Why Hardeep Singh Puri?
As Minister of State (Independent Charge) of the Housing and Urban Affairs Ministry, Hardeep Singh Puri is in charge of the Prime Minister’s pet projects such as the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, Swachh Bharat Mission and Smart Cities. One of the country’s top diplomats, who served as India’s Permanent Representative to the UN from 2009 to 2013, Puri replaced Venkaiah Naidu in the ministry, after the latter became vice-president. The 1974-batch Indian Foreign Service officer, actively participated in the JP movement in his student days and joined the BJP in 2014
SHALINI NAIR: What is the idea of Smart City in India? Isn’t it very different from how it is conceptualised internationally? The biggest criticism has been how it creates uneven geographies.
First of all, there is no difference between what is considered a Smart City in India or elsewhere. Let me break this down. Almost 45 per cent of global carbon emissions come from buildings. So if you want to deal with the environment and if you want to deal with issues relating to urban rejuvenation, and if you want to give your citizens a clean, secure life, buildings have to be green and sustainable. That’s one component of what ‘smartness’ is all about.
Let’s define the Indian context. When we became an independent country, 17 per cent of India lived in urban spaces — 17 per cent of a population of 300 million. As per the 2011 Census, 31 per cent of a 1.25 billion population lives in urban spaces. The rate at which we are urbanising, there will be 600 million people living in urban spaces by 2031.
Now, you have a choice. You can have 600 million people live in urban sprawls and slums that have been brought about by autonomous and robust urbanisation or you can plan for it.
India is called a reluctant urbaniser but even then we have to face the reality. People get up from their rural dwellings, pick up their bags, and head to wherever there is economic opportunity. Why is that happening? 14 per cent of India’s GDP comes from agriculture. Most of India lives in rural areas but the contribution of agriculture to the GDP is very small.
We are also at the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the world, and that is about urban services. And we have no option but to succeed. You have to provide housing for all your citizens. Affordable housing is important. Smartness has to be the norm.
When we build the India of 2030, we will need resources. Where are the resources going to come from? Those resources have to be raised by the municipalities. And municipalities will not be able to raise the resources unless there is a transformational paradigm shift in mindsets, which is beginning to happen. Smart Cities will have to be ecologically friendly. We will need technology in order to check the leaks in areas such as water, electricity, surveillance, security for women etc.
Smart City doesn’t mean that we bring in western technology. We have been building Smart Cities for thousands of years — our forts, palaces, the technology used to keep them cool… My expectation is that the best of western companies must come and bid for contracts and India should also use its traditional building materials, technologies etc.
You have to get your act together. That’s where Swachh Bharat, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, and Smart Cities come in. I believe that the three are interlinked. Are we going to get there? I certainly hope so. I can read out the statistics and tell you that we’ll get there one year earlier.
SHALINI NAIR: But even within these 100 cities, 80 per cent of the funds are going to 3 per cent of the city area. At this pace, do you think principles of social equity and principles of even growth can be achieved?
Oh yes, absolutely. I will give you AMRUT (Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation) figures. In the 10 years of the UPA government, 2004-14, the total amount of money that was spent on basic urban infrastructure was Rs 44,740 crore. In the three years of the present government, the total money spent is three times that amount—Rs 1,13,143 crore.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution, the urban services… I think it will all be a win-win for India if everybody is on board. I keep sharing with chief ministers of states the basic statistics under each of the schemes. It pains me to find that some states are not doing anything on their own, they are not taking any money from the Centre for basic things like building toilets.
SHALINI NAIR: In most international rankings of cities, Indian cities always figure at the bottom, especially Mumbai and Delhi. What do we do to make our cities more livable?
I think it is a ticking time bomb. You have to provide housing for everybody, that is what the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana 2022 (promises). If every Indian citizen has a house, with a kitchen and a toilet, you won’t have people living in squalor. If one says look where Mumbai is and where Shanghai has reached, where does this criticism come from? It comes from those who have been in charge of governance for the past 70 years. You were in charge for 70 years but you didn’t do anything, and we still have 320 million people shitting out in the open every day.
Once we get affordable housing in place — the Smart Cities project is already underway — I have absolutely no doubt that Indian cities will start figuring in the top ranks. Our construction companies have built world-class buildings outside.
Also, I have no doubt that you will have to start redesigning and redeveloping the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) colonies. But what has happened over the past 70 years… the mindset of the urban planner is in the bullock cart age. We need to change the mindset. In the pre-’91 days there was this mindset — Coca Cola will come and wipe out the domestic industry. I said it even then that if you want to be protectionist, then be protectionist by all means.
But what are you protecting? You want to protect inefficiency? You want to protect corruption? That’s not going to work. The Prime Minister has three basic goals — corruption-free, citizen-centric, and an inclusive development ecosystem.
I personally think it’s India’s last chance. 2019 is the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. He started the sanitation aandolan (movement) before he started the political struggle. The sanitation call was made in 1916. And if in 2019, on his 150th birth anniversary, we cannot get an open defecation free India, we have a problem. The State has to provide basic amenities such as drinking water, toilets etc. The State has to deal with the reality (that) we have a problem. A lot of our people believe in Lord Ram and they believe in good family values, but they think that not paying taxes is part of the deal. So when the PM steps in and tries to correct it, you will have turbulence. But I think we will get through. I’m very optimistic.
SHALINI NAIR: One of the stronger criticisms against the new Metro policy came from E Sreedharan, who said that a public-private partnership (PPP) model has not worked anywhere in India or internationally when it comes to urban transport. He also said that the government must invest in public transport and make it affordable. Would you consider revising the policy?
First of all, Sreedharan is an engineer; he is a person we all respect. The new Metro policy was one or two months old when I came in. It should be allowed to first work before we start changing it. Whether it is a PPP model or a government subsidy, the Metro will always be a capital intensive asset. I think the Delhi Metro borrowed Rs 28,000 crore from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Now, if you borrow money, you’ve got to return it, whether it is through a PPP or government subsidy. In an ideal world, where resources are unlimited, you have a choice between one and the other.
We have a problem in two areas, and I am not commenting on Sreedharan. If you want to make it (the Metro) affordable, you must give subsidy, which means you do not raise the fares. This was done in Delhi where the fares were not raised for eight years. Then you came to a situation where the revenue was going down and you had to pay the money back, some thousand crores.
I have nothing to do with the fare raise, I was only a few days old (in the ministry). It took place in May and the fares went up by 57 per cent. The October raise was a small one. You have to learn not to play populist politics in things such as capital assets because if you do, and when the time comes to return the money, nobody will lend it to you.
The fare hike was decided a year ago, when I wasn’t around. Incidentally, even if I wanted to defer it (I couldn’t). Arvind Kejriwal (Delhi CM), who doesn’t have the power (to defer the hike) either, knows this. A statutory body headed by a judge of the high court has that power.
RISHI RAJ: How do you assess the progress of the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act (RERA)? There are certain groups which are fighting against it, and some state governments have reportedly diluted some of its provisions. Also, how much of a leeway do state governments have in terms of departing from the model legislature the Central government has established?
The real estate sector in India was, in a sense, the epicentre of all black money. People didn’t like the idea of paying taxes, and didn’t want to keep their money at home because they feared being raided. Such people would put the money in sacks and send it to the builders to book flats. RERA has been like an earthquake… It’s been 70 years since Independence and we didn’t have an independent regulator. Nowhere in the world have I come across a situation where a sector as big as the real estate doesn’t have a regulator. For eight years this legislation was lying around; full marks to the Modi government for resurrecting it.
RERA is the best thing to have happened to the Indian real estate market. We need to look at it in terms of correction of the sector — RERA, the Goods and Services Tax, demonetisation, affordable housing, fiscal incentives etc. A clean-up will start.
So if you ask me is the regulation biting on the ground? It is. There are some teething problems, but it will give a major push to affordable housing, and the clean- up will involve some of these guys going to jail. If your conduct is criminal and you are culpable, the courts will get to you; the Supreme Court is laying down a very clear line on that.
So, I think, we are getting things done, it’s biting and we will get there.
RISHI RAJ: With the Bombay High Court stating that ‘all incomplete and ongoing housing projects will also be covered under RERA’, is there no scope for any differences in defining ongoing projects?
I don’t think so. Even earlier there wasn’t any scope for differences. But in a democracy we both can have a difference of view on the same set of facts. All I am saying is that we will get there and people will get used to the idea. But it will take a little time.
SHALINI NAIR: So you will take up the issue with states that have diluted the law?
I have already taken it up with them. I don’t announce everything. I have asked for appellate bodies to be set up for RERA. I wrote to six states long ago.
SANDEEP SINGH: What are some of the challenges in meeting the ‘Housing for All by 2022’ mission? Are you comfortable with the pace?
I am very comfortable with the pace. I am nervous when I am dependent on behavioural or unforeseen things. Now whether people want a house or not is not an issue; everybody wants a house. So if everyone wants a house, the next question is, where will the land come from? We are giving you the land. Where will the money come from? We are giving you a credit link subsidy also.
My job is not to design the tender, it is to arrange an ecosystem, and that ecosystem is in place. I see a housing boom because of the ecosystem. There are people who want one home, and it is that home which will be a transformational thing, because it will get us the quantum jump from $2,000 per capita income to $5,000. Then with a 1.2 billion population, you are a $5 trillion plus economy, and you are right in the top range of the world.
So I am very optimistic and don’t see any problems in the 2022 mission. We are talking about 10 million units essentially, and if you look at how many have already been sanctioned, it’s quite encouraging.
SANDEEP SINGH: What is your opinion on linking property with Aadhaar? When do you see that happening and what could be the repercussions?
If you go for transparency, I think that’s the next logical step. We are trying to clean up real estate, get people to pay taxes, and penalise those who have misused funds. Isn’t it logical for the Aadhaar card to be used for property? When the clean-up happens, you will not have a situation where there are two properties and we do not know who they belong to; there will be no unwanted children here. We have to carry this to a logical conclusion.
SHALINI NAIR: Does your ministry have any comprehensive plan for eradication of manual scavenging? So far it has been dealt with only by the Ministry of Social Justice, but it also concerns your ministry.
My plan is two-fold. Manual scavenging has to stop and we have to do it in a mechanised way. We have looked at presentations from platforms that can do it. The only way to do it is to make the people who do it in charge of that process mechanically. There is a plan. I am not going to wait for this, I am going to set up this entity. Let’s take one step at a time and follow it up.
SHALINI NAIR: How do you make sure that the states enforce mechanised cleaning unless there is a Central legislation to that effect?
A Central legislation banning manual scavenging is already in place. The Centre does not need to ban it a second time.
SHALINI NAIR: Mostly, it is the urban local bodies (ULB) that employ manual scavengers.
Why do the ULBs do it? Some people think of it as a birth right. You run a commercial establishment, you produce a lot of rubbish and put it in the drain; everything gets blocked. You then use sticks to push out the waste, but that doesn’t work. You then climb down to clean it.
There is a demand and there is a supply. You have to change criminal behaviour, and it has to start at the point of production. We should come up with strong punitive action against the guy who is putting his waste into the gutter. You have to name and shame.
There are scooter trucks in Bengaluru and Hyderabad that collect waste from commercial establishments and restaurants; that is one step. Two, whenever the urban local bodies want it, there could be a truck around (for waste collection). I say I’ll give Rs 100 crore to each of these municipalities in Delhi and they can buy this stuff. Rs 100 crore is a great amount of money.