On Janaagraha’s response to FoV’s critique of the ASICS survey

The Hindu had published Fields of View’s critique of the Annual Survey of India’s City Systems (ASICS report) by Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy. We had critiqued the survey at two levels — the methodology used and the broader framing. The critique of the methodology examined the survey design, the questionnaire, and the ranking. The critique of the framing looked at the broader frame the survey subscribed to, that of looking as a ‘city as a service’.

Janaagraha wrote a response to the critique that was recently published in The Hindu. Overall, Janaagraha’s response is more of an iteration of what the ASICS report does (which has already been explained in the report) instead of a substantive argument responding to FoV’s critique. In the post below, we provide our argument as to why that is the case by examining Janaagraha’s response in its entirety. The post is divided into five parts, and every part begins with Janaagraha’s response in italics and our argument follows.

Part 1

“Life in India’s cities is an urban nightmare that we just cannot wake up from. Potholed roads, garbage fires, flooding, traffic congestion, air pollution are daily bugbears that our citizens have been facing for decades, clearly indicating a systemic failure of governance in our cities. Fixing urban governance is key to fixing our cities, and hence the importance of diagnosing and measuring what’s broken in our governance. ASICS aims to do just that. ASICS is an objective evaluation of 23 Indian cities across 20 States on 89 questions, covering 150 parameters, and 3,900 points of investigation. It takes a systemic, data-driven approach towards urban governance. ASICS is a diagnostic tool indicating the health of urban governance systems in a city and therefore, its ability to deliver good quality of life in the medium to long term. The evaluation is based on the ‘City-Systems’ framework consisting of four distinct but inter-related components — spatial planning, municipal capacities (both human and financial), political leadership, and lastly transparency, accountability and participation. ASICS is based on the premise that fixing systems across all these components are critical to city governance.”

The beginning of Janaagraha’s response is about what the ASICS report does; there is no new information, either to clarify the methodology or the framing.

Part 2 

“One of the significant criticisms raised by the authors was that ASICS argues for ‘city as a service’ model. ASICS see quality of life comprising of two distinct but inter-related aspects — ‘quality of urban infrastructure and services’ and ‘quality of citizenship’. Thus ASICS is not about evaluating the relationship between the city and the citizen as one of service provider-client, but rather about the extent of ownership and empowerment of both the city government and the citizens in the running of the city. ASICS evaluates the extent of devolution and empowerment of our Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) and strength of formal institutional platforms, such as ward committees and area sabhas, for citizens to participate and actively engage with their government in line with the provisions of the 74th Constitution Amendment Act (CAA). ASICS looks at parameters such as mayoral tenure, powers of the council over staffing practices, voter turnout in municipal elections, and extent of functional devolution in practice. It examines availability of information on civic services, service levels, financial information, status of public works, revenue collections, spending, etc , all of which would enable citizens to gain a better understanding of the functioning of the ULB and make their engagement more objective and meaningful.”

Janaagraha claims that the ASICS report does not argue for a ‘city as a service’ model, contrary to what FoV’s critique claimed. The evidence Janaagraha offers is that the ASICS report evaluates the quality of citizenship too, and not just quality of infrastructure. There are two aspects to our response:


  1. As we mentioned in the critique, when engaging with the primary question of ‘Who is a citizen?’, there is an inherently limited notion of citizenship that the survey espouses. For example, to gauge citizen participation, there are questions on online information access. This question, by its very conception, excludes wide swathes of citizens who do not have access to online resources. Incidentally, even though mobile phone penetration is high in India, smart phone is not. In addition, cities need to contend with multiple literacy-levels, and diverse languages. Even a preliminary engagement with the complexity of citizenship, and the associated challenge for cities would mean the parameters used for evaluation have to be expanded.
  2. Though quality of citizenship is said to be a criteria on which ASICS evaluates cities, the way the criteria is conceived demonstrates that it is still within the ‘city as a service’ frame. Citizen participation does not translate to just providing feedback about services, which is what a customer does. The relationship of a citizen to the city is that of responsibility, of ownership, and of being a guardian and a partner of the city’s future.

Part 3

“ASICS is based on an analysis of relevant laws, policy documents and websites of city & State governments. One may argue about the unfairness of evaluating cities based on the quality of State legislation. But given India’s quasi-federal governance structure, where governance of cities lies in the domain of the State governments, the quality of urban governance is also a commentary on the quality of State legislation. As the report clearly indicates, to deliver good quality of life in urban India, reforms are required across all levels of government — Centre, State and the city government, with the king’s share to be undertaken by the State governments.”

Above is Janaagraha’s response to what the critique has pointed out as the ‘unfairness of evaluating cities based on the quality of State legislation’. Janaagraha agrees that India has a quasi-federal governance structure. Knowing this, we are puzzled as to the rationale for designing a survey that penalises cities for something that is not under their control, by their very admission. It is, again, conceptually unfair and therefore, not well designed.

Here is a snapshot from just one section showing different questions that evaluate the cities, while the power lies with the State.

A snapshot of the issues with questions in ASICS Survey by Janaagraha

Question No. in Evaluation CriteriaQuestionIssue
1Is there a provision for a state spatial planning board which is mandated with planning policies and reforms for the state, and is the final approving authority for regional and municipal SDPs ?TC&P Act is created through a state passed law, therefore, either awarding cities points or docking points from such a score is irrelevant.
2Does the Act require 3 levels of SDPs (master plans) for metropolitan cities: regional, municipal and ward(s) /localTC&P Act is created through a state passed law, therefore, either awarding cities points or docking points from such a score is irrelevant.
2a, 2b, 2c, 3, 3a, 3b, 3c, 4, 5, 6-TC&P Act is created through a state passed law, therefore, either awarding cities points or docking points from such a score is irrelevant.
7a, 7b-Plans are made by the relevant city development authority, to score the ULB (elected city council) on the timeline and validity is irrelevant
8a, 8b, 8c-Whereas 8 looks at a "clear decentralised procedure" for approval of plans, 8a, and 8b go onto scoring the ULB based on the state's actions.
9, 10TC&P Act is created through a state passed law, therefore, either awarding cities points or docking points from such a score is irrelevant.
11Do the SDPs reflect a stated articulation of future vision and development priorities?The stated objective is to look at "objective" parameters, whereas in the evaluation of this question, the ULBs are evaluated on a score of 10 based on if the SDP mentions metrics for the objectives. Also, these plans are created by the respective city development authority/agency.
12Do the SDPs at each level, integrate the plans and priorities of various sectoral public departments and agencies?
14Are there provisions in the act for modifications to notified SDPs?TC&P Act is created through a state passed law, therefore, either awarding cities points or docking points from such a score is irrelevant.
15Has an MPC been constituted?The state constitutes the MPC, why is the ULB being scored on this point? Under Article 243ZE, Constitution of India

The ‘Town and Country Planning Act’ is a law passed by State governments. Hence, using its features as a marker for a city’s governance and functional processes is unfair. It may be argued that documenting and evaluating such absences of this law (or certain features of it) will push cities to negotiate with the state government in order to improve their urban governance. However, this assumes a high level of city-state government synergy, and more importantly, an inherent value in strengthening the law. When a city such as Bangalore, which receives high focus from the state government, has been unable to push changes to the state law to improve its urban planning or governance, it would be a monumental task for other cities, which include non-capital cities, to press for the same. Further, Town and Country Planning Acts have mostly enabled urban planning to take place in a top-down approach through city development authorities in direct contravention of the spirit of the 74th Amendment to the Constitution.

Part 4

“As the authors have rightly pointed out, lack of capacities in urban local bodies is a huge hurdle which affects institutional aspects such as maintenance of accounts, budget preparation, audits, and aspects of service delivery such as approval of building plans, environment protection, road design etc. ASICS believes in fixing the City-Systems and identifies that gaps in financial and human capacity is a significant handicap in the ability of ULBs to deliver better quality of life to citizens in a sustainable manner. The author’s assertion that the ASICS report recommends outsourcing of many functions of the ULB appears to be a misreading of the recommendations. Firstly, ASICS suggests exploring options such as ‘outsourcing’ only in functions such as revenue collection where the lack of adequate number of field staff has severely impacted the ability of the ULBs to collect their dues. States like Jharkhand have demonstrated that engaging professional agencies through a transparent tendering process can help ULBs to plug the personnel gaps due to significant vacancies in Accounts and Revenue departments. States and ULBs must explore a gamut of options such as building a professional Municipal Cadre, facilitating lateral hires, to address the debilitating levels of vacancies in key departments.”

 At the outset, we wish to state that we are in full agreement that personnel gaps, and skill-based gaps have to be filled.

We argue it is not a misreading when our critique states that ‘ASICS report recommends outsourcing of many functions of the ULB’. In the recommendations section of the ASICS report (page 17 & 18 at http://janaagraha.org/asics/report/ASICS-report-2017-fin.pdf), “outsourcing” is mentioned five times as potential ways to fix the problem under ‘Urban Capacities & Resources’. One could argue that it is ‘only’ five out of seventeen recommendations, and therefore not the primary motive. Unfortunately, as researchers we do place these five recommendations in perspective with the other recommendations and the survey questions. A few questions that arise are, are these recommendations only possible because of this ‘objective’ survey or have these recommendations been made in the past (10, 20 or 30 years) by other groups without the benefit of such an ‘objective’ study? Are the other recommendations feasible and under what conditions? If these recommendations are implemented and the status quo does not change? Would the fall back then be to ‘outsource’?

In the spirit of debate and engagement, it is wonderful when a response leads to further questions just as it is futile if the state of debate does not progress.

Image 1 – A screenshot of the recommendations in the ASICS report, with all the recommendations to outsource highlighted.

Part 5

“The authors have evocatively questioned the choice of benchmark cities in the survey — London, New York and Johannesburg. The benchmark cities were chosen to evaluate the institutional and governance mechanisms within a democratic framework which enabled these cities to provide the high standards of services and infrastructure to be recognised as global hubs of opportunity and talent. Cities are economic growth drivers, innovation hubs, job creators and providers of social, cultural and educational opportunities. It is undisputable that New York and London are melting pots of culture and diversity and global engines of economic growth and prosperity. These are qualities that most cities aspire to have, and these cities are desired destination to live, work and play because of the underlying strong institutions, policies and processes by which they are governed. ASICS is not about pushing Indian cities to become a London or New York, rather it suggests looking at these cities and seeing what Indian cities can learn from them. ASICS underscores the importance of systemic approach to solving urban India’s challenges and recommends that all of us must collectively do what is necessary to strengthen our ULBs as institutions, and the systems and processes of their governance.”

Janaagraha’s response still does not provide any reasoning as to why “looking at these cities” (these cities being London, New York, and Johannesberg) to learn from them is more useful than looking at any other city – Buenos Aires, or Beijing. The reason we questioned this choice of the three cities as any form of benchmark continues to be the following:

“For instance, in Mercer’s Quality of Living Ranking of 2017, London is nowhere in the first 10 or even 20; its ranking is 40. In The Economist’s World’s Most Liveable cities, both London and New York are not in the top 10. The recent edition of the UN Habitat’s biannual ‘State of World Cities’ report says that ‘the most unequal cities in the region, and probably the world, are in South Africa’. If it is not about quality of life, what do London, New York, and Johannesburg stand for?”

The response from Janaagraha is: “It is undisputable that New York and London are melting pots of culture and diversity and global engines of economic growth and prosperity.” (emphasis ours)

For starters, this claim has been disputed by Mercer’s, by The Econonmist and by UN Habitat. Moreover, as we argued in our critique, the budgetary inflows for Indian cities are limited as property tax is the only major source of revenue. Not only is this not true for London and New York, the budgetary and regulatory environment is also completely different. Consider this snapshot of London[1], New York[2], Mumbai[3], and Bangalore[4]:

Comparison of London, New York, Mumbai and Bangalore

Population8.79 million (2016)8.55 million (2016)21.3 million (2016)11.5 million (2016)
Number employed by city council369,942(estd.)327,793 (2012)104000 (2017)18000 (2017)
Avg annual budget(last 3 years) US$31.5 billion (FY2014-2017)US$78.13 billion (FY2015-2018)US$4.9 billion (FY2015-2018)US$0.97 billion (FY2015-2018)
Sources of revenueRing-fenced education grants, Settlement funding assessment, council taxes, special and specific grants, HRAs, capital grants and receiptsBusiness taxes, capital IFA (Inter-fund agreements), Disallowance of Categorical Grants, Federal Categorical Grants, Miscellaneous Revenues, Other Categorical Grants, Other Taxes, Personal Income Tax,Real Property Tax, Sales Tax, State Categorical Grants, Unrestricted inter-governmental aidOctroi taxes and duty, property tax, various receipts, interests, grants, supervision charges, service charges, development chargesFees, fines, service charges, cesses, property taxes, recoveries, statutory deductions, GoI grants, GoK grants, interests
Avg exp on IT(LAST 3 YEARS) US$47.22 millionUS$515.4 millionUS$46 millionUS$160 million
Per capita (city council) employed0.042086689420.038338362570.0048826291080.001565217391
Per capita (city council) budget3583.6177479138.011696230.046948484.34782609




[1] http://ukpopulation2016.com/population-of-london-in-2016.htmlhttps://www1.nyc.gov/site/planning/data-maps/nyc-population/current-future-populations.pagehttps://data.cityofnewyork.us/City-Government/Expense-All-Funds/am45-6syqhttp://www.nyc.gov/html/dcas/downloads/pdf/misc/workforce_profile_report_12_30_2013.pdf, https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/gla_migrate_files_destination/2015-16MayorsCapitalSpendingPlan.pdfhttps://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/gla_migrate_files_destination/2015-16%20Final%20Budget.pdfhttp://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/sites/default/files/images/londoncouncils/LGFrevenuefundingfinallargge.JPG, http://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/node/4929http://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/sites/default/files/Policy%20themes/Local%20government%20finance/Total_Funding_15-16_01_0.jpg.

[2] ibid

[3]https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/bengaluru/citizen-services-likely-to-be-hit-as-bbmp-employees-set-to-protest-on-monday/articleshow/62973932.cms, http://bbmp.gov.in/documents/10180/2746234/Final+BBMP+Budget+Book+Revised+9-6-2017+-+Copy.pdf/377be30a-60e8-46de-89d8-6c4c67da8b53http://des.kar.nic.in/docs/Projected%20Population%202012-2021.pdfhttp://bbmp.gov.in/budgets.


[5] Appadurai, A. (1993). Number in the colonial imagination.

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