A Competition So Funny!



My Professor Friend called me early morning and asked me come to Delhi by the earliest flight. I asked him why? And he said – This is a call from the Union Minister of Environment & Forests & Climate Change (MoEFCC). He is looking for ideas from us on how to improve quality of life of people in Urban India. I told him that together you and I will come up with something innovative – something never done in the World – and help India.

When we reached Union Ministers office, we realized that he was waiting for us rather impatiently.  “I want to bring in a change in Urban India – with all these problems of air pollution, poor drinking water quality and fires at the waste dump sites, the situation is getting simply worse. Despite several orders issued, updating of laws and regulations, there is simply no improvement or a change. The municipal corporations and pollution control boards continue to function as  if their institutions consist of only buildings and with no people inside. Only happening change is that commissioners move out and so the member secretaries. I tried introducing green city/clean city/sustainable cities awards and campaigns to showcase good practice examples. But this has not worked. No one believes in these awards and the claims made by the city heads and data reported is always put in questions. Most City heads say “don’t tell me what Navi Mumbai or Pune city is doing as these things are simply not relevant to us” So I am really frustrated. Please help”

We thought the Minister was right. Good examples often don’t work – although we all feel they should. Generally, same cities continue getting such awards giving no opportunities to others. We told the Minister that we will come up with an innovative plan but on a condition that he will not question us and provide a full support with no budget restrictions. The Minister agreed – though hesitantly.

As soon as we returned to Mumbai, we designed a new form of competition amongst cities in India. The Competition was titled “Cities of Today that Will Lead Future India”.

We were looking for the dirtiest Indian cities of today with most poor management and not the cities that have been performing good or better. There was no point to focus on good ones as there were only handful. It was important to recognize the bad ones who can show what’s possible in future India. Here we thought we will receive a large number of applications.

The criteria for award was formulated accordingly. See Table 1.

[Table 1 is only an illustration and a detailed criteria with more variables and a clear basis of scoring was posted on the website of MoEFCC.  Worse is the city, more scores were to be attached.]

One month was given to e-file the application with attachment of photographs showing examples of callousness, filth, morning haze etc. and a PDF of public complaints received and action not taken


Table 1 – Criteria for the Competition “Cities of Today that Will Lead Future India”

Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Total dumping area per person ; percent increase over last 5 years

Maximum height of the Dump

Number of uncontrolled fire incidences in the dump areas

Other Wastes Biomedical waste not adequately handled and mixed with MSW

C&D Waste that is simply dumped

E-Waste that reaches the landfill

Air Quality Average Air Quality Index and extent of violations over the “Standard”

Specific parameter like PM10 and importantly viable count on the particles reflecting impact of open defecation (something we added to reflect gravity of the situation)

Water Water availability (hours of supply and quantity), Water quality at the taps
Urban Floods Floods managed terribly leading to loss of life, damage to infrastructure and spread of diseases
Natural ecosystems Mangroves destroyed, lakes polluted and infringed upon, Trees felled
Noise Noise profile across the city with Max values Day and Night averages – Exceedence over standards
Public complaints Public complaints received and that remain unattended


The award scheme was kept very attractive. The Lead city (actually the worst performer!) with the first rank would get a grant of 1000 million INR from the Center, second in rank will get INR 800 and the third performer will have INR 500 million. The cities could use this fund to plug the gaps and address the infrastructure and institutional deficiencies. Grant was to be provided with no audit requirements to expedite actions. [We later realized that  the interest from city heads was to look at this grant as an opportunity to launder money through innovative contracting mechanisms – hand in glow with equipment suppliers, contractors and NGOs. Well, we suspected this but realized that this also could be an example of another form of leadership!]

An announcement of such a novel award scheme led to a lot of discussion in the city administration. The Chief of Mumbai Corporation was very pleased and told his colleagues – Good timing, we just had this massive fire at the Deonar Dump that we were successful in not managing well. This can be cited as a good example”. The Chief of Delhi Corporation called a meeting of his colleagues at Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) and asked for last 5 years data on rising air pollution in Delhi. I really want to see graphs that will show a steep rise over the years and that we did nothing. We must show that we lead in this arena”.  Chief of Chennai Corporation was joyous – he said “We have an excellent story to tell about the recent Chennai floods where despite early warning we did nothing and never built adequate storm water management infrastructure”.  Those who listened this felt real proud of this achievement.  Chief of Bangalore city said I think we will be the winner on the count of mess we have done with our lakes – This is something unique but we must give equal credit to the Bangalore builders and our approach to private sector participation.

Everyone was thus keen to highlight the achievements made over past 5 years. All got busy filing the application. Some cities hired management consultants like PwC, KPMG, E&Y, and Delloite etc. who are good to produce elegant reports – nice English and nice fonts. “Let us invest in consultants”, Chief of city of Ahmedabad said in a vibrant tone. Hiring consultants was expected because most cities do not write reports on their own. Someone else writes.

When we received more than 100 applications, I was worried. I called my Professor Friend. He said not to worry – I have already set up a committee of retired IAS officers who used to manage cities (and terribly so) and who have a lot of time to spare.

“But Professor, why such an overwhelming response? I do understand the interest in money laundering but don’t you think that the citizens in these cities should simply bar or dissuade their city heads to even file such an application. It’s a shame if the city you live gets awarded under this scheme” I said.

The Professor smiled. “So you don’t know the real reason for this rush! You missed that in the award the additional incentive I added– The cities that will get awarded, will get a special tour of 15 days to take the “Team” to see various other cities. First prize gets the Americas, Second one Europe and third to Asia-Pacific. The tour will be fully sponsored (with shopping allowance) and designed such that it will appear technical with learning and experience sharing objectives. Compared to going to tours to Andaman or Lakshadweep, such lavish tours will prove to be an incentive of worth to ensure that application is made. The Team will consist of environmental NGOs and media who are otherwise critical to such “learning tours”.

Apologies Dr Modak. I did not tell you this in advance” – Professor lit his cigar and took a deep puff.

I said “I am now really excited to see the results. And I am sure the Union Environmental Minister will be pleased. Indeed, we have a bright future ahead for cities we live in”

(Cover image sourced from http://demosphere.com/2015/07/what-does-it-take-to-be-competitive/)




  1. Humor at its best- alas! with subtle reality.
    Some are wise. How about others? They are “other”wise.
    Reminds me of a seminar in 1990 in Public administration dept of Raj Univ on “role of local govt in environ management”. A question was asked by someone in the audience from a paper presenter “What are the provisions in the Indian constitution to plug the ozone hole?”. The Chairperson interjected saying that the question was not justified as “the seminar is on role of local govt and not on Indian govt that makes the constitution”.
    These things will keep happening as we at all levels are alike.
    Sorry Prof Modak, exceptions like you do not exist.

  2. True. As they say in Hindi “Gayi Bhains Paani mein”. In English – Operation Successful but Patient is Dead!! I’m reminded of an Ex GIDC Project Division head who’s office was in-charge of laying a water supply pipeline from the intake in a river to an important Industrial estate in Gujarat. They did not hire any consultants to prepare the DPR, tender docs etc. The entire project was executed from concept to commissioning by their division, that too faster than that of another similar pipeline by a large Indian Engineering Navratna organization (from the same intake point) and parallel to GIDCs. Municipal Corporations have Engineers in various departments who have the requisite skills, competency. As in other aspects of life, we often ignore what we already have!!

Leave a Reply