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Reform the reformer

India is passing through a development dilemma in which even public-spirited politicians (hoping it’s not an oxymoron) are fearful that improvement measures initiated by them might be misunderstood by voters, writes Sumit Mitra.

india Updated: Dec 07, 2009 23:59 IST

The convulsions that have gripped the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) — India’s flagship city development programme — with only three years to go for the termination of its assigned lifespan of seven years, is symptomatic of the country’s predilection to put politics above all other issues, including the vital ones. The Mission, aimed at pulling India’s 63 cities out of their dilapidation, which is somewhat reminiscent of Dickensian London, is conditional upon a bunch of mandatory reforms. The stake is large — Rs 120,536 crore, of which 35 per cent would come from the central government, provided the state governments and the municipal bodies shelled out the rest, and the latter two cleaned up their act as far as reform is concerned.

But reform to the Indian politician is a horrid word. It means not only a possible run on the ‘vote bank’, but of losing the charm of discretionary power for which they are in politics in the first place. The CPI(M), which rules West Bengal, admittedly finds reform detestable ideologically too. But so do many others, fearing it will make them lose ‘votes’ as well as ‘notes’.

They have dragged their feet on almost every point in the Mission’s reform agenda. Reform of property tax by making it fully online should be welcome to everyone in normal circumstances. To the venal politician, however, it means losing the opportunity to under-assess a property for a consideration. Nor does it leave him with the option of sending a demolition team with a bulldozer to visit the house of the person he doesn’t like. Moreover, the Mission’s mandate demands full accounting of budgets for basic services to the urban poor.

Considering how little is actually spent by municipalities for the slum-dwellers, the idea of disclosing the sum actually spent on the poor cannot but be dreadful to the party in power. To the politician, even more distasteful is the idea of transferring to the municipal body the power of shaping its own budgets, and of institutionalising citizens’ participation. Much worse than Oliver asking for more, it is like giving Oliver what he asked for.

JNNURM is a two-pronged programme, with one arm for improving the urban infrastructure as a whole (the passenger-friendly Volvo buses being a part of it) and another for gentrification of slums. The Union government, far from being tight-fisted, has been generous in transferring the early installments for the approved projects. But it cannot give more as most states are unwilling to accept the reform agenda. West Bengal has even refused to repeal the Urban Land Ceiling Act, a relic of Indira Gandhi’s ‘Emergency’ era. Maharashtra did it at the last moment.

Expectedly, the programme is running at a very slow pace, with not even a quarter of the projects completed and less than a third having got off the ground. It is in this context that one should judge the pyrotechnics of an invitee at a recent national conference on the fourth anniversary of JNNRUM, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressed. He accused Mamata Banerjee, the railway minister, of not releasing slum land in Kolkata owned by the railways for re-housing the poor slum dwellers in new constructions to be built under the Mission. Having spearheaded the land-losers’ agitation at Singur and Nandigram in the recent past, Banerjee is expectedly wary of de-stabilising lives of the urban poor. This is specially so after the last Lok Sabha polls in which they seem to have voted for her en masse. The incident shows that fear of electoral backlash to reform cuts across party lines.

India is passing through a development dilemma in which even public-spirited politicians (hoping it’s not an oxymoron) are fearful that improvement measures initiated by them might be misunderstood by voters. For instance, JNNURM is ready with funds to augment and modernise urban drinking water supply schemes, provided the urban local bodies receiving the grant agree on a user fee for operation and maintenance of the new lines. But most states would not like their cities to levy charges on drinking water, which, as they fallaciously argue, is regarded as a public good in India. However, a nominal water tax is in existence in most metros, but having water metres clamped on taps, as demanded by JNNURM, is still out of the question. Pressure is being mounted on the Mission to drop it from its reform agenda.

What then can save our cities? Carving them out of their states? It is fanciful thinking, considering that 60 per cent of India’s GDP comes from its urban areas. Lawmakers will not agree on parting with the cities. A way out, perhaps, is in making the seven cities with over 4 million population in 2001 mega-cities as they are called, follow the Greater London Authority (GLA) model. Following GLA’s inception in 1999, the Mayor of London is accountable only to an elected assembly of 25 members in taking all strategic decisions regarding the city. Such autonomy has brought about wide-ranging changes without any fuss — like the hefty ‘congestion charge’, which every Londoner cribs about but nobody questions the cause. There is still huge scope of intervention by Whitehall (read Sheila Dikshit in Delhi or CPM headquarters on Alimuddin Street in Kolkata), but nobody has the authority to question the strategic vision of the man in City Hall.

Ironically, the jinxed JNNURM was indeed pushing Indian cities to a similar situation. It demanded that the elected municipalities be given “city planning functions”. But why should the Indian politician surrender the opportunity to rule the cities from the background?

Sumit Mitra is a Kolkata-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.