December 11, 2013 5:02 am

India attempts to meet urgent needs with the resources available

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Men surrounded by a cloud of smoke©Reuters

It took weeks for Anita Bhargava, a former executive at online payment service PayPal turned urban governance activist, to find out what was going on with one of Delhi’s neglected parks – municipal officials were puzzlingly reluctant to let sponsors from the local Sikh temple pay for the cleaning, refurbishment and management of the park.

The officials in Punjabi Bagh, it turned out, were unwilling to approve the restoration of the Herbal Garden because they were earning a few thousand rupees a month selling wood from the overgrown park to a local crematorium and ferns to nearby florists for their flower arrangements.

The saga of the park, which is finally on its way to beautification after the necessary “no objection” certificate was issued, is just one example of how ingenious bureaucrats in cities such as Delhi apply their minds to making money for themselves, rather than serving the interests of residents.

Roadside fruit-sellers in Indian cities must typically pay protection money to police officers, while the poor are often forced to hand over hundreds of rupees in bribes to officials to secure everything from ration cards for subsidised food to voter identification cards. Many children finish primary school without being able to read or write in Hindi or English, or do simple arithmetic. Builders and householders pay to get permits for illegal constructions that are at risk of collapse in an earthquake.

Yet there are also countless ways in which municipalities, charities, companies and residents are improving, or trying to improve, the lives of Asia’s hundreds of millions of city-dwellers.

To an inhabitant of Tokyo or Singapore, the word “ingenuity” in the title of this report might suggest high-technology urban solutions involving computerised metro rail systems, waste recycling, solar panels or energy-efficient lighting.

All these are beneficial (and used) in the poorer megacities of Asia-Pacific. But by far the most effective way to improve urban life is to ensure municipalities and local governments fulfil their commitments to provide basic services such as low-cost housing, schools, transport, sanitation and electricity.

“The lack of bureaucratic will is the largest reason India is the way it is,” says Bhargava, who has identified politics and governance, rather than technology, as the key issues that need to be tackled if she is to achieve her ambitious goal of ridding Delhi of its slums in three years.

“This is not rocket science,” she says as she surveys a typical Delhi scene: a shanty village of ramshackle buildings next to a fetid open drain choked with rubbish, across the road from some of the most palatial apartments in the capital. The air is thick with dust and traffic fumes. “It’s the lack of bureaucratic will and we keep coming back to that,” she says.

Bhargava’s strategy has been to find a willing councillor – in this case Satvinder Kaur Sirsa in Delhi’s Ward 103 for Punjabi Bagh and Madipur – and become that person’s appointed “shadow councillor”, a position that allows her to apply management solutions from business to apparently intractable urban problems. The idea is to start in this ward of 150,000 inhabitants, and then apply the solutions that work to the whole of Delhi. “We want people who have good solutions to use this ward like a laboratory. We will make sure it is replicable.”

Corruption and inefficiency are rampant largely because officials and workers are neither penalised for failure nor rewarded for real successes, she believes. One answer is to persuade residents to ensure they receive the services they are due.

To that end she has extracted from the bureaucracy a list of municipal projects – a common source of corruption – and is asking residents to report (for example) on whether a contractor has indeed repaired a section of pavement for which it was paid Rs500,000 ($8,000).

It is not easy to overturn a system of entrenched corruption, especially in the face of ingenious opponents seeking to defend their turf. Ward 103 introduced a system of public reporting on refuse collection, rewarding drivers and workers who scored well and eventually succeeding in re-establishing the daily rounds provided for in the sanitation contact.

Indeed, the new system worked so well that it was extended to 18 wards, but Bhargava says it was impossible to apply to all 274 wards in Delhi because the refuse collection companies had been serving the 18 districts by cutting back on the rest. The companies, she says, have only about 60 per cent of the trucks they need to provide the contracted daily service across the city.

The view that what matters is not fancy technology but a way of solving basic problems is shared by many from Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, to the social workers who are trying to make life better in India’s cities.

I certainly love the ­information technology thing,” Gates, who now dedicates himself to philanthropy, said in a recent FT interview. “But when we want to improve lives, you’ve got to deal with more basic things, like child survival, child nutrition.” He compares the high-tech Infosys offices in Bangalore to homes nearby where people live without toilets or running water. Technology, he says, is amazing, but “it doesn’t get down to the people most in need in anything near the timeframe we should want it to”.

The winner and runner-up in the Asia-Pacific category of this year’s FT/Citi Ingenuity Awards are both Indian projects that apply this basic formula: meeting an urgent need with the resources available.

“There are hundreds of non-governmental organisations that walk in [to slums] every day, and government officials promising this and that, but hardly ever delivering anything. If you want to make a dent in poverty you have to take a multidimensional approach,” said Elaine Ghosh, who with her husband set up Parinaam, the regional award winner.

Indian cities teem with good ideas. The country’s IT groups provide services to the world, and its bureaucrats sit on countless committees formed to help the poor and develop the nation.

The problem is that not enough people actually do anything. For that reason alone, the work of people such as Bhargava, Ghosh and, yes, Gates deserves the support of Indians and the rest of the world. n

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