Commonwealth Games, a failure of "just-in-time" planning

Delhi debacle is a warning to urban planners.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, businesses across the world experimented with a system of product assembly known as "just-in-time" production. By sourcing parts "just-in-time" for their final assembly, these companies were able to cut inventory costs, leading to leaner, more competitive industry.

Cities competing for global investments have been experimenting recently with a model of what we might call "just-in-time" planning, a process in which decisions are made at the last minute, or in extreme instances, when projects have already begun.

The Commonwealth Games debacle is an example of this 'just-in-time' planning.

Over the past decade, Delhi -- which hosts the Games as they open today -- has been one big construction site, with billions of dollars each year pouring into new roads, shopping malls, apartments and now the Commonwealth Games. Yet, with a conspicuous absence of maps, figures, and other records of land use - once considered standard tools of urban planning - it is impossible to keep track of this urban change.

In 2006, I asked a top planner in the Delhi Government what method he used to survey the city for the newly updated master plan. He replied, "We didn't do a survey. Well, we did a 'windshield survey': I sent some engineers out in cars and had them look [around]... We know what needs to be done without having to survey. We know what a world-class city should look like."

In the excitement about Delhi's self-proclaimed transformation into a "world-class city", planning has come to mean facilitating developments that contribute to an imagined "world-class" future, even if they violate existing laws. As long as these projects appear "world-class", the government is rarely questioned: everyone understands that 'world-class' deadlines do not wait for debate.

"Just-in-time" planning creates ambiguity regarding how land can be used. Planners can now weigh up the advantages of, for example, placing a school or a shopping mall on the same lot. While educators wait patiently for a school to be approved, government planners can always hold out in case a private developer presents a more compelling proposal. In terms of local government revenue and macroeconomics, the private developer makes more sense. Indian economic growth depends disproportionately on investment -- according to the Indian Government, it was responsible for 40 per cent of GDP growth in 2007 (in the UK it was only 18 per cent). Sustaining growth therefore requires continually presenting favourable investment opportunities.

In theory most policies and laws in India prevent projects that are outside the public interest, but the "just-in-time" approach allows planners to exceed the limits of their own regulations.

By launching projects before any semblance of regulatory oversight begins, they can use the urgency of the deadline to overcome rules and sanctions. The decision on where to locate the Commonwealth Games Village is a clear example of this. In 2004, the Supreme Court of India ordered the demolition of the homes of more than 150,000 slum residents for occupying the ecologically fragile Yamuna River floodplain.

Soon after this environmental precedent was set, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) decided to build the Commonwealth Games Village on the Yamuna just downstream from the demolished slums. Two DDA-commissioned scientific studies found its proposal 'unviable' with potentially 'catastrophic consequences' for the floodplain. But, by the time the DDA sought government approval, construction was already underway.

When a court case challenging the construction was finally heard in 2008, the Supreme Court noted the need to complete the Village in time for the 2010 Games and claimed, contrary to evidence, that 'the Commonwealth Games Village site is not on a riverbed or the floodplain.'

Under the logic of "just-in-time" planning, the urgency of becoming world-class allows political leaders and planners to invoke exceptional powers, requiring exceptional sacrifice from the public and exceptional investment by the state.

It is on this basis that money for healthcare and education is diverted to bankroll bridge-building and the most expensive Commonwealth Games ever. It is also on this basis that Commonwealth Game workers are paid below minimum wage, multi-generational slums are demolished and illegal malls approved.

The Commonwealth Games crisis does not signal an absence of planning, as most commentators have noted. Instead, it is a symptom of an ad-hoc mode of planning, which extends the state's powers. Like businesses experimenting with 'lean' and flexible inventories in the past, cities around the world have adopted lean and flexible planning to gain competitive advantage.

As the images of unprotected Commonwealth Games workers on 12-hour shifts show, "just-in-time" is not always time enough.

Dr. Asher Ghertner has been researching urbanization in India for the past six years and is Lecturer in the Department of Geography and Environment at the London School of Economics.

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war