Saturday, March 31, 2012

"Urban Growth Boundaries" check urban sprawl growth boundaries check urban sprawl
Urbanisation is a phenomenon that is closely linked to industrialisation and modernisation. More and more people are flocking to urban centres seeking well-being and prosperity. There is no gainsaying the fact that urban areas are centres of economic opportunities and growth, providing not only the wherewithal for survival but also prospects of self-actualisation and openings for satisfaction of the higher needs of human life. No wonder, worldwide a phenomenon that is called the “urban drift” is occurring and people are migrating from rural areas to urban centres seeking the “good life”.

The United Nations had projected that half the population of the world would be living in urban centres by 2008. That has indeed already happened. Around 74% people in developed countries now live in urban centres and 44% in less developed countries. It is a far cry from 1950 when only 30% of the population resided in towns and cities. In India, too, urbanisation has picked up pace, though rather belatedly. Through most of the decades after independence India was predominantly a rural country with an agrarian economy. Almost 80% of the population used to reside in the country’s villages. That, however, is changing. The 2011 Census has revealed that about 32% of the country’s 1.2 billion reside in urban areas which means migrations from rural areas have picked up during the last few years. In absolute terms, while 285 million people resided in Indian urban centres in 2001, in 2011 that number has inflated by more than a hundred million.

Rapid economic growth and a steadily rising population with the inevitable “urban drift” have created a situation that has prompted most of the urban centres to burst at their seams. All over the country cities and towns are growing, spreading out all around their cores in a haphazard manner, gobbling up farmlands and forests. Colonies – authorised or unauthorised – are being built, mostly devoid of civic amenities. Builders and developers are having a field day, constructing condominiums, self-contained colonies or gated complexes where the local bodies generally fail to extend civic services. Neither there are sewer lines nor are there water connections, making such colonies and complexes dependent on groundwater with all the economic and environmental consequences. Besides, for want of suitable public transport such unplanned growth has necessarily promoted use of personalised vehicles, fuelling their demand as also of precious imported oil – a non-renewable energy source – significantly contributing not only to its escalating price but also emission of the country’s greenhouse gases.

Newspapers every day carry advertisements with offers of flats of varying sizes, detached or semi-detached bungalows in plush surroundings. What is more, “aawas melas” (housing fairs) are held where crowds throng looking for their dream-houses. But all the ads or the propositions made at such fairs are for the well-heeled and the aspiring upper (and middle) classes who think nothing of investing half a million or more on a fancy house. There is nothing for the masses that are migrating into urban areas in millions, offering themselves as cheap labour or seeking opportunities for self-employment. Having no other alternatives, they indulge in slumming on the available vacant lands. In fact, Indian cities are not prepared to receive the economically weaker migrants from the country whose numbers are going to rise by about a hundred percent by 2030 when India is likely to become the world’s most populous country.

Even currently, urban India is struggling with the problems caused by uncontrolled outward spread of settlements that in their relentless advances eat up fertile farmlands and the environmentally useful forests. The rural inhabitants are induced to migrate into the urban agglomerates and their lands, if not built upon, are used as dumping grounds for wastes of the newly developed colonies/complexes – a process that has together been branded as “predatory” urbanisation. Be that as it may, the year 2030, therefore, holds out a frightful prospect before the country.

In order to restrict the urban sprawl a visionary set of laws has been enacted by several states of the US. The first was the state of Oregon which, enacting and enforcing laws for delineation of “Urban Growth Boundaries” (UGB), transformed its capital, Portland, into the greenest of cities in the country. The concept of UGB, essentially the antithesis of ad-hoc and predatory form of urbanisation, seems to hold an important lesson for the exploding Indian cities.

In a blog posted by her, Ishani Mehta, Urban Vision's Fellow at The Young Urban Leader Program working in Portland, says that by keeping urban development contained in a compact boundary UGBs promote more efficient land-use planning, along with an assurance for businesses and local governments about where to place basic infrastructure necessary for future development. Moreover, limited resources can be invested on making existing infrastructure more efficient rather than constantly building new capacity for an ever-expanding urban area.

She says that in Portland the metropolitan region is required by law to have a UGB that contains at least 20,000 acres (81 sq km) of vacant land, in addition to maintaining restrictions on the development of farmland. While land outside the boundary allows protection of forests and farmland, the land-use within the boundary supports urban services including roadways, water supply and sewerage systems, and other utilities that are conducive to compact and liveable urban communities. The state-wide planning law requires the city to maintain a 20-year supply of land for future residential development inside the boundary and also determine the requirement to maintain 20-year land supply for new jobs, thus allowing for sustainable economic expansion of the urban areas as well. An urban growth report is prepared every five years that analyses both the residential and employment needs of the region. If the report suggests need for expansion of UGB, it is considered, but only as a last resort. The metropolitan council, however, has powers under special circumstances to expand the UGB to meet immediate needs to provide lands for specific purposes that cannot be accommodated and cannot wait till the next urban growth report.

A time now seems to have come to halt India’s urban sprawl. Every small city seems to be enlarging itself to eventually become a metropolis and every metropolis a mega-polis, steam-rolling over everything that comes in their way – farmlands, hills, forests or whatever. Within their respective confines, people lead a miserable life owing to over-crowding, insanitation, environmental degradation, water scarcity, transport bottlenecks, and what have you. UGBs seem to provide a way out for reasonably restricting urban growth, fostering development of smaller cities, promoting more efficient use of scarce land, protection of rural economy, prevention of denudation of the country’s fast-disappearing forests and enabling people to live a healthy and fulfilling life.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

National Postal Policy - challenging the couriers

The Indian Postal System was in the news recently for something that appeared to be a little more positive. The Minister of Communications and IT, Kapil Sibal, is reported to have turned his focus on India Post, a department that also happens to be in his charge. He has done so none too soon though, as the department seems to have been sliding downhill rather rapidly despite vigorous efforts made by one of his predecessors, Jyotiraditya Scindia, to modernise post offices and introduce into them Information Technology.

Starting from the scratch, rejecting the departmental logo and introducing a new one, he devised the Project Arrow under which hundreds of post offices were done-up and computerised with a view to improving mail delivery, banking and other services. Soon, the department bagged in 2010 the PM’s award for excellence in public administration. However, the parameters on which the department was adjudged for the award are not known as the improvement that was sought to be brought about in the quality of service largely remained unachieved. Scindia was taken off the ministry even as the Project initiated by him was in the process of implementation. And, therefore, as normally happens in the government, it lost steam.

Now Sibal is talking of a national postal policy which, apparently, will spearhead action to “take on” the couriers and to introduce in more-than-a-century-old Post Office Savings Bank (POSB) most of the banking operations that are carried out by regular banks. While bestowing on POSB the status of a regular bank will have to be decided upon in consultations with several other departments of the government of India and its agencies, action to meet the challenge posed by private couriers will have to be stepped up by none other than India Post.

At the outset, Sibal may have to look for the weaknesses that enabled the private couriers to make significant inroads into the preserve of India Post. The most important reason would seem to be the want of quality in the performance of the department in so far as mail delivery is concerned. Over the years the plummeting standards of performance left the field wide open for couriers to troop in. The department could very well cite exogenous reasons for the same, but many were the ones that could be attributed to its own lack of initiatives.

Time was when the Indian postal system was acknowledged as one of the finest in the world in this regard. Although working in a monopolistic environment it had that in-built system of monitoring mail handling to ensure quality that was coupled with a spirit of rendering service to the community. With all 1st class mails being flown down to the closest air terminal of destinations without any surcharge (not prevalent even in the West) and in-train sorting of letter mail on almost all railway routes, the department developed an unique capacity to reach most of the letters to distant destinations within 48 hours. On occasions letters would reach faster than the then-prevalent telegrams. The ‘60s, ‘70 and ‘80s were its glorious decades.

Later, unfortunately, the needs of the Railways came to the fore. With a view to enhancing their passenger carrying capacity they summarily did away with the coaches in which mail used to be sorted piece by piece. And, later speeding up of trains on the same old shaky tracks made such sorting impossible, anyway, taking that edge away from the department that ensured quality. Soon thereafter the country witnessed convergence of IT and telecommunications with the help of the World Wide Web that acted as a midwife to give birth to an era of instant communications. To start with, it was e-mail by which one could exchange messages containing texts, images, and videos with multiple addresses. While e-mail was initially restricted only to those who had access to computers, the cell phone put the means of instant communication into the hands millions of those who had just a palm-sized handset. With the advent of “smartphones”, technology has put virtually a portable computer in the hands of the people with facility, inter alia, of sending and receiving e-mails and conversing over long distances. Once “cyberspace” became the medium of instant communication conventional messaging, known now as “hard messaging”, had to take a hit.

And it did. The volume of mail traffic in India fell to 6,677.18 million pieces in 2006-07 from the figure of 15,749.30 million in 1997-98 – a hit of severe proportions. Internationally too, there were clear signs of the Internet eating into postal systems. Statistics provided by the Universal Postal Union (UPU) show that between 2008 and 2009 domestic mail volumes were globally down 12 per cent. Obviously, the World Wide Web had a worldwide impact and India Post was not alone in losing its “bread & butter” business.

With the sharp decline in traffic, India Post virtually threw in the towel. Instead of aggressively trying to trap the traffic captured by the progressively consolidating courier industry, it drastically downsized its mail establishment adversely impacting its efficiency. Whatever mail it received – mostly the documents, periodicals and other 2nd class stuff – got horribly delayed in delivery. Even the department’s answer to couriers, the EMS Speedpost, could not match its potential because of lack of manpower and, of course, that kind of agility which is needed to compete with private operators.

No wonder people lost confidence in it. Predictably, the couriers moved in, capturing the traffic originating from corporations, banks and other sundry mailers. They seem to be cashing in on the reported “exponential” growth in mail volumes unleashed by the country’s rapid economic growth and widespread use of the very same technology that hit the department hard. IndiaKnowledge@Wharton, an online resource, found that Pitney Bowes, a mail-management service-provider, is bullish about India finding in it, inter alia, “... rapid increase in cell phone subscriber-base, statement-based credit and debit card usage, and computerized billing by utilities” suggesting an upward trend in mail traffic. Only it was escaping the departmental radars.

One would therefore tend to think it is not a policy that is necessary to “take on” the couriers. What is needed is revamping of the system with proper, pragmatic staffing and a new work-culture that is committed, agile and vigilant to raise the standards of performance by several notches. The Post Office is synonymous with mail (including its express variety); all its other activities, even those related to social and financial sectors, are only add-ons. It is, therefore, imperative for it to take steps to revitalise its mail delivery system to re-inspire confidence among its users and give the couriers a run for their money.