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Liveability index – trying to make sense out of nonsense

In a first-ever exercise undertaken by the ministry of housing and urban affairs to rank the country’s major cities on the basis of four parameters of ease of living – governance, social, economic and physical infrastructure, city of Pune ranked first in Ease of Living Index. In other words, Pune is the most liveable city, followed closely by Navi Mumbai and Greater Mumbai in a ranking of 116 Indian cities with the national capital ranked at a lowly 65 on the Ease of Living Index released by the government.  Thane is the fourth Maharashtra city that made it to the top 10 in the list. Other cities ranked among the best 10 are Tirupati, Chandigarh, Raipur, Indore, Vijayawada and Bhopal. Notably, none of the cities in big states like Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have made it to the top 10. Chennai has been ranked 14, Hyderabad at 27 and Bengaluru, Silicon Valley of India, at 85. Kolkata had refused to participate in the survey. Gurugram is at the 88th spot. Rampur in Uttar Pradesh is at the bottom of the list that has Jammu and Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir at 95 and 100, respectively.

Looking at the rank one is surprised to see Mumbai and Thane making it to top five cities on Liveability index. A city whose roads are full of potholes, trains and public transport system is stretched beyond limits, where one Bandh call by a political leader can bring the whole city to standstill and where people live on footpaths and kids beg on the roads can make it to the third slot, one will be forced to wonder – is that all we deserve? With such pathetic state of affairs if a city can move to the top slot where is the incentive to improve from here on?

According to the government, by undertaking such an exercise systematic improvements in the quality of life would be possible as liveability index will promote competitive environment amongst cities. In other words, possibly Mumbai will have less potholes next year than this year because it is competing to remain on top. Does that mean Mumbai has seen less potholes this year than last year? Or Delhi will have better quality air to breathe next year than this year? If not next year, at least few years down the line?

India is multi-lingual, multi-religion and multi-cultural nation. Even within Hindu religion, the largest and the main religion of the country, beliefs and life styles differ from place to place and society to society. For example, Diwali festival is celebrated all over the country. But in North India it is celebrated to mark the return of Lord Ram after killing Ravan, while in South India it is celebrated to mark the end of Narakasura, a demon. Thus, life style, beliefs and faiths vary from region to region, state to state. Therefore, cities are designed around the notion of homogeneity where it is assumed that everyone thinks the same way and aligns to the same rules is not ideal for us.

Therefore, one cannot use the same scale to measure the liveability of all cities in India. In other words, we cannot put Rampur and Mumbai on the same scale. While Mumbai has people from various regions from the country, Rampur is city of locals.  So, you cannot paint with the same brush all over.

When our best city stands below par in world ranking, there is urgent need to re-consider the methodology used by the government. Cities can either be judged based on certain parameters or choose certain cities as the benchmark against which the competitors are judged. In both the cases there are limitations and may not be able to achieve the original objective of the competition. In case of ‘benchmark’ method we may end up comparing chalk with cheese. Some years ago, some politicians of then ruling party had promised to convert Mumbai into Shanghai. Similarly, a Chief Minister of a Southern state wants to make his capital look like Singapore. In all these cases, we not only exhibit our limited aspirational capacities but also display our lack of ability to think original. Perhaps competition of this nature only helps to imitate the results without analysing the causes.

India is basically a rural civilisation and here cities were originally formed to serve the rural population unlike in Western world where villages are meant to serve cities. While most of the Western cultures thrived in cities, In India it is not the case where villages have played a major role in shaping our culture.

Slums are part of the Indian cities and efforts made by the government to eradicate them have not borne any fruits. Even in future, it is unlikely that we see a city without slums. At the most, due to government efforts, we may see slums growing vertically than spreading over a vast area of land but will remain part of the city life. Also remember, happiness index in those areas will be much better than in case of some planned localities.  

Therefore, we need to move forward pragmatically and junk the idea of blindly imitating other success stories. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we should not learn from other success stories but following others blindly can land us in bigger problem than one we are facing now. A competition of this nature to rank our cities where people are fighting and struggling to get basic amenities and facilities can only breed inefficiency and do more harm than any good.  

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