That India is moving to its cities and that urban centres will be critical to the country’s cultural and economic identity of the future is now-accepted wisdom. But it is also clear that, because of the absence of proper planning and investment, most of our cities are visibly straining to cope with the rapidity and scale of change over the last decade or so. Efforts to address the problems that plague most Indian cities have so far been largely tokenistic and ad hoc, with little political will to bolster, for instance, schemes such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), which was stymied by issues like land acquisition and the incapacity of city officials to handle large projects. So, though the cabinet’s clearance of plans to create 100 smart cities and an urban development mission for 500 cities — which is essentially the JNNURM rebranded as the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transportation (Amrut) — with outlays of Rs 48,000 crore and Rs 50,000 crore, is welcome, these funds are only the first step in grappling with deepening urban deshabille and decay.
Successive governments have chosen to neglect the city and focus on the rural, or rather, its romantic ideal, instead. As a result, cities are struggling with huge infrastructure deficits: congestion, lack of affordable housing, poor sewage facilities, inadequate water supply. Even the marquee cities are not immune. Delhi, probably India’s best-governed city, is choking on toxic air. Bangalore is submerged in garbage. Chennai is parched and Mumbai is running out of space. Things are worse in Tier II, III and IV cities, where adherence to norms and standards is poor and monitoring and punishment for violations, non-existent. But the gap between urban and rural, or “India” and “Bharat”, is narrowing. Studies have shown that the urbanisation story is increasingly about the creation of new urban centres, where many rural areas are taking on characteristics more typical of towns. This makes it all the more imperative for the government to devise a strategy for the development of key urban sectors, which includes transportation, affordable housing, employment and environmental sustainability.
The Smart Cities Mission and Amrut may constitute a step towards filling that policy vacuum. Both are aimed at improving the quality of urban life and building sustainable cities. At least on paper, they emphasise the devolution of funds and functions to urban local bodies and call for wider stakeholder consultations that would involve citizen participation. This is a much-needed measure — India is the only G-20 country that does not have empowered or elected mayors, despite the 74th Amendment. More local autonomy is a must if cities are to fix themselves and invest wisely in creating the infrastructure they need.