Why cities need the will to change

People have to put pressure repeatedly on the administration and politicians for better roads and infrastructure.

Chetan Bhagat, the popular author, recently remarked, “When a city lobbies, it can be powerful. It gets 10 times more attention than a demonstration elsewhere. But pick a right cause.”.

There are few issues that draw the attention of a whole country or State. “But talk about a city, it will evoke a lot of reaction, on a lot of issues, from a lot of people. What is around us will affect us,” points out Mr Bhagat, a former investment banker who has worked on real estate and infrastructure sectors.

In Indian cities “we deserve better,” he said. People have to put pressure repeatedly on the administration and politicians for better roads and infrastructure, he said, addressing a meeting on sustainable cities.

HONG KONG

The author, who for many years lived in Hong Kong, compared that city with some of the Indian cities. “What do we need to do? What are the features in a city that draws people to it?” he asked at the event organised by the Inno Group, a real estate investment multinational, to mark the launch of Inno BYC, an online forum for citizens to interact. Wealth creation, infrastructure, efficiency, culture and environment are among the prime features for a city, he said.

Hong Kong may not have a history dating centuries like London or New York. Five decades ago it was a fishing village, which is today a global financial centre. It is counted among the top cities globally, and most importantly, it is a city that is comfortable to live in, he said. Cities have traditionally been centres of economic growth. Look at where the money is coming from and build on it, create first-class facilities, is his advice. Hong Kong focused on its natural harbour and used the human resource skills from China.

Indian cities should emulate that concept. Assess the city's strength, be it information technology for Bangalore or some industries for Chennai. Build around that. Be it harbours or silk clothing, they need to be the best globally, Mr Bhagat said.

EFFICIENCY

Inadequate infrastructure can “irritate people on a daily basis.” Even a little improvement in basic needs, better water supply or public transportation makes people happy. A city has to be efficient, help to get work done fast or “people move out,” he said.

Take the paperwork here. How many times are people asked for address proof, and then that is followed up with personal verification which often doesn't work? Hong Kong continuously improves its systems. The moment something is irrelevant, there is a system of feedback and the systems change. So, every day there is some improvement.

Hong Kong used to be a corrupt place. But an Independent Council Against Corruption was set up, much like the Lokpal that is envisaged here. Preventing corruption isn't just to do with moral and ethical issues, which are doubtless important, but also a question of efficiency. Corruption fosters inefficiency.

“Any place that is corrupt won't excel. The best won't rise but the worst.”

How is it that after every rain the roads are washed away in Indian cities? Hong Kong has heavier rains but the roads aren't affected. They use appropriate technology.

SPACE FOR PEOPLE

If there is one area that Chennai can score more than Hong Kong it is culture, Mr Bhagat said. But Hong Kong is richer and attracts talent by providing space for it — literally. That is something Chennai needs — an ultra-modern space, a location for the public to gather and people to perform. The venues here don't match the available talent. “Without culture, what is a city?” he asked.

The environment, too, is a key factor. Every major city such as London or New York has a big park. “Try meddling with that space and see how the citizens react,” he asked. Nearly half the area of Hong Kong is given to greenery and flowing streams. Indian cities had parks in the olden days. Gurgaon is supposed to be swanky, but where are the public spaces and parks? It is so difficult to plan activities for children on weekends.

“Our city matters. This is our life. How we live depends on how our city lives. Give it the time. Give it whatever it takes,” was the message for the gathering.

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