Chronicles A Mission without Vision

Just a few decades ago, Bombay was regarded as that most cosmopolitan of cities; it was what represented the idea of a modern India, a city whose bywords were excellence, efficiency and urbanity. Today the picture of a forlorn, battered Mumbai, just recovering from the manic machinations of its political masters as they launched a campaign of ‘renewal�of the city with massive demolitions, only to be plunged into the catastrophe unleashed by the monsoons, so epitomizes all what has gone wrong with our cities, and how perfectly healthy, thriving cities are going under. 

Mumbai is the whimpering semaphore of the state of Indian cities today. Across the country, cities are groaning under the strain of their overburdened edifices and urban India seems to be nothing more than a rotting mass of crumbling concrete. Yet, strangely, never has the status of urban India been more in the news than it is today.

It is heartening that, in his Independence Day speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh thought fit to focus on this all-important subject. “Today, a third of our population lives in urban areas and keeping in mind the speed at which urbanisation is taking place, the day is not far off when over 50 per cent of India’s population will be residing in urban areas�The foundations of our culture and society were laid thousands of years ago in the cities on the banks of Indus River. We taught the world the basic concepts of urban planning. However, today our cities are often unable to meet the basic needs of their residents on many counts. We will be investing in urban areas and for this a National Urban Renewal Mission (NURM) has been launched.�/span>

But will this be enough to take our cities back to their glory days? Will it revitalize India so it can once again teach the world radical concepts of urban planning?

What exactly is NURM? Announced in the budget session this year, a fund of Rs. 5,500 crores was set aside for seven mega-cities �Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkota, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad,and Ahmedabad �with a population of over 4 million, and 28 smaller cities with populations of over 1 million. The amount allocated is minuscule in proportion to the need, but it is only intended to provide the ‘seed money�for projects, with State Governments and city administrations required to raise the bulk of resources themselves. The Centre would release such ‘seed money�only after it has approved the projects, and after the State Governments have carried out mandatory urban reforms that would herald “a reforms-driven, fast track, planned development of identified cities with a focus on efficiency in urban infrastructure / services delivery mechanism, community participation and accountability of ULBs (urban local bodies) towards citizens.�/span>

Unfortunately, there is nothing in NURM that suggests a break from the uninspired and deleterious thinking that has been the source of all urban reform proposals till now. It is not so much a paucity of funds that has driven our cities to their collective crises; it is a complete bankruptcy of ideas, reinforced by the lack of initiative in rewriting archaic laws and the inability to enforce existing ones.

NURM treads an old and beaten path, recycling the clichés of ‘efficiency, community participation and accountability� A glance at some of the steady stream of high-sounding proposals over the past years is edifying. The Constitution (Seventy–Fourth) Amendment Act, 1992, aimed at ‘democratic decentralization�of governance at the local level, to redefine the relationship between states and municipal bodies. But the existing institutional framework for urban planning was not realigned in accordance with the provisions of the Amendment, and most State Governments shied away from implementing several provisions of the Act. Thirteen years later, its proposed functional and financial autonomy of urban local bodies remains a distant dream.

Similarly, State Finance Commissions have recommended a proportionate share of State tax and non tax revenue to be devolved to urban local bodies, but such transfers are few and uncertain.

A number of State schemes have sought private partnerships. Yet, again, a lack of properly designed public-private partnership (ppp) models and the absence of a regulatory framework to govern such arrangements have inhibited the impact of such schemes on urban development.

A scheme to generate city-level data and city maps derived from satellite imagery was to be implemented under the Tenth Plan. To date, little has been done. The National Urban Information System proposed by the Union Ministry of Urban Development remains a non-starter. As slums mushroom everywhere, the programmes under the National Slum Policy are yet to be finalized. In 1993-94 a ‘Mega City Scheme� was launched for Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad. In 1985 the National Capital Region Planning Board was established to balance the pressures on the population of Delhi and deflect migration to centres around Delhi. These are just some of a long list of proposed programmes that have failed to secure their objectives because of the disconnect between the States and the Centre, and between ideas and implementation.

State Governments have already begun to articulate their reservations about NURM. The West Bengal Urban Development Minister, Ashok Bhattacharya, protested the decision to close down the ongoing Mega City project and replace it with NURM, declaring, “The Centre should arrange a meeting of all Urban Development Ministers to discuss the reforms, instead of forcing them down their throats� Earlier on, there had been protests when the NDA regime had sought to link disbursal of funds with the performance of civic bodies, as NURM does. The message is clear: States want funds but are reluctant to usher in reforms �much less, to have their performance evaluated. This remains one of the crucial impediments in overhauling the machinery to address the urban crisis �no one is willing to be held accountable.      

Urban Local Bodies are so deeply entrenched in a culture of routine, obstruction and corruption, that any attempt at restructuring is almost impossible. The complete politicization of the municipal officials and corporators has made them almost a law unto themselves. Indeed, the few good men within the system almost invariably attract punitive action. Recently, Delhi was witness to the hounding of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi’s (MCD) Commissioner �a bureaucrat who had quietly been trying to impose a measure of transparency in the functioning of the Corporation. A virulent campaign sought his removal from the post.

In developed cities around the world, the citizen is an all-important facet of the urban infrastructure, not a faceless nobody. Interestingly, way back in 1897, the celebrated novelist and playwright, George Bernard Shaw served as a Councillor of St. Pancras borough for six years, with duties covering diverse activities such as holding inquests on tubercular cattle, providing improved drainage, and dealing with sundry citizen complaints such as too much roadway dust. When men of such caliber and eminence are willing to involve themselves in and to ponder on such seemingly mundane questions, a city’s future is assured. 

As it stands NURM is nothing but a declaration of good intent. What India needs is not more missions and commissions but a system which understands and values the services of men of vision, who can introduce fresh ideas and efficiently implement projects and programmes that eventually transform our cities, and where it is possible for honest and creative officers to do their jobs.

Chitvan Gill

Published in The Pioneer, August 25, 2005


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