It is reflective of the times we are living in that the enormity and complexity of the development challenges faced by India — especially when viewed as opportunities for transformation — appear to be overlooked in the political discourse, which tends toward over-simplification and, often, misdirection. The Narendra Modi government’s ambitious and almost audacious interventions for planned urbanisation, are a case in point.
By 2030, 600 million Indians, or 40 per cent of the country’s population, would be residing in urban areas. If this urbanisation is to happen in a planned manner, we will need to build 700 to 900 million square meters of properly designed residential and commercial space in urban areas every year from now to 2030. It is imperative that the country moves from being a “reluctant urbaniser” to one that embraces urbanisation as a transformative force that can deliver an improved quality of life for all its citizens.
Since 2014, the government has been implementing a number of innovative policies and initiatives in the urban sector. From re-imagining the basic design of a city to ensuring that all citizens have their own home; from transparent citizen-government interface to delivering basic infrastructure and services; from providing corruption-free governance to ensuring the best use of public funds; from revitalising heritage areas to redeveloping business districts — the Union government has exponentially raised the profile of urban development in the country.
Three flagship missions have been at the forefront of the urban transformation. First, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or Clean India Mission, the objective of which is 100 per cent open-defecation-free India and 100 per cent solid waste management. While launching this mission on October 2, 2014, the prime minister announced that these objectives would be met by Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary: October 2, 2019. In order to ensure that we do not lose perspective, it is important to recall the Mahatma’s observations in 1916: Swachhata is more important than political freedom. In his remarks at the Banaras Hindu University, he challenged the nation: “If even our temples are not models of roominess and cleanliness, what can our self-government be?”
Swacch Bharat will be achieved through a multi-level, multi-stakeholder model, where the Union government works in close partnership with state governments as well as civil society and the private sector. While a key objective of the Mission is to build adequate sanitation infrastructure, at its core it is about a behavioural change in the mindset of the average Indian. And it is here that the PM’s leadership has made the big difference. It is for the first time that an Indian prime minister has made a subject that was previously considered taboo, the centrepiece of his vision for a resurgent country. Both civil society and the private sector have responded to the PM’s call for action and there is now a growing realisation among Indians that change will only come about when each individual consciously embraces the Gandhian ethic of cleanliness.
The PM Awas Yojana (PMAY) or Housing for All attempts to fulfill a dream common to all Indian citizens: Owning a house of their own. Significantly, the ownership title will be solely or jointly in the name of the woman of the house, a step that has already provided a great fillip to gender empowerment. It is unfortunate that even seven decades after Independence, the dream of owning a home has remained elusive for many. Two key factors prevented Indians from this basic need: Callous urban management led to the creation of slums that were at the mercy of vote-bank politics; and a corrupt builder-politician nexus cheated home-buyers of their money.
Those who move to urban centres in search of livelihoods, access to services and a better quality of life, often end up in poorly constructed slum dwellings due to lack of funds and distorted real estate prices. Under the PMAY, the government is committed to building affordable homes for this entire section of society, allowing them to live a life of dignity. By categorising housing as “infrastructure”, lowering rates under GST and providing credit-linked subsidies, the government has mobilised the real estate industry to supply housing for low-income and economically weaker sections. The process of in-situ development of slums allows the residents to retain their links with jobs, schools and medical facilities and protects them from the displacement caused by eviction.
The impact of the Housing for All mission has been further enhanced through the Real Estate Regulatory Act (RERA), which targets the rampant malpractices and breach of trust in the real estate sector, infamous for cheating honest home buyers of their hard-earned money. Along with the Bankruptcy Code, and the amendment Section 29A therein, RERA moves the country one step closer to a New India that is corruption free and inclusive.
The Smart Cities Mission brings a fundamentally different outlook to urban planning, management and finance. Over the past 70 years, the absence of citizen participation coupled with the absence of vision and the lack of spatial, physical and economic planning, was largely responsible for the confounding mess that has defined Indian cities. The Smart Cities Mission looks to address the trust deficit between citizens and their municipal bodies, by ensuring proper delivery of infrastructure and services. It is participatory in nature and citizens define the choices and decisions made by the city. The Mission establishes an integrated approach where all departments of a city’s administration work together to offer holistic solutions by using information and communication technology, by bundling projects that can be executed together in the same area and making best use of the funds available from different sources, public and private.
The salience being accorded to urban development is in recognition of the fact that India cannot achieve double-digit growth and cannot become the world’s third-largest economy worth an estimated $10 trillion by 2030, if its long overdue urbanisation is further delayed. Indian cities must become safe, resilient and sustainable hubs of vibrant economic activity, enabled and regulated by appropriate planning and governance. The measure of our success will be the achievement of the sustainable development goals by 2030 and the delivery of a New India, where every citizen enjoys the “Ease of Living” that they truly deserve after 70 years of Independence.