As the government moves into its second year, the focus would now be on execution of its stated visions including the smart cities programme. For years, cities have been on a decline, despite thousands of crores being spent over the last decade through the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), an outcome-less spending programme where taxpayer funds are handed out to projects with no focus on any larger development plan. For example, crores would be spent on putting buses on roads without matching investments in expanding the road infrastructure; money is spent on public health, but nothing is done about waste management, etc.
The fact that India does not have even one modern metropolis points towards the failure of past approaches and the need for a new approach.
Currently our cities are characterised by zero-accountability of its agencies and institutions; misuse of public assets like land and deliberate giveaway of land worth thousands of crores to politically connected real estate projects; siphoning off of public money through ‘projects’ that no one wants or do not exist; misuse of administrative discretion to benefit commercial interests over citizen interests by permitting unchallenged commercialisation in residential areas and spreading the tentacles of vested interests and corruption into all spheres of city governance. The chaos and the need for solutions have created a space for vested interests and well-meaning but amateurish efforts by ‘experts’ used selectively by political interests.
A true assessment reveals the reasons for the ugly reality of India’s urbanisation.
First, India is the only big economy in Asia to lack even one modern city.
Second, that there is no lack of money. That the issue of urban renewal is more than simply funding a few projects every year per city like the JNNURM. It’s about a medium-term development and growth blueprint unique for each city and a framework of public and private investments building this blueprint. Most city finances are in a mess because of revenue leakage and asset pilferage.
Third, the urban governance deficit. The 74th Amendment is vague in many areas. Currently, municipalities are the worst form of governance with corruption and conflicts of interest. There are almost no functioning institutions in our cities, most having being corroded or captured by political Interests. Citizens have little or no institutional space in the governance and development of their neighbourhoods.
Most political leaderships have done very little to demonstrate that their thinking is different from the same, corruption-ridded status-quoist approach to our cities. Narendra Modi’s government has the opportunity to change that with the PM’s vision for smart cities.
I recall one chief minister’s response to my idea of globally tendering the management of city’s roads: “What will my corporators do then?” City corporators/councillors have become infamous for their corruption.
This status quo in urban body politics has continued for many years because of lack of options. But there is evidence that the urban middle class Indian voter is mobilising to push for political change. The debacle of the national parties in Delhi was probably due to their failure in addressing their aspirations. The forthcoming Bengaluru elections will be yet another test case for both the national parties. It also poses a larger question about the viability and interest of national parties in the local urban body politics. Political change is the most important ‘solution’ we require and it comes when citizens come together to trump both the vested interests and long-held beliefs.
There are some other requirements for a smart city. First is the statutory multi-year plan. Planning is by far the most important tool for coping with the pressures that growth will place on housing, infrastructure and public services. With proper planning, public confidence in administration and governance can be dramatically improved. A lack of statutory plans creates a vacuum into which administrative discretion and corruption walk in unfettered and unchallenged. Further, even a well-meaning ad hoc approach becomes more expensive and difficult.
Second is the legislative framework for cities and city governance. The 74th Amendment mandates devolution of powers and responsibilities to municipal bodies. However, very few states have met their requirements in full. States must pass legislation that achieves all three goals — a formal role for citizens in governance (including budgeting and oversight), a regional scope for the metropolitan planning commission, and executive mayors with financial and administrative autonomy for urban local bodies (ULBs).
Third is to rebuild city institutions and administrative capacity. The decline of the various city agencies and their inability to respond to growth is an area of concern. Managing various planning and administrative functions requires skill as well as continuously improving the capabilities of administrators/public institutions. A modern growing city needs skilled administrators who are equipped with the tools and technologies for its management. A focus on developing a cadre of dedicated city managers and on building robust institutions is much-needed.
Governance reforms and cleaning up chronic corruption is a pre-condition, especially when the future of our cities depend on increased investments from private sources of capital and better management of its public finances. This is more urgent since with the 14th Finance Commission the ULBs will get increased direct funds from the central tax pool of almost Rs 2,48,000 crore. Imagine putting all this money in an unchecked corrupt set of hands!
Our cities are in a crisis. A crisis can be a catalyst for change, but that change must be of the right type. The smart cities programme must deliver that right type of change.
Rajeev Chandrasekhar is an MP and a technology entrepreneur
The views expressed are personal