A hundred dysfunctional cities

NARENDAR PANI | Updated on: Jun 02, 2014

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That’s where we seem to be headed, if the new government continues with the approach of its predecessor

It was entirely predictable that one of the early targets of the Modi government would be the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. Apart from problems with the nomenclature the mission was also one of the flagship programmes of the UPA government.

Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu has been quick to announce that JNNURM will be replaced by a programme that will create a hundred smart cities. But if we look beyond the specifics, the pronouncements of the minister suggest that the government will continue with the UPA’s emphasis on a mission approach rather than coming up with a more comprehensive urban policy. And there is little reason to believe that what proved less than ideal for the UPA will provide better results for the NDA.

The mission approach, in essence, identifies from above what is believed to be an ideal urban situation and then provides resources to states for projects that are a part of that ideal. The JNNURM had worked on that ideal in considerable detail and listed out detailed procedures to get specific projects sanctioned and implemented. The new government will no doubt have its own version of the ideal, but it seems inclined to follow the same process of getting states to apply for funding for individual projects.

Facile assumptions

The assumption that when a state applies for projects under the Central urban mission it necessarily accepts the underlying urban ideal is a facile one. States typically have their own shelf of projects and apply to multiple sources for funds. When they are applying to the Central mission they are willing to swear allegiance to the urban ideal being promoted by that mission. That does not preclude them from swearing by other ideals, such as that of the World Bank, depending on who is expected to fund a particular project.

The result is that states have multiple visions for their cities which need not always be entirely consistent with each other. Commitments to an energy-saving ‘Green city’ can be as vociferous as commitments to much more energy-intensive approaches demanded by concepts such as ‘World-class cities’.

The bigger issue

And even when the ideals are consistent they need not be compatible with conditions on the ground. Land that the projects require could be committed to other uses, and the use of state power to take over the land can lead to the project ending up in court. This has been an important reason for delays in the implementation of JNNURM projects.

More than such difficulties in implementation, the larger problem is that the mission approach lacks comprehensiveness. In pursuing the development of ideal cities — typically derived from what has been seen in the developed world — this approach misses what is arguably the most important aspect of the Indian reality. India is still just about one-third urban. If the projections of rapid urbanisation are accepted the real challenge will be the movement of millions of people from a rural livelihood into an urban setting.

The extent of this challenge should not be underestimated. There are a large number of examples from across the world of the huge social costs of this transition, from the industrial revolution in Europe to collectivisation in the former Soviet Union.

China has been trying to make this transition with the state control that the communist system allows them. But even that country has been forced to scale down its originally planned movement of people from the rural to the urban.

Impacting our cities

The many dimensions of this challenge are already visible in our cities. To take just one example, when hundreds of thousands of people move into a city, there is an obvious spurt in the demand for housing.

This pushes up real estate values making it difficult, if not impossible, for the poor to find an affordable place to live in. The government’s effort to help them also runs into the real estate barrier. The substantial costs of providing housing for the poor limit this initiative.

The relatively few houses that are provided then become a real estate asset for a select few. And the choice of these few becomes the basis of much acrimony and patronage politics. Similar challenges can be seen in our cities of a number of other dimensions of the movement from the rural to the urban. As villages get merged into our cities the livelihood of their population changes in a direction they are not always trained to benefit from.

As cities in one end of the country attract workers from rural areas in the opposite end of India, there is not just a demand for long distance affordable transportation, but also a need to address the potential for ethnic conflict.

The mission approach bypasses these issues by building flyovers and gated communities. But choosing not to see the reality does not make it disappear.

The writer is a professor at the School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore

Published on June 02, 2014
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