Singapore and Indian Cities

orchard-road-singaporeI was in Singapore for a few days during my winter vacation. Sandwiched between two weeks in India and a week in Thailand, the contrast between Singapore and these two third world Asian countries could not have been starker. As we all know, a few decades back all three countries were equally under-developed. Today Singapore is an advanced economy and continues to grow (though not in 2009) led by an enlightened government.

The contrast between India and Singapore is a source of great frustration to the many Indian-born executives who work in Singapore. They can see how better governance has made what Singapore is today, while poor governance has left India far, far behind. Some will admit that the comparison is not apt – Singapore is a small state with an authoritarian government while India is a huge democracy. But most know that these are but excuses. Some think that perhaps India has too vibrant a democracy and that what we need is a benevolent dictator to clean up the mess.

I don’t think we can or should tamper with our form of government. Perhaps one day we will get a good leader who has broad appeal across the country and who will get a mandate that will allow him or her to rule the country without pandering to special interests and coalition partners. But until then I’ll take my chances with a mediocre but democratically elected government. We might trundle along instead of making rapid progress, but at least we won’t slide backwards towards Pakistan or worse, Myanmar.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t borrow some lessons from Singapore. The way to look at Singapore is not as a country but as a city. As a city it is a shining model of urban planning and development. At 4.84 million its population will put it at 10th position, if it was an Indian city. At that size, its problems and their solutions were very much the same problems that the leading Indian cities face. However, what is vastly different is the power that the government of Singapore wields and the power that the governments of Indian cities have. They are essentially at different ends of the spectrum. The government of the city of Singapore has all powers, including some that an Indian city won’t need like defence and running a central bank. A large Indian city will have elected officials but the Municipal Corporation is run by a Commisioner who is appointed by the state government.

Nandan Nilekani writes on his blog Imagining India

…our cities have been passive and subordinate to the state governments. The bulk of city taxes are collected by the state and central governments and administration is dominated by state run agencies. And with local authorities powerless and unaccountable to citizens, city infrastructure has neared collapse.

The reasons why Indian cities starting with the largest ones need more autonomy are clear:

  • Indian cities are and increasingly will be where the economy will grow. Ignore them and we will remain a low-income agrarian economy.
  • The problems of large Indian cities are quite distinct from the issues in small cities and the hinterland. It is not just possible, it is highly probable that state governments are elected by the hinterland while doing nothing (or worse) for the city.
  • Size and complexity demands more decentralization of powers. India is amazingly centralized compared to say the US which is comparable in size (though lower in complexity). New York City elects its own Mayor who runs nearly all public services in New York. The state levies its own income tax, something that even state governments don’t do in India.

The reason why large Indian cities are not given their autonomy is also quite clear. It is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for a state politician. Real estate rackets, protection rackets, liquor rackets, octroi rackets – they are all urban in nature. If the state government were to cede control of their large cities to city governments, the pickings would be slim in the rest of the state.

I came upon this website which is called City Mayors and is about urban government around the world. A quick glance through it will confirm what you already know – India has some of the largest cities in the world, but its weakest form of urban government. In fact, rural government in India has greater powers than a city government.

This must change if we are to make anything of our cities. And we need to do something about our cities if we even aspire to be more like Singapore one day.


  1. Absolutely right. As more and more people move from villages to towns and cities, there is no mechanism in our larger cities to work out their own problems. Politicians do not pay much attention to development of large cities except during elections when the slum dwellers need to be mobilized for voting. Ok..a few flyovers are built too. And yes, renaming a city, that’s when they really come into play.

    A CEO for a city has worked well in cities as large as our Indian cities (New York, London) and in smaller ones.

    Full autonomy may not happen immediately and we may not have the single minded focus and discipline to make it happen. As it is, the larger cities have gone beyond breaking point and it’s a miracle they are still standing. But is partial autonomy feasible? I wouldn’t be able to hazard a guess as to where the autonomy should end, but piloting this in a few smaller but growing cities (Tier 2/3 cities) would be a great start. Or maybe in the satellite towns that have sprung up in the last few decades around the larger cities.

    Our politicians may not sway to cries of “Do it like Singapore or London” but how long can they afford to ignore it when the nearby town is well managed.


  2. smitha says:

    It is little india in the photo.

    Apart from urban planning and governance, a much bigger factor that is missing in Indian cities is the attitude shown by it’s inhabitants who care little abd abuse their surroundings.

    It’s so much of a circus to cross a road in Bangalore with never ending honking, where as it is breeze in much crowded little India.

    I believe, a lot depends on the attitude of people, and how they respect their place.


  3. Satya says:


    I agree with your thought and it is the right way, but it is impractical in the Indian context!


    Once has been tried by one politician at Center when he told that Mumbai be governed by a CEO. Next day, the local politicians from Mumbai threatened him with dire consequences. Now if you ask the same politician to make the same change for Chennai, then I think the politician along with other local political parties will be the first one to oppose, which makes him/them a pseudo! He/they will not favor the same change in his locality considering his/their interests. And I need not tell that nobody believes a pseudo intention.

    Actually, in my living memory I can not think of a single political leader who was treated as their own in every state since Indira Gandhi. Only a pan-Indian leader with collective support of the nation can initiate a right movement as all people will perceive them to be fair. But then, you have very much noted that.

    The fact is:

    In India, 3 divisions rule the roost – Language Division, Caste Division, and Religion Division And I am sure it will continue to do so as the current “enlightened” generation is not much different: any matrimonial site which can be treated as a window to the future, will prove that. So idea that highly populous cities to be self governed is not going to happen in the near or medium term. This year’s election will also produce similar political potpourri at the center with more fragmentation. Beating it all, we and our leaders (byproduct of us) are very good at arousing passion based on language/state based divisions… well some call it – pride!


  4. Basab says:


    Nothing worthwhile is easy to achieve. On the other hand I don’t think this is impossible.

    It is generally acknowledged that our cities are crumbling. If the Panchayati Raj bill was introduced for decentralizing power to elected officials in the villages, why can’t we expect that in the cities as well? I am not saying that an unelected CEO should run Mumbai. I am not even saying that Mumbai should be carved out as a separate state or UT. All that we need to do to make a beginning is devolve powers from the state to an elected government in cities. Some cities will continue to elect inept, corrupt pols to power. Others will get better government and will leap ahead. In twenty years if we can get 10 Singapore like cities, we will become a very different nation. The shortest path to economic progress lies through our cities.


  5. Bharat Rao says:

    Just take a look at Bangalore. There is the Bangalore Development Authority for ‘new’ development and the Bangalore Municipal Corp (BBMP) for existing development. There is also something called BMRDA for outskirts. The regular and traffic police report to their own masters in the state government. Water is the responsibility of BWSSB. There is the BMTC which operates local buses and KSRTC for inter-city – both of which have their own leadership. The Railways, of course, report to their masters in Delhi. Then there is the utility agency – BESCOM – and the phone company – BSNL. The metro rail is being managed by BMRTL. The national highways in the city fall under NHAI (with masters in Delhi). There are also private roads managed by consortiums (such as “NICE”). Then there is an organisation called KIADB for indistrial development. Of course, there are the public-private partenrships like ABIDE.

    I am not necessarily questioning the existence of this many agencies. But it is only too well known that there is a co-ordination problem and a fiefdom problem. Roads dug, paved and then dug again are a phenomenon only too frequently seen. Do the respective agencies get onto a conference call every Monday morning to review ongoing projects and spot potential conflicts? My guess is no. In fact, I very much doubt that productivity saving tools such as conf calls and emails are used in city and state administrations : More than an irony for the IT capital. Is the solution to get them all to report to a Rudy Guliani like “czar”? Maybe.

    On the bright side, there are some e-governance initiatives that are catching on. getting bus and train tickets is very simple online or in-person. Some other services – such as getting birth records – are also easy. My dad could get mine from a “Bangalore One” centre for 25 rupees (About 50 cents) in 15 minutes. If only such things can be replicated on a larger scale and were teh rule rather than the exception.Creating a mechanism to induct provate sector employees laterally into city, state and national administrations might help. Sadly, one doesn’t now.


  6. Satya says:


    Thats an unique thought – “In twenty years if we can get 10 Singapore like cities, we will become a very different nation”. And I fully agree.

    However, with my experience (I have stayed in 7 states of India so far), it still looks difficult. Among Indians, the feeling of One India is very much there, but the narrow
    minded regional feeling is very strong compared to that. And it very much exploited by regional political leaders.

    Panchayati Raj Bill was altogether a different ball game and happend when we had still a single party majority and above all, it did not hurt the pockets of our leaders – the various rackets that you have mentioned. Increasingly, the center is pushed/pulled in various directions by regional parties for their own narrow gain.

    The only silver lining is educated people who live in the “metro” cities, if they can see the big picture for their own benefit and voice it strongly.

    In similar lines, I can bet that if you start talking of privatization of railways, airlines or some portion of defence sector etc; some politicians will sing a new tune or worse, next day your website may be shut down/banned (well I hope that the later one never happens!).


  7. Basab says:


    The hodge podge of city agencies that you speak of are not only uncoordinated but what is worse, none of them are accountable to the people of Bangalore. Rudy Guiliani may have been what he was as a leader (though most admit that he fixed the law and order situation in New York, for one), but you have to separate the governance structure and the role of the Mayor of New York from the personality. The Mayor of New York has authority over the police, firemen, schools, roads, sanitation and has a huge budget that comes from property taxes, sales tax and income tax (yes there is a New York city income tax). 80% of the US lives in its cities. Developed nations around the world have predominantly urban populations. They thrive because their cities work and work well.

    To make a beginning we have to make some fundamental changes to the governance of cities.It is not just that all these agencies should report to one office, it is that the person in that office should be elected by the people of the city and none other.


  8. […] and Basab Pradhan in his "Singapore and Indian Cities" proposes […]


  9. Dip says:

    Hi Basab,
    Have you visited Bhubaneswar lately? I was positively surprised to see last month after a gap of 2.5 years. The BMC commisioner is a household name and I can't count the no of times I heard her name on road. A city which was built well planned had started to follow regular route of its bigger Indian cousins but atleast this time looked well on track again. Well they had the BMC elections last month after a while and now they have elected body with mayor etc. I don't know what I will see in my next visit.


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