A few weeks ago, what seemed like just another land allotment announcement in Bangalore marked possibly the end of an era: the lily-white image of the IT sector. A clutch of the country’s premier IT services companies are being allotted land – hundreds of acres – near the upcoming Devanahalli airport.

There are many things that are wrong with this. For one, such decisions are being taken in a unilateral manner, without any consultation with the affected farmers or local governments concerned. Second, these land parcels are not being acquired through open-market transactions, at a fair price, but at artificially depressed prices because the government is using its right of “eminent domain”; this is regulatory arbitrage, a transfer of wealth from the farmer to the corporate. Third, decisions today are invariably ad-hoc, knee-jerk responses to specific situations when what is needed is a revamp of our planning processes.

Without sounding blithely prescriptive, a broad outline for such planning would have three components. At the most basic level, it must begin with timely and accurate data about a region’s demographics, employment and quality-of-life. No city in India currently provides real-time data on its employment profile by job-type, or housing starts, or cost-of-living indices. Beyond the data is the second issue: the purpose of data is to inform the decision-makers on the various choices facing the city; this requires analytical skills that are sorely lacking. Which leads to the third point: who are the decision-makers? In land itself, there are multiple players: the local governments, a metropolitan planning authority, an industrial development board, and the state government. This institutional maze leaves out the most important stakeholders: the occupants of the region themselves, from the citizens – across all spectrums, to business and trade, to technical experts and academics. Consultative processes for decision-making have been established in almost every major city in the world and examples abound. Unfortunately, no such institutionalised processes exist in India today.

So, even in this one limited issue, we are hobbled. The land deals cannot be seen in isolation; they are part of a larger tapestry of issues that plague local governance. And there is no political will for change. In fact, the resulting murkiness suits politics just fine: in this case, it provided the opportunity to muzzle the doyens of the middle-class and the media.

A corporate CEO would throw up her hands and say, “I just want to run my business. Tell me how I can get clear land title in a transparent manner, and I am ready to do it.” Unfortunately, expediency cannot replace due process. Reforms are not plug-and-play. They require debate, agreement on principles, definition of specific outcomes, formation of coalitions, and relentless leadership to effect change. In a country like India, engaging in such processes must be demanded at least of some, if not all, corporate leaders.

No city in India currently provides real-time data on its employment profile by job-type, or housing starts, or cost-of-living indices.
The land deals reflect the deeper links of globalisation to urbanisation. Saskia Sassen, the noted sociologist, talks of this “geography of globalisation” when she says, “Information industries require a vast physical infrastructure. Globalisation can be deconstructed in terms of the strategic sites where global processes materialize: export processing zones, off-shore banking centres, and, on a far more complex level, global cities.”

There is no denying the benefits of globalisation; however, there are also challenges. City economies are being dramatically altered within a matter of years, with old jobs giving way to new sectors. A study by the World Bank showed that London replaced 800,000 manufacturing job losses during the 70s and 80s with finance and business services. Similarly, 50 percent of the jobs in Buenos Aires changed from one sector to another within a single decade. What these cities have done is to build the mechanisms to respond: the availability of relevant data, the analysis to provide meaningful options, and the creation of participatory processes to direct change. Local stakeholders there may flinch at our praise, but their frame of reference is built on vastly greater expectations than our own.

For India, the waves of globalization are hitting us where we are least prepared, at the local level. This is the ground-reality of globalisation, where issues are most troublingly detailed: this is not about WTO or fiscal management or defense policy, this is about land-use and zoning, public works and environmental management, infrastructure and solid waste. This is not an intellectual exercise, it is a hands-on implementation challenge. And there is no pause button on the real-video stream of globalisation. The pace is relentless. If we don’t fix our local governance problems soon, we risk creating a host of aberrations. Mila Friere notes, “The consequences of globalization on city management, especially in conditions of weak public institutions and poor governance, have sometimes been dramatic. In several cases, the worsening of urban poverty and urban income inequality has been aggravated by the skewed allocation of resources in urban public investment.”

Knowing what needs to be done is only half the problem. The question is, “Who will bell the cat? Where will the momentum for change come from?” With the recent land deals in Bangalore, many of the IT giants have lost their moral currency. Here was a generation of business leaders who supposedly didn’t need anything from the political system: their customers were overseas, their raw material could not be held up at the checkpost. These business icons held in the palm of their hands the hopes of millions of ordinary citizens: a goodwill that, if they wanted to, could have been harnessed to create larger public good by pressing for reforms to create a more equitable, transparent and progressive public governance climate. Rather – individual exceptions apart - they have chosen to look out for themselves. This is tragic. And this is why it marks the end of an era.