M Ramachandran: Our cities deserve more than just a Plan

Last Updated: Sat, Feb 02, 2013 18:40 hrs

In the absence of a nationally stated strategy on India’s urbanisation, the next best thing is to look at the Five-Year Plan document to understand the direction we are taking as far as urbanisation is concerned. Though all that is stated in the chapter on urban development may not get acted upon, the chapter gives an overall idea as to what needs to be done, what is proposed to be done and what the thrust of the strategy will be. This is important for sector specialists, financial observers, potential investors and for those millions living in the cities and towns.

At the outset it must be accepted that the chapter on urban development makes good reading, in the sense that it talks about the multitude of problems and areas in which change has to come about, the impact of the different initiatives taken so far, strategies proposed for the sector, the direction in which the states have to steer their efforts and what is it that can be expected at the end of the five-year period. There is no doubt that if what is stated is actively followed, substantial changes — if not fully meeting requirements — can come about in our cities in terms of improvement in service delivery, governance, citizens’ role, improved financing, better capacities, housing for the poor and so on.

But then the question is, to what extent the stated strategies and methodologies will be taken up across the country and implemented — basically by the states, since they are the major players in the urban scheme of things. The Central government’s leadership and facilitative role has become a critical element in addressing the problems of cities. The Plan contains a vision for our cities, identifies the major challenges, lists the strategy to be adopted, outlines the schemes which will be there and gives indication of the Central funds which will become available. But the larger questions are: what guarantee is there that the states will take this up as a major challenge, considering the piling up of more and more issues as far as urban living is concerned? That they’ll follow up on the various steps detailed in the plan and commit themselves to comprehensively cover the huge agenda listed for action?

It remains a fact that even though the mid-term appraisal of the previous Plan makes neutral statements like a major thrust is necessary to address the need for sustainable development of physical infrastructure in cities, including development of technical and management capacity for holistic growth with improved governance’, and the need for more attention from policy makers to soft infrastructure as well as much more attention to smaller towns where urban conglomerations are emerging, there is no candid assessment of what states have done to comprehensively address urban issues. One may say that the relevant chapters in the state Plan documents (which may come out by the time the Twelfth Plan has covered two years or more) may attempt this, but all said and done, probably for want of required courage to call a spade a spade, a thorough analysis of what has happened in the states and what remains to be done rarely emerges. It is time our states did this, so that as a nation we come to know where we stand with regard to our urbanisation and the plethora of related issues.

Two recent major reports from the high-powered expert committee and Mckinsey covering the requirement of finances for India’s urban sector came up with figures of Rs 39.2 lakh crore and Rs 54 trillion respectively. One cannot really find a correlation between this massive requirement and what will be invested during the Plan. Yes, Plan resources are limited, but then the question is does the sector get proportionate allocation in relation to problems, shortages, deficiencies and urgency? While there is a clear statement about the launch of JNNURM II and indication of an outlay of over Rs 2.2 lakh crore for the urban sector, what needs to become clear is what is it that the states and urban local bodies will bring in — and, as a result, what part of the urban problems will get addressed and what is likely to remain untouched.

For example, when do we achieve our basic requirement of 100 per cent access to water in all our cities and towns, and on average how many hours of supply a day will become available? What will be the level of sewerage coverage city-wise, so that we have a clear picture for the state as a whole? What is the target for share of affordable, reliable public transport? What number of urban poor and houseless will have permanent homes which they can call their own, and what extended time frame will be worked out to meet the requirement of the rest? It is when it comes to these fundamentals that one is left thinking as to what are the definite programmes which will attempt clear, time-bound solutions, and who is supposed to be responsible and accountable for the targets not met.

If reports are to be believed, why is it that despite committing to the launch of the next phase of the urban mission, an extended additional allocation scenario is coming in? Would it not have been more effective if the next phase got launched this year itself, so that cities and towns could have wholeheartedly got involved in the much-required urban transformation according to a properly formulated plan?

It is satisfying to see that the plan document is candid in stating that poor implementation has been the root cause for India’s poor performance in building its infrastructure. Hopefully, the proposed different kind of initiative, of establishing an effective backbone’ capability which will strengthen multi-stakeholder policy formation and implementation processes (institutionalising the much-needed project management capability in the proposed India Backbone Implementation Network) could make a big difference for the country's urban sector as well.

While this happens, what one could also think of is having a national group that independently analyses, at least once a year, what the states have done to implement all that is stated in the Plan document. The group should then come out with a balance sheet which will act as a report to the public, so that they can effectively come in with their participation as well. This will also provide a reliable, timely feedback to the Plan process, to be used as an instrument to alert the states or appreciate their efforts, as the case maybe. This could also be a new chapter in improving governance and making those involved, accountable to perform and deliver.

The writer was secretary in the Union ministry of urban development

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