'Making freebie promises an insult to voters': Varun Gandhi

The BJP MP has come out with a new book on urban India


FEROZE VARUN GANDHI’S first book, A Rural Manifesto: Realizing India’s Future Through Her Villages came out in 2018 when farmers were protesting the agrarian crisis. The well-researched book, packed with facts and anecdotes, stood out at a time when the issue was essentially discussed as a political one. Presciently, when the pandemic hit, along with the farmers’ agitation, a national conversation was started about rural India. Five years later, Gandhi is back with another treatise, this time on urban India.

Simply ordering 1,000 buses or approving the next metro phase will no longer do. We have to embrace multimodal transportation.

The Indian Metropolis: Deconstructing India’s Spaces follows the earlier format of academic rigour, coupled with anecdotes and facts, to talk about our decrepit cities, flawed policies, dejected citizenry and apathetic officials. “For India to shine, transformation of its cities is necessary,”writes Gandhi. Through nine chapters, he discusses issues like urbanisation, water availability, crime, health care, transportation, affordable housing, employment, financing and planning. With its brilliant insights, easy and intelligent writing, the book is relevant not only to law and policy makers and urban planners, but also to ordinary readers.

Gandhi, a three-time MP, has made policy and governance his forte, speaking out on issues he believes in―a rarity for a politician. He now plans to scale his initiatives for marginal farmers across geographies and strata, with a focus on solving problems for the rural and urban poor. Excerpts from an interview:

Q/India’s cities are bereft of parks and face significant pollution of air and water. How can we make our cities liveable?

A/To have sustainable urban development, there is a clear need to have more urban green spaces. Bringing in more urban green spaces can mean a general reduction in stress and greater levels of mental and physical fitness. The more urban green spaces in a city, the higher the quality of life, [thereby] helping to equalise spatial and economic inequalities. Placing a value on this can be rather hard…. This concept of embracing nature as a restorative agent is one that emerges from our urban history, with tales of large sal forests surrounding the city of Pataliputra.

And yet, India’s cities have notably failed to consider the need for green spaces in their master plans. At the government level, we face a significant poverty of understanding about the value of forests and green zones in our cities and their intangible benefits.

Another way forward is for a general push to create or restore urban forests―leading cities in the world (like Singapore, Seoul, Bangkok) have sought to build green spaces. In this regard, the ministry of environment, forests and climate change’s Nagar Van project is a promising initiative. In the past few decades, there has been talk of creating at least 200 city forests in India, albeit with little in implementation….

Going forward, urban master plans should plan for identifying common public land on the outskirts and plan for their conversion into forestland. Environmental zoning mandates can also be strengthened further, particularly to protect keystone geographical and biodiversity-rich areas. Implementing these master plans will require better collaboration with local ward committees, with a push for a change in mindset among city planning officials about the possibility of coexistence between urban forests and residential complexes.

Q/The government claims to provide greater access to regular power, LPG cylinders and water supply, apart from large infrastructure projects announced every other day. But you argue that our cities are unliveable.

A/Rural farmers from Haryana who had migrated to Delhi and Gurugram for jobs to escape an agricultural crisis and work as cleaners and drivers are increasingly migrating back to their farms during winter. It’s an unusual trend.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation’s Ease of Living index which measures performances of cities on 78 physical, institutional, social and economic indicators led to surprising findings in 2018. Mumbai, despite the travails of living in the city, with congestion, flooding and a high cost of living, was ranked as the third easiest city to live in, given uninterrupted power supply and the sense of safety. In comparison, Delhi was ranked 65th, a far cry from the impression provided by its impressive public transport infrastructure.

Then there is the cost side. The daily commute is increasing pricier. Petrol prices were above ₹100 per litre in most Indian cities in late 2021 and early 2022, driven by high taxes (such taxes have increased by 3x for petrol and 7x for diesel in the last 7 years). LPG prices have also risen sharply in recent years—with 300 million registered domestic LPG consumers, the impact on personal and fiscal finances has been significant. Meanwhile, edible oil (across different types e.g. groundnut, sunflower, mustard ...) has seen significant hikes.

Then, there is climate change. Torrential floods left over 14 people dead in Mumbai in 2021. In 2005, a deluge of rainfall, with over a metre of rain falling in a day, flooded the city, causing over $ 1.7 billion in damage. Why are our cities not easy places to live in?

Q/India’s road network is being expanded along with addition of metro and rapid rail projects. You suggest our integrated transport policy, across cities, is flawed?

A/India’s cities are burgeoning with cars and people, both of them seeking avenues to get from Point A to Point B. By 2035, Delhi would be the largest city in the world, with a population over 42 million, while Mumbai and Bengaluru would closely follow. Such an increase in size would naturally be accompanied with an increase in car usage, if present trends hold. India already has a fleet of over 210 million motor vehicles currently, on just 2.5 per cent of the world’s area.

Fundamentally, our urban transportation policy demands a rethink. While any transport modes that are chosen will depend on a variety of local factors, we must seek to restore the balance between availability and size of road surface for private vehicles in urban spaces and promotion of public transport. We must take care to promote mixed use urban settlements—the trends towards suburban gated communities will only lead to low density housing that does not allow for short commutes, all the while making public transportation less viable.

We must reclaim public transportation for its original ethos as well. Very few Indian cities have begun the journey of reclaiming public spaces away from cars, while focusing on building pathways for pedestrians and linking them with public transportation nodes. Meanwhile, other cities that historically embraced non-motorised vehicles like Kolkata are in the process of banning them from the city centre.

Q/India’s cities are not able to handle traffic volumes, making them gridlocked. What are the solutions?

A/Indian cities have historically been compact, with people accessing jobs and services across relatively short distances, with a high share of walking and cycling. However, as our cities started to sprawl out, policy priority was given to infrastructure like motor vehicles, while discouraging cycles and rickshaws.

Very few cities have begun the journey of reclaiming public spaces away from cars, while focusing on building pathways for pedestrians and linking them with public transportation nodes…. While the urban transport policy has focused on providing those without their own cars an affordable and yet barely usable means of public transport, we need to consider incentives and policy options to shift motor vehicle owners towards public transport. Such a step is necessary to ensure the survival of the Indian city itself―the negative impacts of road congestion, ensuing pollution and rising carbon emissions mandate such steps.

We also need to embrace the change in definition of public transport. Where once it stood for fixed routes and schedules, using old and infrequent buses, modern Indians need on-demand availability of public transport, offering door-to-door connectivity, while providing the highest standards in safety and comfort. Simply ordering 1,000 buses or approving the next metro phase will no longer do. We have to embrace multimodal transportation, integrating both public and private transportation players into the mix. At the same time, we must encourage the proliferation of age-old public transportation options like the rickshaw, while offering it a technological boost (e-rickshaw).

We need to skew our urban transport policies towards non-motorised transport. Often, urban policymakers seem to consider such transport options as the ones clogging up existing traffic, when in fact they play a significant role in transporting a large passenger volume.

Q/You argued that India’s healthcare system continues to be deficient, particularly in urban areas?

A/Over the next few decades, a rising frequency of extreme events (e.g. flooding) will lead to extensive transmission of infectious diseases, particularly those with a zoonotic nature (i.e. originated from animals). Diarrhoeal and bacterial infections are likely to flourish. With limited data on such diseases tracked actively, India’s primary healthcare network is likely to be overwhelmed quickly, given its existing shortage of medicines, care providers and resources.

India’s healthcare system is still a work in progress—many policymakers and policy documents do acknowledge this. It continues to remain quite fragmented, across various dimensions (e.g. risk pools, payers, providers of healthcare services, intermittent digital infrastructure, etc.). India’s current healthcare system is simply characterised by billions of individual patients seeking treatments from millions of healthcare providers, primarily in the private sector, at prices that are typically a significant strain on their savings.

Q/How do you see current politics, especially the debate around freebies?

A/All political parties offer freebies now. In 1967, C.N. Annadurai (founder of the DMK) promised 4.5kg of rice at 01, if his party was elected. The trend has reached other states as well―the Delhi state government has notably offered water and electricity (up to a certain limit) free for the city’s voters. An entitlement mentality been encouraged creating a cradle-to-grave welfare state….

Governments announcing freebies should be required to provide a funding plan. To bolster Parliament (and state assembly) budgetary understanding and enhance their ability to act, a budgetary office should be established to aid in writing policies and conducting budgetary analysis. More importantly, we need to have a conversation within and between political parties to curb this widespread abuse. Making such promises is an insult to voters, when many such promises are simply left unfulfilled or partially so.

Q/How can India’s cities solve the problem of urban unemployment? Is an urban version of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA) the way to go?

A/India faces a shortage of jobs in general, and also a shortage of quality jobs in particular. India’s open unemployment was estimated at 6.1 per cent in the Periodic Labour Force Survey 2017-2018, with ~20 per cent of all educated youth unemployed. Urban areas, in general, had greater unemployment. In such circumstances, it may be worthwhile considering an employment guarantee programme in urban areas….

It’s not a novel idea―India has had a history of urban employment schemes. The Swarna Jayanti Shahari Rozgar Yojana (SJSRY) was launched in 1997, with a focus on wage employment and self-employment…. However, a majority of such schemes were rarely demand-driven, with a limited set of beneficiaries.

The idea of an urban employment guarantee scheme is one whose time has come. There are murmurs already―in 2019, in Madhya Pradesh, the government initiated the Yuva Swabhiman Yojana, which offers employment to skilled and unskilled workers. Kerala, since 2010, has run an initiative (Ayyankali Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme). Even the Supreme Court has weighed in on the debate, stating that the right to life, offered under Article 21 of the Constitution, is not simply one enabling individuals to exist but is also broad enough to offer a right to livelihood and a right to dignity. MGNREGA… is arguably an implementation of the right to livelihood, albeit in a rural context while offering a right to work. Broadening this to an urban locale is the most natural extension for the Indian state.

Q/The budgets for policing has been consistently increased. Why do you think police reform has focused on the wrong elements?

A/No doubt there has been greater investment on institutional infrastructure for the police – the government should be commended on that. However, the plight of the ordinary policeman should also be considered. On an average, in Delhi, a police station typically has to handle around 1,500 cases, excluding the backlog. Such a volume of work inevitably means that the investigative work done tends to be shoddy and mistake-prone. Meanwhile, top down orders at a state level, from politicians, are routine—police personnel speak of being asked to bring crime down by 50 per cent—an asking that is simply ill-defined. It is well-know that most policemen are overloaded with work. On an average, a policeman has to work for 14 hours a day (for men it was estimated at 14 hours in 2016; for women at 13 hours; for constabulary again 14 hours), with 75 per cent of all policemen highlighting that this affects their physical and mental health. Then there is time-off. About 50 per cent of all police personnel reported that they simply did not get any stipulated holidays or rest days in a surveyed week; 25 per cent said that they got one day off in a week.

Solving such issues requires action on five fronts—you need to improve the lot of the local policeman, by offering them appropriate training and the right set of compensation and benefits. At the same time, you need to provide them the right infrastructure and capabilities. Having the right capacity of police personnel is also essential along with adequate training and well thought through responsibilities. Finally, you also have to grant them autonomy.

Q/Has sanitation as an urban problem been solved by government initiatives like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan?

A/Sanitation and waste management was never a major concern for pre-independence India, and it has remained so ever since. The colonial government focused on preventing cholera epidemics…. Colonial government, instead of funding an expansion of municipality-based sanitation through sewers, chose instead to intensify manual scavenging. Any collection inefficiencies were blamed on the poverty-ridden scavengers, a bias that remains ingrained in our municipal institutions. Post-independence, India’s cities have grown haphazardly, mostly in unsanitary conditions, with outbreaks tempered by the widespread use of antibiotics and insecticides. Mutual collaboration between the urban middle class and the hinterland has been disincentivised by institutional apathy and unequal economic progress….

Systematic thinking remains lacking―we retain limited public participation and even more limited institutional funding, combined with a feckless policy and legal framework. Political will, combined with active surveillance and institutional support, can turn our cities around. Changing our cities from disease-prone, filthy conurbations to smarter cities is a challenge that must be met through vigilance and better execution. What we need is a network of treatment plants and piping infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Israel offers a role model. It built a national network of water treatment plants and reuse pipelines between 1970 and 1990, seeking to use natural reservoirs to return effluent water to aquifers. In addition, it has sought to use differential pricing to convince farmers to use treated wastewater for irrigation.

Q/Rent-controls have often been pursued to keep the cost of rental housing low in India, yet they keep rising. What is your suggestion on reducing the cost of rental housing in India?

A/Rent control, as an urban policy, was once popular throughout the west, enabling shattered cities in Europe to be rebuilt. Similar controls were introduced in some cities like Cairo and Mumbai in middle and low-income countries. The scheme was rather simple—rents were fixed at a particular rate, with increments allowed only in rare cases and significant protection for the tenant against evictions; these rates were soon below market levels. Effectively, a tenant and his descendants had the option to continue to live in rent-controlled properties for perpetuity at the agreed upon rental rates.

However, many urban policymakers now recognise the downsides of maintaining rent control—they are effectively a price ceiling on rental market, causing rental demand to rise while inhibiting supply. Eventually, property tax revenues fall, while neighbourhoods turn into squalor. They can have a significant impact on the housing market—rent-controlled properties are effectively off the rental housing market, with owners effectively subsidising tenants to stay in the property. Low returns eventually mean limited appetite for new investment.

Worldwide, many cities have shifted beyond rent control to rent stabilisation or even in some cases, removing all controls completely.

Being a tenant is not easy in India. Often, even becoming a tenant can be akin to a job interview. In select cities (e.g. Mumbai), even one’s dietary habits and inclination towards keeping a pet can be probed; in addition, there are often discriminatory questions asked about one’s community, caste, creed and relationship status. Should one be a well-meaning lawyer or policeman, the situation can often be worse; there are few landlords who are comfortable renting a house to someone in these professions. One often has to go the extra mile to adhere to a landlord’s tendencies, from having restrictions on who you can bring home to putting up a huge deposit upfront, to bearing with a house in disrepair because the landlord can often simply refuse to maintain it. There is also naturally, a flipside to this—some tenants can also make life miserable for landlords, by refusing to move out, by refusing to restructure a past contract and seeking to continue to rent-controlled rates.

In an ideal world, rental housing would be available to whoever required it. Rental housing, by its very nature, enables mobility to anyone who wants it. However, the share of rental housing in India’s cities has been declining over the last few decades, from 54 per cent to 28 per cent between 1961 and 2011 (albeit, this includes a growth of 44 per cent in the stock of rental housing between 2001 and 2011). Our urban policy has prioritised house ownership over the prospect of increasing the number of houses available in affordable rental housing market.

As a consequence, we have the trend of vacant housing—the number of houses left vacant rose from 6.5 million in 2001 to 11.1 million in 2011. And yet, this does not trigger policy action—in Paris, an increase in vacant housing stock to 7.5 per cent of total housing stock lead to proposals by the local city council to increase council tax rates from 20 per cent to 60 per cent on potential rent in vacant properties. Similarly, in Vancouver, a similar situation led to the introduction of a vacant house tax.

Q/What next?

A/For the past decade, I have been working on initiatives to help increase non-farm income among our marginal farmers, running schemes to expand their skillsets (e.g. in textiles, pottery, handicrafts etc.) and also seeking avenues to help them garner greater value - for example, encouraging them to pursue alternative forms of agriculture which are more sustainable and have new and higher value markets available, while avoiding the debt trap. With such initiatives now bearing fruit, I would like to scale them across geographies and strata, with focus on solving problems for the rural and urban poor.


By Feroze Varun Gandhi

Published by Rupa

Price Rs1,500; pages 824