August 11, 2014
Indian Prime Minister Modi’s vision of creating 100 new smart cities may be a great idea, but new cities take generations (not only decades) to populate and become important urban centers.
There are other smart ways of quickly improving India’s existing urban centers and towns.
As land is a state subject in our Constitution, laws concerning urban development are state laws, as is city planning and municipal laws. The legal regime concerning urban development does not have the advantage of policy making at the Central level – nor has enough thought been given to how our existing cities should grow, how the rural areas around them should convert to urban areas, how the two could co-exist, how towns are to work as viable financial units and how professional knowledge should be used to guide cities to develop as healthy communities.
Coupled with this basic constitutional flaw is the fact that land is an emotive subject in India. Being a democracy adds on other dimensions. Over populated as India is, no one wants to give away land which has been handed down through generations. Building new cities on barren land is also no solution–water, power, transport linkages and other necessary infrastructure is hard and costly to come by.
Perhaps the way to go is to correct the malaises in the existing cities. Firstly, we need urban planning laws and processes which are not based purely on political compulsions (though politics cannot be wished away), and which follow professionally tested systems of urban and municipal planning.
Such systems allow local communities to decide on issues of local area planning, while creating zoning and planning regulations at the town/ city level without interference from the local wards, as also creating city level plans for transportation, infrastructure etc. Zoning plans, land use plans and other such data should be digitally available for all to see.
Secondly, the systems for collecting municipal taxes need to be rationalized and instituted in each town, combined with how the funds collected are to be utilized judiciously.
At present, no system for collecting municipal taxes, or for proper fiscal management exist even in our district level towns. These are essential, both to garner funds, as well as to instill a feeling of ownership in the urban citizen.
Municipal governance systems need drastic changes. Technology needs to be harnessed to bring in more transparency in municipal affairs; urban land records need to be digitized; sales and purchase of urban land needs a transparent urban record and registration system– involving reforms in the Acts governing registration of documents and assurances; fiscal models for various municipal functions like waste management need to be created, tested and then institutionalized.
While it was the intent of the JNNURM to reform such processes and systems, the Mission has not achieved its desired objectives. This is perhaps because its allocated funds were used mainly for actual project implementation (sewer lines, waste management systems, flyovers etc), and not for building institutions which would then further find ways to implement needed projects.
In many ways, the JNNURM ended up as an implement through which the central government would dole out funds to about 63 originally listed cities. Very little was done to change city systems – be they administration or planning or execution.
How rural areas are to seamlessly be absorbed into the city/urban fabric is another area of pending work. While the revenue lands of the villages get converted to urban conglomerates, the original villages are almost never transformed into the city fabric.
The result is that every odd kilometer of every new city/old city extension, we have a village which grows into a local slum within a decade of its land being made urban. The urban planners need to work with administrative experts to find ways to merge the rural into the urban fabric. This has been one of the crying needs of the last few decades.
Another area of work is to examine how the PPP models of the last three decades have worked and how they need to be improved through legislative action and new laws. The transition of city building by the government (as it was till the 1980s), to that of the private sector building urban areas has had its fill of blunders.
These need urgent fixing – laws to protect both consumers and developers need to be enacted. Systems to regulate how professionals shall deliver services need regulation as well.
Perhaps the faster way to solve the issues concerning our urban messes is to look for 100 smart ways to cure the existing malaises; while, at the same time, dreaming about future new cities.