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Let's prioritise our cities

india Updated: Jul 21, 2009 00:32 IST
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"India lives in its villages," Gandhiji once said. It was the beginning of the 20th century, and the majority of country's population, did, in fact, reside in hamlets and villages. Our urban centres were still few and migration was a trickle, not a flood.

But it's been several decades since that statement. In 2001, 28 per cent Indians lived in cities. By 2029, that number will reach 50 per cent of the population - 600 million of us will reside in our cities and towns.

And yet, despite accounting for 60 per cent of the country's GDP, and occupying only 2 per cent of our landmass, cities are still largely overlooked by our policy-makers. As one example, cities account for less than 2 per cent of the total governmental budget in India. (China spends 30 per cent of their collective budget on cities.)

We still seem to believe that somehow, urbanization can be reversed. That our villages should still be our priority. But no country has managed to become developed without urbanization. We need to develop both - our villages and our cities (and our small towns).

India doesn't have a single city that can provide a high quality of life for its residents. The problems start with bad planning, and then escalate into poor implementation, lack of budgeting and poor civic sense. Almost everything that could have gone wrong with our cities has gone wrong. The set of problems is so complex that it can't be solved only by a single-pronged solution. We need a holistic, multi-pronged approach, in which we involve civil society, government, NGOs and the private sector.

It's not all gloom though; there is some good news. In 2004, the UPA government announced the largest urban initiative through the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). It commits to give our cities Rs 50,000 crore on the condition that they and their state governments make large-scale reforms in the way they are governed. It also sent out the right signal - that our cities are important.

One of the important changes that the JNNURM seeks to make is the law for community participation, or the area sabha law. Our villages have gram sabhas, which empowers local citizens and allows them to make officials accountable. But our cities have no such law. The JNNURM requires that cities pass a Nagar Raj bill, in which voters in every area of a city, made of one or more polling booths, can have a platform called the Area Sabha that finally gives them a formal voice. Some states and cities have already started the reform process, while others like Mumbai and Delhi are still to make any real progress. Civil society needs to put pressure on our individual state governments to get these bills passed.

So in some sense, JNNURM signalled a much-needed paradigm shift in how we look at cities. But JNNURM is only the beginning, it needs to be implemented well, and even then it is not a magic wand. Much more work needs to be done, not just by government, but also by those outside government.

Industry bodies like the CII and FICCI also need to start building their own understanding of urban governance, so as to improve our cities holistically. Right now, they only focus on improving infrastructure, and even that for the rich - less traffic, better roads etc. They need to think about the urban systems that can provide better infrastructure, not only for the well off, but also for all urban residents, including the poor.

Lastly, our NGOs also need to start focusing on cities more. India currently has a million NGOs but very few of these work for our cities. Janaagraha is one of a small handful of organizations that focus on urban development. This needs to change - we need hundreds of urban NGOs that can contribute constructively to the improvement of our cities.

Ramesh Ramanathan is the founder of Janaagraha.