Cities at crossroads: The heart of action

State governments and urban local bodies hold the key to fixing our cities and addressing the challenges of unplanned urbanisation

Written by Isher Judge Ahluwalia | Updated: March 1, 2017 5:47 am
urbanisation, urbanisation effects, cities, metropolitan cities, metropolitan urbanisation, urbanisation projects india, india technological advancement, isher judge ahluwalia, indian express editorial, indian express columns C R Sasikumar

Many more people are worried about the worsening condition of our cities than was the case even a few years ago. As urbanisation gathers momentum and cities are required to play an increasingly more important role in promoting and sustaining rapid growth of the Indian economy, we hear of numerous initiatives to fix our cities and
address the challenges of unplanned urbanisation. But the growing recognition of the problem is marred by the failure to appreciate two basic truths.

The first basic truth is that the operational control of urban planning and management is with the state governments, while the public discussion is largely about what the Government of India (GoI) is doing or should do for urban infrastructure and service delivery. The discussion must include the role of state governments in bringing about key institutional reforms including devolution of responsibility to the cities, the reform required in municipal legislation, and creating capacity for planning and management at the city level.

The second basic truth is that the solution to the woes of our cities requires a holistic approach to urban reform. Instead, we have a plethora of separate missions/programmes/schemes relating to provision of clean drinking water, waste water treatment, solid waste management, public transport, etc. Each of these schemes is run by a particular department of the government and they, like all government agencies, work in silos whereas the problems are heavily interconnected, and the solution for each depends critically on how others are handled.

This column spells out the first basic truth. In my columns in this newspaper during 2011-2014, I documented 38 case studies of how some parts or some sectors of Indian cities have been transformed in recent years. The sole criterion for selection was that the project should have led to better outcomes on the ground. When I look back at these cases to see how they are spread across different states, I find that Maharashtra had by far the maximum number of successful cases, that is 11, while Karnataka and Gujarat had six and five, respectively, and Tamil Nadu and erstwhile Andhra Pradesh had four each. These were also the state governments which played a pro-active role in urban reform.

A good example is the role played by the government of Maharashtra in water reforms across its cities and towns. Maharashtrian cities have been way ahead of other Indian cities in addressing the challenge of providing drinking water to their residents. As early as the year 2000, the government of Maharashtra had set up the Sukhtankar Committee to review the efficiency of supplying water in its cities and towns. The committee recommended water audits for all cities and offered to fund 75 per cent of the cost of determining the gap between the water supplied and the water billed to consumers for water ostensibly consumed.

Nagpur was the first city to take up the offer and found that its water losses were of the order of 52 per cent. As much as 30 per cent of water was lost during transportation from the bulk source to the distribution network. Thanks to the state government’s role in encouraging and partially funding the water audit, the Nagpur Municipal Corporation (NMC) realised that fixing the leaks along the transmission route of water from its basic source to the city was an important part of the solution. The canals that brought raw water from Pench, 48 km outside of the city, provided ample opportunities for stealing water along the way. When the GoI launched JNNURM, a national urban renewal mission, in 2005, the NMC was well placed to prepare project proposals replacing the canals by a piped network, and also augmenting a second source at Kanhan. Funding for the projects was approved under JNNURM with endorsement from the state government.

In Nagpur’s journey to 24×7 water supply, the NMC set up the Nagpur Environmental Services Ltd. (NESL), a wholly owned company, and NESL in turn entered into a public-private partnership with a private company for 24×7 delivery of drinking water. The state government’s support was crucial because the PPP agreement was vetted by the PPP cell of the government of Maharashtra. The presence of such institutional support reduces the possibility of badly structured PPP agreements without clear assignment of risks for both partners.

A significant feature of Maharashtra’s planning for water has been their recognition of the importance of economic pricing of water. The Maharashtra Water Resource Regulatory Authority, established in 2005, has been conducting exercises to price water, setting water charges based on the volume of water consumed by different user categories. These exercises involve inputs from experts as well as consultations with stakeholders.

In 2010, on the occasion of the golden jubilee year celebrations of Maharashtra, the state government launched Maharashtra Sujal Nirmal Abhiyan (MSNA), an innovative mini-mission on reforms for integrated management of water and sanitation in the cities and towns of Maharashtra. MSNA covered 247 urban local bodies, leaving out only five cities covered under JNNURM. Not only was the funding to urban local bodies by the state government conditional on carrying out a set of specified reforms, but the reforms themselves were clearly delineated in a phased manner recognising the different initial conditions of water and sanitation across the urban local bodies in the state.

Unfortunately, the MSNA that achieved 24×7 water delivery in Amravati and Malkapur, reported earlier in these columns, was unceremoniously ended by the state government after three years of showing good results. It is possible that the successive drought conditions diverted the government’s attention to the urgent task at hand, that is, a basic provision of water, and the focus on reforms was lost. However, unless we have missions such as MSNA, which approach water and sanitation in a holistic manner, in different states, and unless state governments empower urban local bodies with financial devolution and capacity to plan and manage their affairs, initiatives from the GoI will not translate into a transformed scenario on the ground.

A second example is that of the role played by town planning schemes in Gujarat. Rapidly growing cities of Ahmedabad and Surat could plan and finance their road and transport infrastructure to accommodate their physical area expansion by using a simultaneous mechanism for land reconstitution, infrastructure provision and financing, made possible by the Gujarat Town Planning and Urban Development Act of 1976 which was last amended in 1999. The notorious Land Acquisition Act stood in the way of most Indian cities in other states as they faced the challenges of infrastructure investment for their expanding frontiers. Ahmedabad and Surat had found a bypass through the town planning schemes made possible by state legislative reform. Erstwhile Andhra Pradesh also used similar instruments of unlocking land value in Vijayawada and in building the outer ring road in Hyderabad.

Yet another example is the role played by the governments of Karnataka, erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat by providing a robust network and other infrastructure in some of their cities and combining it with capacity building and business process re-engineering so that e-governance could help expedite service delivery, while bringing greater transparency accountability. The GoI tried to provide a major thrust to e-governance across urban India through JNNURM, but transformation on the ground happened only when the state governments played their part.

The writer is chairperson, ICRIER, Delhi, and former chairperson of the high-powered expert committee on urban infrastructure and services

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