As Ease of Living Index 2020 is released, a look at the relevance of 'liveability' in India, and what it entails

The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA), Government of India announced the Ease of Living (EOL) Index for Indian cities on 4 March. This year 111 cities participated in the assessment exercise which forms the base for the EOL index.

As per the survey, Bengaluru ranks highest among the million-plus population cities, followed by Pune, Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Indore and Greater Mumbai. Shimla ranked topmost for cities with a population less than one million, followed by Bhubaneswar, Silvassa, Kakinada and Salem. Srinagar and Dhanbad are at the bottom of the Index in the million-plus cities, and Muzaffarpur and Satna rank lowest among the less-than-one-million-population cities.

What is liveability?

The Indian EOL Index is similar to the Global Liveability Ranking published annually by the Economist Intelligent Unit that assesses which locations around the world provide the best or worst living conditions. It quantifies individual living style in 140 cities all over the world. Each city is assigned a score for nearly 30 quantitative and qualitative factors across stability, healthcare, culture and environment, and education and infrastructure. In the year 2019, Austria’s capital, Vienna was the top city. Cities from Australia, Canada and New Zealand have dominated the top 10 positions in this index and reflect easy accessibility of goods, services, infrastructure and personal security. New Delhi and Mumbai ranked 118th and 119th respectively out of 140 cities covered the global rankings list.

Urban liveability can promote citizens' health and wellbeing through good public transport, neighbourhood walkability, access to open spaces, economic opportunities and access to infrastructure services. Therefore, to measure ease of living or liveability in Indian cities, MoHUA has developed a framework that evaluates development outcomes across four pillars namely — the quality of life, economic-ability, sustainability and resilience. It covers 49 indicators under 14 categories, Moreover, it includes people’s views on services provided by the city administration through an extensive citizen perception survey. About 30 percent of the total weightage is based on the citizens' survey.

What are the other metrics used to calculate liveability?

MoHUA has also announced the Municipal Performance Index (MPI) along with the EOL Index. It seeks to examine local government practices in terms of services, finances, technology and governance comprising of 20 sectors and 100 indicators. It is expected to promote transparency and accountability in urban administration.

The overall objective of urban development in India is the creation of sustainable and inclusive urban development. To meet these objectives, the government has launched five urban missions: Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation, Smart Cities, Housing for All, National Urban Livelihood Mission and Swachch Bharat Mission. The United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and each country started localising these goals as per their context so as to achieve their envisaged objectives. These urban missions are helping to achieve three urban-oriented Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), namely — SDG 1 that deals with eradication of poverty, SDG 6 with the objective of universal and equitable access to affordable drinking water and sanitation, and SDG 11 that focuses on making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Monitoring progress in achieving SDGs is very important. The Index provides an annual database for achieving the three urban-oriented SDGs.

It is pertinent to mention the experiences of some ranking processes in India. The Ease of Doing Business (EDB) is an annual survey published by the World Bank to rank countries on the basis of a regulatory environment conducive to starting and operating a local firm. India has improved its EDB Ranking in the last five years. A number of approval processes were simplified and made more transparent to achieve a better ranking in the country. One such process in many Indian cities is the introduction of online software for granting building construction permits by urban local governments in a transparent and standardised manner, strictly following the building regulations. The online process has considerably reduced time and harassment by urban officials in granting the construction permit.

View of Bengaluru skyline at sunset. Image via Shutterstock/@Joydeep Mitra

It is also relevant to mention here the experience of 'Swachta Survekshan (SS)'. It is an annual survey of cleanliness, hygiene and sanitation in cities and towns across India. The survey was launched as part of the 'Swachch Bharat' (Clean India) Mission in 2016 and presently it covers about 4,242 urban centres. The objective of the survey is large-scale citizen participation and an ensured continuity in the Clean India campaign. Indore in Madhya Pradesh has been ranked as the cleanest city for the last three years. Citizens of Indore take great pride as the cleanest city in the country. Local community groups, traders, industry associations, public agencies fully support the Indore Municipal Corporation in maintaining cleanliness in the city. The competitive spirit and pride were promoted in the city during the SS survey.

What does liveability mean in India?

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that citizens have very basic needs from urban local governments. On the one hand, they require a process that provides voice and space to express their opinions, needs and requirements, and on the other, tools and instruments to proactively engage in shaping their own future by involving themselves in the planning process of the city. They require access to authentic information, they need platforms where they not only can provide suggestions and track their complaints, etc but also contribute so that the city governments can minimise losses and make informed decisions easily from the comfort of their homes or their mobile phones. This calls for an authentic, reliable and robust database and urban information system with its granularity and spatiality at the city level, which will be covering, among others, the areas of urban poverty, slums, housing and other urban-related indicators. The two urban indices provide useful and relevant city-level information for the urban officials, elected leaders and citizens to initiate actions in case of disasters such as the coronavirus pandemic.

The urban local bodies in Kerala are at the frontlines of battling the COVID-19 pandemic. This is because the state has empowered local governments. City mayors in Kerala have executive powers and urban local bodies are not managed by Municipal Commissioners. The state government adopted People’s Plan Campaign in 1996 for decentralised governance and allots 24.5 percent of the total budget to local bodies and projects are prepared through active participation. Ward-level committees, neighbourhood groups and residents welfare associations participate actively in urban governance. Federation of women self-help groups under the state-wide Kudumbasree Mission plays an active role in the delivery of various services. However, the cities of Kerala do not appear in the top 10 cities of EOL 2020.

Urban India is very large and diversified in terms of size, number, culture and administration. "One size fits all" does not work for our cities. In this context, EOL Index despite providing a comparative picture doesn't really indicate the ground realities of Indian cities. Generally, cities in southern and western India are better administrated than cities in northern India. Though the index is a good benchmark to examine the level of services and quality of life, it does not take into account the level of urban decentralisation in terms of finances, functions and capacities. It is also very important to note that Bengaluru, which is on top of most million-plus population cities for EOI, has obtained only a score of 67 out of 100 and the corresponding score is as low as 61 in the case of Shimla, that ranks highest among cities with a population less than one million. Both cities need to improve their performance in terms of delivery of services and governance.

EOL Index provides information at the overall city level. However, our cities are very complex. The proportion of slums and low-income households average about 25 percent of the total population. These city-level indices do not reflect the level of services and governance in low-income areas. The citizens and policymakers need to consider them as a separate target group to improve services and wellbeing.

So the EOL Index provides a good comparative benchmark to promote healthy competition among cities. It can also be used to improve the planning and implementation of various urban development programmes. But urban India needs a much more disaggregated index at the ward or zonal level to prepare local area action plans and to promote citizens' participation in the urban development process. MoHUA has announced a National Urban Digital Mission that will streamline and coordinate various efforts of the Ministry to support and enable urban local bodies in India. This mission may help in further improving the data collection and analysis for the EOI Index in near future. It is expected that over time this Index will become an important source of information for citizens, public agencies and private corporates in taking decisions on future urban investments.

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Chetan Vaidya is the former director of the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Delhi and the National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA), Delhi.



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