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OPINION: Who will deliver our vision of an Indian ‘green’ city?

Following the South Asian Cities Congress, CDKN’s Elizabeth Colebourn reflects on why we need to give more attention to the city officials and bureaucrats expected to deliver our vision of a ‘green city’.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said last year that “our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities”. With India’s urban population expected to reach nearly 600 million by 2031, the country is an excellent case study for looking at our chances of success. If we can make our cities resilient and prosperous here, we can succeed anywhere.

Nearly 60 Indian cities were assessed by Atkins, UCL and partners under the ‘Future Proofing Cities’ initiative, based on the environmental risks to their economic and social prosperity. It found that they are highly vulnerable to a wide range of environmental risks, from climate hazards (e.g. flooding) to the risks associated with locking in unsuitable high carbon infrastructure (e.g. energy security, congestion). Furthermore, within these cities, an estimated 70 million people still live in multidimensional poverty making them extremely vulnerable to these risks.

The complexity of the risks means the solutions are difficult to find, and even more difficult to implement. At the South Asian cities summit in New Delhi last week, mayors and experts offered many isolated cases of success but were quick to point out that delivering solutions at the scale needed seems still beyond their grasp. For example, in Delhi, all public transport (buses, rickshaws etc) are now powered by natural gas and an impressive metro system is getting millions off the road every day. But, the Secretary for the Environment of NCT of Delhi, Sanjeev Kumar, pointed out that any gains they are making are being cancelled out by the number of new cars being bought and driven every day.

Where will the vision and capacity come from to get the low-carbon and resilient, fully functioning and pro-poor cities that we need? There are many technical, financial and other hurdles that need to be overcome. But, in essence, success will depend on how well cities are managed. The limited capacity of the city bureaucracy to manage the fundamental reforms needed in urban planning should be tackled as priority number one.  This is not a problem limited to cities in India (there are similar, but different capacity issues at the state and national level in India, and in other countries). But, it is more pronounced at the city level, and worthy of further attention.

During the presentations and discussions at the summit, and CDKN’s own experiences, some of the key capacity issues emerge:


Like all projects, the vision needs to come from the top. Cities tend to have a clear and accountable leadership structure, which should lend itself to effective design and delivery of reforms. In India, the Mayor and Deputy Mayor are directly or indirectly elected by the public with a Municipal Commissioner as a high-level head of the administrative staff.

CDKN is supporting the city of Ahmadabad, Gujarat to reduce the deadly impact of extreme heat. Over the last year, both the Mayor and Commissioner have got behind the initiative, and due to their engagement progress has been rapid. Last week they launched a comprehensive heat wave preparation and warning system.

While commitment at this level is vital, one individual cannot design and deliver the complex reforms that are needed. They need to set the priorities, and be supported by a competent bureaucracy to manage the process of change. In an ideal world they will be held accountable for the plans and programmes they launch, which currently often don’t get off the ground. If they are held to account, they will in turn ensure the bureaucracy actually delivers.

Competing Jurisdictions

While the geographical boundaries of a city are clear, the responsibility for running the city is not always. Under law, municipal bodies are vested with a long list of functions delegated to them by State Governments, such as public health, welfare, regulatory functions, and development activities. However, in some states, such as Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, water supply and sewage has been taken over by the State Governments. In Delhi, matters relating to the use of land are under the direct control of the central Government of India. The national Ministry of Urban Development is also a source of vital funding for cities wishing to innovative and implement reforms, such as the Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM).

In Bangalore, CDKN is supporting the city to implement the ‘Future Proofing Cities approach to help them respond to climate hazards. The team had to think carefully before deciding on the focal policy partner for the initiative, as there are many powerful relevant agencies interested in the initative, such as the Bangalore Development Authority, the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagar Palike, the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board, and the Bangalore Electricity Supply Company.

Strengthening the capacity of a city to manage change is therefore also about making sure all the different parts are working together. Turf battles are obviously common, both vertically with the State and central Government, and horizontally across sectors.  Coordination mechanisms are needed, as well as a shared a vision and goal.

Delivery management

The Indian bureaucracy is a huge machine that is difficult to reform. It contains some of the greatest talent in the country and the top-tier ‘IAS officers’ have passed an examination considered the most difficult entrance exam in the world. Dr. N.C. Saxena, Former Secretary of the National Planning Commission gives an excellent overview in his article on “Higher Bureaucracy Needs Radical Reform” where he summarises the problem as: “Obsession with rules rather than concern for output, promotions based on seniority rather than merit, delays, and mediocrity at all levels are some of the factors inhibiting output in government.”

Management capacity is a problem at all levels of Government in India, but for cities it is even more acute. There is a whole range of reforms needed, such as the incentives structure, recruitment process and transparency mechanisms. However, the trend is to instead compensate for the capacity gap by using consultants and stakeholders in the design and delivery of projects.

For example, the case of Nagpur city in Maharashtra was presented at the Cities Congress which used a Public Private Partnership (PPP) to deliver an ambitious project to get uninterrupted water supply to slum communities.  Part of the motivation for this was to compensate for a lack of capacity but also political and social will within the Government. There was previously a preconception among city officials that uninterrupted water supply is something that should be prioritised for the rich, not slums. Getting the private sector on board let the forward-thinking city leaders overrule the status-quo of the bureaucracy.

However, it is well documented that stakeholder-led initiatives can only succeed and be sustainable if they are supported by a well functioning government system.  It is therefore important that any partnership with stakeholders in the process builds the capacity of local officials.

These difficult institutional issues have no quick-win solutions and certainly they are for the Government of India itself to tackle. However, there is an important role for stakeholders in highlighting the problem and drawing attention to best practices elsewhere. Ultimately, unless the correct governance and management structure is in place, any isolated reform or innovation will not deliver at the scale needed.


We occasionally invite bloggers from around the world to provide their experiences and views. The views expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of CDKN

For more information on CDKN’s work with cities in India, contact

Photo courtesy of Design for Health  @flickr creative commons

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