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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Is Scottish Labour on the way back, or heading for civil war?

There are signs of life, but also recriminations.

The extraordinary rise of the Scottish Tories and the collapse in SNP seat numbers grabbed most of the headlines in the recent general election. Less remarked on was the sudden, unexpected exhalation of air that came from what was thought to be the corpse of Scottish Labour.

In 2015, Labour lost 40 of its 41 Scottish seats as the SNP rocketed from six to 56, was wiped out in its Glaswegian heartlands, and looked to have ceded its place as the choice of centre-left voters – perhaps permanently – to the Nationalists. But while the electorate’s convulsion in June against the SNP’s insistence on a second independence referendum most benefited Ruth Davidson, it also served to reanimate Labour.

The six seats grabbed back (making a total of seven) included three in the West of Scotland, proving that the Nat stranglehold on Labour’s territory was not quite as secure as it had seemed. There is, it appears, life in the old dog yet.

Not only that, but the surprise success of Jeremy Corbyn across the UK has stiffened Labour’s spine when it comes to insisting that it, and not the SNP, is the rightful home of Scotland’s socialists.

Corbyn was largely kept south of the border during the election campaign – Kezia Dugdale, the leader at Holyrood, had supported Owen Smith’s leadership challenge. But in August, Corbyn will embark on a five-day tour of marginal SNP constituencies that Labour could potentially take back at the next election. The party has set a target of reclaiming 18 Scottish seats as part of the 64 it needs across Britain to win a majority at Westminster. The trip will focus on traditional areas such as Glasgow and Lanarkshire, where tiny swings would return seats to the People’s Party. Dugdale is no doubt hoping for some reflected glory.

Corbyn will present himself as the authentically left-wing choice, a leader who will increase public spending and invest in public services compared to the austerity of the Tories and the timidity of the SNP. “Labour remains on an election footing as a government-in-waiting, ready to end failed austerity and ensure that Scotland has the resources it needs to provide the public services its people deserve,” he said. “Unlike the SNP and the Tories, Labour will transform our economy through investment, insisting that the true wealth creators - that means all of us – benefit from it.”

The SNP has benefited in recent years from the feeling among many north of the border that Labour and the Tories were committed to differing shades of a similar economic programme, that was starving public services of cash and that paid little attention to Scottish desires or needs. But as the Nats’ spell in government in Edinburgh has worn on, first under Alex Salmond and now Nicola Sturgeon, with little being done to tackle the nation’s social problems, patience has started to run out.

Dugdale said yesterday that she “looked forward to joining Jeremy in August as we take our message to the people of Scotland”. That’s not a sentiment we would have heard from her before June. But it does raise the future spectacle of Davidson’s Tories battling for the centre and centre-right vote and Labour gunning for the left. The SNP, which has tried to be all things to all people, will have to make a choice – boasting that it is “Scotland’s Party” is unlikely to be enough.

The 20th anniversary of the referendum that delivered the Scottish Parliament is almost upon us. Then, Scottish Labour provided the UK and the Westminster government with figures of the stature of Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar and George Robertson. That was a long time ago, and the decline in quality of Labour’s representatives both in London and Edinburgh since has been marked. The SNP’s decade of success has attracted much of the brightest new talent through its doors. Young Scots still seem to be set on the idea of independence. Labour has a credibility problem that won’t be easily shaken off.

But still, the body has twitched – perhaps it’s even sitting up. Is Scottish Labour on the way back? If so, is that down to the SNP’s declining popularity or to Corbyn’s appeal? And could Dugdale be a convincing frontwoman for a genuinely left-wing agenda?

There may be trouble ahead. Yesterday, the Scottish Labour Campaign for Socialism – whose convener, Neil Findlay MSP, ran Corbyn’s leadership campaign in Scotland – accused Dugdale of “holding Corbyn back” in June. A spokesperson for the group said: “While it’s great we won some seats back, it’s clear that the campaign here failed to deliver. While elsewhere we've seen people being enthused by ‘for the many, not the few’ we concentrated on the dispiriting visionless ‘send Nicola a message’ – and paid a price for that, coming third in votes and seats for the first time in a century. In Scotland we looked more like [former Scottish leader] Jim Murphy’s Labour Party than Jeremy Corbyn’s – and that isn’t a good look.”

While the group insists this isn’t intended as a challenge to Dugdale, that might change if Corbyn receives a rapturous reception in August. We’ll learn then whether Scotland is falling for the high-tax, high-spending pitch that seems to be working so well elsewhere, and whether Scottish Labour has jerked back to life only to find itself staring down the barrel of a civil war.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).