Populist Projects Vs Sustainability Planning in Cities

In February 2012, all the municipal corporations in Maharashtra underwent an overhaul in their respective local urban / municipal governments. The city level elections saw a flurry of projects in the city of Pune. Suddenly, the half done pending-for-long road projects saw completion. The project of constructing canal culverts that were pending since the past 1.5 years suddenly, as if with the wave of a magic wand, were completed in 1 month flat. Further, the incumbent nagarsevak, when he visited the housing societies, promised more gardens, better roads, good water supply and clean streets to the hassled citizens, who deal with these issues everyday 24x7. In localities where slums were dominant, the aspiring nagarsevaks, went so far as to promise free dwellings, 24x7 piped water to all slum dwellers. In areas, where the transport was inadequate, promises were to add bus routes. In areas were roads were congested, promises were to build wider and better roads, even flyovers. The only thing that all aspirants asked for in return was the citizens' precious vote!

Having gone through the rigors of campaigning myself this February 2012, my campaigning script and promises for better urban policy, better and transparent governance and thinking if we citizens really need projects, plans or better urban management often fell on deaf ears. So big deal! You are just merely promising us 'good governance' when we need water supply and clean roads, was the expression I got more often than not.

I realised then and there itself that urban citizens, even the richest, highly educated and highly paid mortal citizens are being deliberately promised things or in this case 'projects' that keep repeating themselves every five years. Even a city of Pune and its citizens are unable to move beyond the expectations of regular water supply, good roads and clean surrounds! Aren't we all being deliberately kept wanting the basics of 'roti, kapda and makan' when we should be moving, albeit slowly, towards good urban quality, which is moving beyond the basics and wanting more from our daily urban existence.

One primary reason for all of us in cities today being 'stuck' at the same level is the approach of politics (and politicians and political parties) in putting forth 'Populist Projects' rather than 'Sustainability Planning'. Free homes are promised without a comprehensive housing policy, good roads are promised without development of a road development strategy, bus routes are promised without integrated public transport policy and 24x7 water supply is promised without a long term water supply plan for a growing city!

When will we be able to shift the focus on Planning rather than Projects? When will we as a total mass of urban citizenry graduate to understanding that focus on better urban governance will far outreach the short term benefits of a good road. Unless, we pull up our socks to bring in this new era of 'long term politics', we are all fighting for a losing battle in aspiring for good quality urban services. A good road will turn bad and then every five years we will have political aspirants once again promising us the 'good road'!



  1. Your thoughts are right on. The electoral candidates (with your exception) promise only “projects" that are "seen"- big flyovers, roads, water supply are examples. When they see a traffic jam everyday at a particular junction, they promise a flyover. According to a report by Parisar, PMC has spent around 40% of their budget on transportation. And it is shocking to know most of it went in remaking the same roads, again and again with different or so called better material; and not in better footpaths for pedestrians or getting better/ more buses.

    And unfortunately voters fall for these short term "band-aid" solutions rather than robust long term planning solutions. A flyover in their ward makes them feel good. And like you correctly point out, that is all they expect. At least prima-facie, they don't seem to care about good governance. My only concern is that whether the voters or the candidates- both are really so naive/ ignorant to completely disregard the need for long term planning. How long are these small time favors going to serve the citizens? --Shruti V.

  2. Your assessment regarding the need of long range planning and good governance, which comes from practical experience, is spot on. I do not think the voters are so naive as not to know the emptiness of the promises made by the incumbent corporators; it is simply that they hope against hope that, by some miracle, and despite the best efforts of the self-serving corporators, some good may come. As far as the candidates are concerned, what can one expect from them when the only visible activity they seem to indulge in is putting huge banners carrying their own pictures and the pictures of their families and friends, congratulating each other all the time! These banners are located at such 'strategic' locations that they completely block the view of the road users creating conditions leading to accidents.

  3. This is a difficult question to which there is not a simple answer. One element that plays out is that people simply do not have an experience of good governance that offers them a yardstick to measure the performance of political leaders against. Compare it to people working in an administration or corporation spending their days in unplanned and uncoordinated meetings. The waste of time and energy is appaling. Yet, that is the world these people live in. They think that waste of time is in the nature of things. Until they experience a well-planned and expertly facilitated meeting. Then they come out saying: "we never thought we could accomplish so much in so little time." From then onwards, there is a chance that they will have other expectations when they enter a meeting, and act upon them. And so it goes with citizens that see the populism, short-termism and opportunism as simply belonging to the nature of politics. Unless they are lucky enough to experience what good governance means, it remains an abstraction. And one that entails considerable risk because it plays out on the longer term. The return of populist interventions is much quicker. Better one bird in the hand than ten in the sky. Finally, good goverance is never finished. There is no template. We need to reinvent time and again. Hardly something most people find encouraging. I think there is some explanation for this reluctance by examining age-old patterns in human psychology and decision-making.


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