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Data famine! How do Indian cities compare, compete and drive growth? May 9, 2012

The plethora of rankings for cities done in the UK, US and Europe is astonishing! I read this post recently that highlights how confusing these multiple ranking are for citizens and government alike. The author urges Mayors to find their own, more meaningful ways to measure how successful their cities are in comparison with competitors. In India, we don’t even have one! (Read this for a peep into global city comparisons)

A couple of years ago, I was part of a team that brought out a City Competitiveness Report for Indian cities. We ranked some 40 odd Indian cities and analyzed them for competitiveness using using the Porter’s Diamond as developed in Harvard by Michael Porter. The study used only hard government data collated from various sarkari organizations. We needed to collect this data for hundreds of indicators, which was a flabbergasting and frustrating exercise. I remember the despairing hours our research assistants spent…and very time we had to face the ultimate truth- that in many instances, the data did not exist!

This sad lack of data does not allow any decent rankings to be made for Indian cities. There is better data available for districts and for States, since these have been strongly¬† functional administrative units for decades. But cities have no defined form yet in the Indian data jungle, it seems! Nor do most Indian cities have distinct identities, visions for their own future…a far cry from the West, where each city screams out its identity, brands itself, advertises its attractions, competes for business.

Why do we need rankings? Well, to create a climate of competition that will, hopefully, drive cities to evolve more distinct identities than simply follow the latest trend (IT parks, for example, were set up indiscriminately all over the country when the IT boom happened). Rankings create media hype, they influence investors to look at cities more closely for what they are best suited for, they influence citizens and more importantly, they influence job-seekers and corporations to choose specific cities that rank high in terms of quality of life (which includes factors like educational opportunities, environmental quality, safety, cost of living and many others).

To create a meaningful ranking for Indian cities, however, would mean to first create authentic data. That would mean to develop a clear understanding of city boundaries and jurisdictions, set up institutions to collate data, analyze it and share it. Sounds like a dream for a country whose municipalities have empty coffers, are unable to meet the current demands for infrastructure and services even as they desperately need to plan for additional capital expenditure to service their growing population!

Catch-22? Oh yes? Urbanization is sending this nation into a tizzy! To contribute to national growth, cities need to compete. To do so well, they need to compare themselves. To compare, they need data. Back to square one! Why would defunct city governments spend resources on collecting data?

Obliquely, the JNNURM tried to address this by linking funding to reforms that also required accounting reforms, reporting, etc. But that’s an area where the mission has all but failed. Where do we go from here?


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