Do Pune and Mumbai genuinely deserve tags of most liveable cities?

Expansive, smooth roads where vehicles glide smoothly, broad, spotlessly clean pavements for scurrying pedestrians and a reliable, comfortable public transport system moving millions daily – we Indian city dwellers don’t nurture such far-fetched dreams.

We are also well aware that our wish for planned residential spaces, abundant green public parks and garbage-free city will probably never see the light of the day.

And when politicians promise us uninterrupted water and power supply and state-of-the-art healthcare and educational facilities we are used to taking it with a pinch of salt.

Waterway in Melbourne city

So, when Pune recently grabbed the top score in a liveability index, a first such in India prepared by the Union Housing and Urban Affairs Ministry, it piqued my curiosity.

I learnt that various parameters were used. Those covered overall governance and healthcare, education and transportation facilities. Safety and security, economy, pollution control, waste management, water and electricity supply, public parks, housing and inclusiveness were factored in too.

Pune was trailed by Navi Mumbai and Greater Mumbai in the second and third position.

All these, unfortunately, failed to excite me, a denizen of Pune. Far from it instead, it got me questioning the rationale behind such an exercise by shattering my notions of a truly liveable city.

Is it meant to induce healthy competition among cities to perform better on the various fronts by setting a benchmark? If so what is that benchmark, or an ideal city as per Indian standards? Are Pune, Greater Mumbai and Navi Mumbai really worthy of the top slots? Most importantly, would such a rating finally egg them to become world class cities a la Tokyo, Dubai, New York, Sydney, Singapore, Melbourne and so on? Or would it simply end up becoming just another rigged, farcical report with no practical usefulness?

Coming back to Pune, true it steals a march over most cities when it comes to the quality of life. Crime rate is low, traffic snarls rarely that acute, severe water logging mostly unheard of and waste management slightly better. But then it also has a very manageable population of 3.5 million. Compare it with Bengaluru’s over 10 million, Delhi’s 18.6 million and Mumbai’s staggering 22 million.

Given this, shouldn’t the city have fared much better? After all, its score just reached the halfway mark – 58.11 out of 100.

The number of vehicles (around 3.62 million) plying on Pune’s streets surpasses its population indicating how woefully inadequate its public transport system is. Potholes pepper craggy roads and traffic snarls at peak hours are common. Indefinite power outages are still the bane of summers and monsoons. Garbage lies rotting by roadsides with just a handful of dustbins and the river called Mula-Mutha running through the city is highly polluted and biologically dead.

So much for the city’s bagging the second position in pollution control and solid waste management!

The smart city initiative meant to give Pune a hi-tech makeover too has hit a roadblock with fund crunch.

Mula-Mutha river flowing through Pune

The pet peeves, however, are not exclusive to Punekars like me. Mumbai denizens, who saw their city grab the tops slots, also feel the ground reality is a far cry from the what the ranking indicates. For instance, the open spaces per capita does by no means match the standards set and yet the megapolis grabbed the foremost spot in the open spaces category!

I wonder like million others where our tax money goes!

My heart sinks in despair every time I draw a comparison with cities of Singapore, Melbourne or Sydney having similar population size as Pune. Or New York, Tokyo and Shanghai which are as densely populated as Mumbai, Bengaluru or New Delhi. Our cities haven’t accomplished a fraction of what these model cities have.

Let alone the top-notch smart cities, even populous cities in developing Asian nations, namely Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Hanoi, Manila, Phnom Penh and Bangkok score much better when it comes to public transport, waste management and education and healthcare. All the aforementioned made their way to a recently released list of 140 cities prepared by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Vienna took the cake with a “near-ideal” 99.1 out of 100. Melbourne and Japanese city Osaka made it to the second and third positions with equally impressive scores.

None of the cities in India, the world’s fastest economy, made the cut.

Until that happens, does it really make sense for us to have a “liveability index?” When our urban centres can’t even fulfil the basic criteria, does such an exercise hold much water? Shouldn’t our leaders double down on achieving the bare minimum first before painting pictures of smart cities?