Empowered ward committees can play a vital role in aspirational neighbourhoods - Hindustan Times

Empowered ward committees play a vital role in aspirational neighbourhoods

Oct 10, 2023 07:51 PM IST

India's urban growth is fueled by the aspirations and productivity of its people, with the potential to set global benchmarks for sustainable development.

India's growth trajectory is unfolding within cities of varying sizes, from sprawling mega-city regions to quaint towns scattered across the nation. This growth is propelled by the aspirations and productivity of its people, coupled with the rich social, cultural, and ecological capital that cities embody. Notably, India is home to five of the 33 mega-cities globally and hosts ten of the world's fastest-growing cities. Recent global analyses forecast that India will undergo the most significant urban transformation of the 21st century in terms of sheer numbers by 2030. This transformation is pivotal, shaping the urban future of the nation and presenting a compelling opportunity for cities to prioritise a high quality of life for all inhabitants and set global benchmarks for sustainable urban development. Critical national visions such as 'Atmanirbhar Bharat,' 'Local to Vocal,' and the '$5 Trillion Economy' hinge on the capacity of cities and towns to evolve into hubs of innovation, production, services, knowledge-based economies, logistics, and local cultural economies.

Cities embody a symphony of municipal governments, universities, companies, and community organisations working in concert(Pixabay) PREMIUM
Cities embody a symphony of municipal governments, universities, companies, and community organisations working in concert(Pixabay)

India's urban sector has garnered significant attention, leading to the launch of six pivotal missions: Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) - Housing for All (Urban), Smart Cities Mission (SCM), Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY), and Deen Dayal Antyodaya Yojana – National Urban Livelihoods Mission (DAY – NULM). These initiatives aim to enhance the quality of urban life, encompassing sustainable physical infrastructure, economic growth, environmental sustainability, and improved public services. Integrated within the missions are the following broad principles:

  • Creating plans and sustainable physical infrastructure to support enhancing the ‘economic base’ of urban areas
  • Boosting local economy through enablers (finance, infrastructure, policy, regulation, institutional support and governance) to provide necessary social infrastructure, including housing, informal sector livelihood, standard services platforms for networking, etc.
  • Promoting mass public transport systems, non-polluting modes, promoting pedestrian safety and cycling (to achieve safer and healthier cities)
  • Enhancing the finances of urban local bodies, devolving powers to lead, set targets and leverage financial resources independently
  • Create a real-time urban information hub at the local level, integrated with the regional, state and national level database for informed decision-making
  • Establish systems and technology to ensure environmental sustainability, minimise negative impact, and improve urban resilience.

While Central and state governments are taking initiatives to create conditions and enable the environment by providing the necessary tools to encourage and incentivise cities, many interventions still need to generate optimum outcomes due to a lack of proper linkages and synchronisation. Therefore, a paradigm shift is vital to ensure sustainable and equitable growth—a change from traditional project-based approaches to outcome-centric systems. This would require radical decisions on structural changes in urban governance systems, finance, and the balance of power between the Centre, states, and cities.

This approach emphasises measuring results and directing public expenditure towards citizens' benefits, prioritising their needs and aspirations. It calls for a collaborative effort between Central, state, and local governments, promoting a more inclusive and citizen-centric governance model. Innovative governance approaches and models must evolve in planning, service delivery, management, and urban development financing. They must be adaptable and scalable to diverse urban contexts, enabling urban India to attain its full potential. The focus should be on adopting equitable, inclusive approaches and outcome-based, sustainable, and data-driven strategies to transform India’s urban landscape.

Cities embody a symphony of municipal governments, universities, companies, and community organisations working in concert. Their potential, when combined, expands and multiplies in unpredictable ways. The new age of urban agenda requires new age skills and organisational setup for implementation, improving quality of service and efficiency. A robust network for multi-level governance and strong linkages with private and non-governmental stakeholders is imperative for significant urban impact. Urban local bodies are the most "visible" among all federal government levels to the ordinary citizen, forging an unwritten social contract between them and the citizens, necessitating a more structured and inclusive citizen engagement process. Transparency, data availability, and systematic citizen engagement are crucial to building trust and designing and implementing policies that align with urban residents' goals and aspirations. For this to happen, cities must be recognised as the first tier of governance instead of the third, as they are popularly referred to in various terminologies.

Launched by the Prime Minister (PM) in January 2018, the Aspirational Districts Programme (ADP) aims to swiftly and effectively transform the most underdeveloped districts across the country. The program revolves around Convergence, Collaboration, and Competition among districts, propelled by a mass movement. The success of this programme became the basis of the Aspirational Blocks Programme. The PM recently, while launching the Aspirational Block Programme, underlined that the programme is bound to be a huge success not only because the scheme is unprecedented but also because the people working towards it are prodigious. Taking a cue from the Aspirational District Programme, Uttar Pradesh has become the first state to develop the Aspirational Cities Programme.

While urban development is primarily a State subject, lessons from the aspirational district and block programs can inform urban decentralisation efforts. Transformation requires renewed efforts and revisiting business models of engagements with cities. At present, cities are becoming dependent on central funding without developing institutional mechanisms at the local level to address urban challenges. The 74th constitutional amendment provides a roadmap for greater devolution of power to the local level through ward committees. A commitment to democratic decentralisation is imperative to unlock the true potential of ward committees and achieve vibrant and accountable local governance. The provision of ward committees can be used to initiate an aspirational neighbourhood program at the city level. Like aspirational districts or blocks, aspirational wards/neighbourhoods can also draw indicators to measure and benchmark the efficiency and effectiveness of neighbourhood performance.

In the journey towards building India's urban future, empowering ward committees is not just an option but an imperative. It is a step towards realising the dreams of millions of urban citizens who aspire to live in economically prosperous cities that are environmentally sustainable, socially inclusive, and accountable to their needs. It is a path towards making India's urbanisation story a global success and a testament to the power of local governance in shaping our collective destiny. India's urban renaissance is upon us, and it requires us to unite, innovate, and decentralise our ability to foster growth, sustainability, and inclusivity at the grassroots level. The journey may be challenging, but the vision of a vibrant, sustainable, and equitable urban India is within our grasp.

Hitesh Vaidya is director, National Institute of Urban Affairs. The views expressed are personal

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