626 crore. Assuming a standard 30% project-cost escalation, the amount being spent at current prices works out to Rs 6,013.8 crore. Ninety-five percent of 1.8 crore works out to 1.71 crore.

Just pause and let it sink in. One crore seventy one lakh men, women and children like you, me and our families, stream out of their homes every single day and take either an auto or a taxi, a bus or a train, usually a combination of all three, to reach their respective destinations.

Let’s use the same yardstick as before. A simple back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals that Rs 6,013.18 crore spread across 1.71 crore people leaves each Mumbaikar who is dependent on the public transportation network, like me, with a meagre Rs 351.60 as his or her share to improve the quality of life. Just to put it in perspective for readers who do not live in Mumbai, a return ticket from Andheri to Churchgate on the Western Railway costs Rs 14. Assuming a five-day week, a to and fro fare for a week costs Rs 70. For a month Rs 210. By the time the second month is over, an average Mumbaikar has already shelled out more than what his government has given back to him to improve his quality of life.

So, yet again, we are back to the same two questions: Why spend public money in such a manner? And, who sanctions them?

Even though the questions for both the urban conundrums are the same, ironically their intent and meaning are as different as chalk is from cheese. Only a city of extreme contrasts like Mumbai can have exactly the same questions having different meanings.

For those who have reached till here, the next obvious question is what is the way out? How can Mumbaikars take on the tetra-headed, land gobbling creature born of weak political will, testosterone driven muscle-power and an unmanageable lure of the lucre?

The solution, though radical, is available. But it will make the political class uncomfortable, the land mafia livid and the average Mumbaikars less insular and more inclusive. Planning for city dwellers, which is you and me, has always been an institutional exercise considered as a domain for ‘experts’ who will decide for us what is best. Mumbai today has a plethora of institutions – BMC, MMRDA, MSRDC, MVRC – supposedly serving us, but in reality passing the buck to each other for not providing us basic civic amenities like quality toilets in railway stations. At last count, there were 23 institutions directly or indirectly ‘planning’ for us Mumbaikars. There is an urgent need to ‘de-institutionalise’ urban planning.

The 74th Constitutional Amendment Act was to energise the people of metropolitan areas (population of 10 lakh and more) at the ground level so that they can participate and become stakeholders in planning and urban development. While the intent was to make the urban development more democratic, in reality it has become even more institutionalised with Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) getting politicised and becoming part of the existing power structure. So, what do we do in order to ‘de-institutionalise’ planning? There are two critical, perhaps even radical, steps that need to be taken.

The first step is to revamp the legislative framework surrounding the Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs). If empowered properly, the RWAs have the potential to transform a city’s landscape for the better. The legal safety net to empower the RWAs must seriously consider making them a compulsory and statutory body, if needed by an act of parliament, which every housing society or a cluster of housing societies should constitute.

RWAs do exist today, and there are specific cases where they are being involved by the powers that be. One of the main examples of such an attempt is the Bhagidari project in Delhi. But for RWAs to be really effective there must be internal democracy within them and transparent elections. It might even be a good idea to bring RWA elections under the purview of the Central Election Commission (CEC).

Furthermore, it is critical that RWAs don’t turn out to be like Indian sporting federations with ‘life presidents’, unbridled power and unlimited corruption. It is necessary to evolve a system when the decision-making posts are not occupied by the same person for more than two terms. What an empowering legal system can do is allow the RWAs the autonomy to decide what is best for their localities in terms of infrastructure enhancement and quality of life. A legally empowered and politically neutral RWA, it is hoped, will eventually engage and interact with urban planners, architects, solution and civil society organisations to evolve solutions for local urban problems.

But there seems to be no point in legally empowering RWAs if they are not allowed to be at least financially autonomous, if not independent. And that should be our second step. It may sound a bit radical, and even a bit theoretical and conceptual, but RWAs will not be empowered unless they are allowed to raise resources. It is necessary for the government to enable RWAs to access financial resource pools, including alternative sources of revenue.

It may sound outlandish but a fundamental question needs to be answered. If we are free-market economy shouldn’t RWAs be allowed to raise money from the market? Of course there are regulatory and other questions that require deep debate and discussion on what sort of institutions should be allowed to enter the market. But why should institutions that do not have a profit motive not approach the market? If a Multi Commodities Exchange’s (MCX) proposal to open an alternative exchange to BSE and NSE can be considered, Securities and Exchange Board’s (SEBI) experiment with regional exchanges for greater financial inclusiveness can be allowed, then every option and way to allow non-profit institutions to participate in the market should be explored. If RWAs enter the market, they will have to maintain financial transparency, their balance sheets will have to be made public, audit firms will have to be involved and their activities be liable for scrutiny.

Where does this leave the MMRDAs and BMCs of the world then? Their job and consequently their deliverables become clearer. In a scenario where the RWAs are empowered and are taking neighbourhood-level decisions, right from repairing roads to managing public spaces, then public institutions can concentrate on their core competence, which is executing megaprojects, like the East-West corridor, that will yolk together all the smaller projects that will be implemented by the RWAs.  So what are the potential challenges?

A political establishment, which will be sweating under the collar, the deeply entrenched bureaucratic mandarins, who will be looking at law, by-laws and rules on why it cannot and should not be done and the powerful land mafia which will find it next to impossible to bulldoze their way into public land. Those are the challenges that a Mumbaikar has to face and surmount. I am willing to do it. Is anyone else with me?

This piece first appeared in the June 1-15  issue of Governance Now magazine (Vol.2, Issue 9).

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