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Urbanization, Smart Cities, and the “Sludge Judge” – A Conversation with Dr. Isher Judge Ahluwalia

June 10, 2015

In Asia sat down recently with renowned Indian economist Dr. Isher Judge Ahluwalia, The Asia Foundation’s latest Chang-Lin Tien Distinguished Visitor, during her American visit. Dr. Ahluwalia is chairperson of the board of governors for the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations in New Delhi, where she is leading a major research program on the challenges of urbanization in India. When we spoke, Dr. Ahluwalia had just completed the first part of her U.S. itinerary, including visits and presentations in Washington, New York, and Boston. We asked her why she had become so deeply engaged in India’s urbanization challenges.

The government of India invited me to chair a committee on urban infrastructure and services in 2008. Until then, all my work was very much mainstream economic kind of work, on industrial goods, productivity stagnation, macroeconomic policy.

David Duest, Dr. Isher Judge Ahluwalia, and Gerald Martin of The Asia Foundation speak at Deer Island Water Treatment Plant.

David Duest, Dr. Isher Judge Ahluwalia, and Gerald Martin of The Asia Foundation speak at Deer Island Water Treatment Plant.

So, you know, very reluctantly, I agreed, and it took us three years to write the report. But at the end of it, I felt very satisfied that I could now locate urbanization in the overall development strategy.

The second thing was, when I actually looked at the state of service delivery in our cities, and the public health challenge that increasing urbanization was causing, I just could not believe how those of us who were working on economic development could neglect such a central challenge. So I became very passionate about this area, and it was like starting a new career.

Why has urbanization become such a big issue for India today? Why now, and not 50 years ago?

Between 2001 and 2011, the growth rate of GDP was close to eight percent per annum, something that the Indian economy had never reached before. Unlike in the ’70s, when the growth rate was driven by the Green Revolution, this time growth was driven by the non-agricultural sector – largely the service sector, but also pharmaceuticals, the automotive sector, some of the knowledge-based industries. In these 10 to 12 years, the engines of growth had to be cities, because you could not have this growth in the rural sector.

You can’t have concentrations of knowledge workers if they’re living on farms.

Exactly. What transpired was that migration began to pick up. But even so, only 33 percent of our population is urban, which is much less than, say, 55 percent in China, 75-plus percent in Korea, 87 percent in Brazil. If we aspire to sustain a growth rate of seven to eight percent per annum, urbanization is going to pick up further. And if we don’t have planned urbanization, we will end up having the mess that we saw at the end of the last phase, where you have congestion, you have poor air quality, you have not planned for transport and land use, you don’t have connectivity.

Tell me a bit about Prime Minster Modi’s 100 Smart Cities initiative. What is it, and what are the potential and the perils?

I think people have no clear definition of what they mean by “smart cities.” The corporate sector has a way of talking about smart cities in terms of smart infrastructure. But I don’t want it to stop there. Smart cities must be about smart service delivery. It must be about smart governance. So, the question is, how are we going to ensure that when the government puts in smart infrastructure we can truly attain what we want from smart cities?

You know, actual service delivery in the Indian federal framework is the duty of city governments. This happened after a constitutional amendment in 1992 said that state governments should transfer certain functions to local governments. Now it’s been more than 20 years since that constitutional amendment. The state governments have happily transferred the functions, but not the functionaries or the funds. So you really have urban local governments that are not empowered.

So what I would say is that, if you are talking of smart cities, you’re talking of putting infrastructure in place. And when you don’t have empowered city governments who are accountable to the people who live in those cities, how are you going to build these institutions so the cities own this infrastructure, plan this infrastructure in the context of the city development plan, and then deliver?

I understand that the Deer Island Water Treatment Plant in Boston Harbor was one of the highlights of your recent tour.

You know, I am fascinated by success stories, stories that represent a turnaround from a major challenge. And when I was given the history of the Deer Island Water Treatment Plant, and where it was in 1972 when you had the Clean Water Act, it just seemed very similar to what you would expect in India.

You had the city of Quincy suing the state and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority for making their beaches unusable and filthy. And the state of Massachusetts was asking for an exemption: the waters were not so dirty [laughs], you know? So you wasted ten years, and in the end, you have this judge that they call the Sludge Judge [laughs]. He just said, “By 1999,” or whichever year, “this has to be ready.”

Now, when I learned this history, I could just imagine this thing being repeated in India, because the U.S. is a democracy; you are a federal system. And to see that even in such a rich democracy you have to face these challenges – and that you only started addressing your water problem in 1972 – it gives me some hope that when I go back I can say, “You know, it was only 40 years ago that they started. So maybe it’s not too late for us.”

The Chang-Lin Tien Distinguished Visitors Program, administered by The Asia Foundation’s Asian American Exchange unit, recognizes the accomplishments of prominent Asian leaders in government, business, and the arts. The program fosters dialog and understanding between Asian and American professionals, with the hope of improving U.S.-Asian relations.


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