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M Ramachandran: Challenges of our cities

JNNURM-I's success was tempered by low capacity. Urban capacity building should be a top priority for next Plan

M Ramachandran 

The Union urban development minister has just announced that a Rs 1,70,000-crore second phase to the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) is on its way. This is a much-needed, much-expected action, considering the impact (with about Rs 66,000 crore-plus as Central grant) made on our cities and towns, and the emphasis the is placing on planned, inclusive and There is a certain momentum of action that has been created, both for taking up much-delayed urban reforms and for implementing a large number of projects. One hopes that, by the time the finalises the in the next couple of months, the size and contours of JNNURM’s phase two will also have been defined, thereby helping continue the urban changes which have started happening in a good number of our cities and towns.

When we look back at the last seven years, it is clear that a bold beginning has been made. Originally, there was a vacuum; there was no inclination or motivation to even think in terms of much-needed governance reforms or raising the wherewithal to undertake the implementation of a large number of projects with big capital outlays — involving a series of complex steps starting right from getting project documents prepared to bidding them out, monitoring progress, raising counterpart funds, ensuring technical requirements are met and getting them implemented on time, so that time and cost overruns are reduced and the intended benefits really become available to people. In this unique mission, reforms and fund releases were supposed to go together. But it is a fact that local bodies could not find the capacities to meet all these requirements, and that states did not rise up to the challenge of adequately empowering them.

The lesson is that when we talk of empowerment of local bodies, and of the need to make the third level of governance competent enough to meet its challenges, urban local bodies are terrible short of capacity. Credit must be given to the Union urban development ministry and the that, in preparing the Twelfth Plan, not only has the capacity-building requirement been recognised but also that it should take immediate priority. It has also been understood that states must address the precondition of revised cadre structures for these urban bodies.

Why is it that, despite the huge hike in spending, the required massive governance and service delivery improvements are not taking place at the urban local bodies level? Of the 4,000-plus urban local bodies we have, only a small number have enough personnel. There are many local bodies in the country which have one or two junior engineers and some conservancy staff — and nothing beyond this. It is a sad reality that strengthening the professional capacities of local bodies has not figured in the governance improvement schemes of most states. In such a scenario, where do these bodies have the aptitude or orientation to work in terms of raising more resources, promoting PPP projects, implementing service-level benchmarks, promoting e-governance and so on?

The agenda for capacity-building for India’s urban local bodies would include a series of steps about which first the state governments have to be serious, and the local bodies have to be pro-active. One of the first actions for the states is to review the present cadre structure and decide on a new/revised cadre structure for different categories of urban bodies, providing adequately for professionals in different areas of civic activities. Such a cadre structure should cover the key areas of modern day governance and be capable of meeting the increasing complexities of today’s urban management. Some states, like Odisha, have in recent months taken the first steps in this regard. Today, if Nagpur has initiated work on a city-wide 24x7 water supply, Surat is known for its efficient waste disposal, Alandur for efficient sewage management and Ahmedabad for the bus rapid transit system. All these have become possible because of leadership, careful structuring of concession agreements, and keen determination to bring about changes so that citizens become the beneficiaries.

Each state should also have a state-level capacity-building strategy, to be systematically implemented over the next five years. Many states would need to think in terms of having separate urban training institutions, tie-ups with professional institutions, having dedicated units to monitor the reform agenda, and identifying and working with centres of excellence.

While a good part of the work will have to be taken up at the levels of the states and cities, the Central ministry will have to proactively guide and facilitate the entire process — as experience has demonstrated that, when there is a national mandate, the states find it easier to fall in line and make changes. A national capacity-building framework for urban bodies has to be created. A network of national-level institutions addressing sector-specific issues and a constantly supported “centres of excellence” system has to be available, so that cities can directly approach them for trouble-shooting and problem-solving. There also has to be a mechanism that would recognise innovation and share best practices with all local bodies. Planning for affordable housing and integrating land use with transport planning are key subjects about which sufficient institutional capacities need to be created.

Management of sectors like drinking water supply, sanitation, solid waste disposal and city transport has become very complex, and the most sincere intentions of a mayor or a commissioner will not alone address the issues involved.

With 377 million-plus people living in urban areas that have spread to 7,935 cities and towns; with over 4,000 urban local bodies of varying sizes in terms of population and capacities and a variety of urban management entities; with 468 cities with more than 100,000 people containing 80 per cent of the total urban population; and while cities contribute a major chunk of India’s GDP, and employment, our is only 0.7 per cent of The very nature and character of urban management issues are fast changing in India; and, in a changing scenario of increasing congestion, traffic problems, slum proliferation as well as the inadequate and unsatisfactory delivery of urban services, what is urgently needed is increased focus on better service delivery. For that to happen, this new Five-Year Plan should place on top of the urban agenda, as we can no longer afford to be casual about the challenges of our cities.

The writer is former secretary, ministry of urban development

First Published: Sun, July 22 2012. 00:12 IST