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Saturday, 31 May 2014 00:00
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The scheme needs more than a new name, more funds

Given the BJP’s promise of 100 new cities and a bullet train corridor, it was to be expected that new urban development minister Venkaiah Naidu would come up with a new improved version of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). Apart from saying the scheme will be renamed after another national icon, Naidu has said that the outlay of the scheme will be vastly hiked, to R1.5 lakh crore, and that it will involve using hi-tech GIS-based planning and solid and liquid waste management systems. Given how India’s urban population is projected to grow by three-fourths in the next two decades, it is imperative that long-term solutions be found to prevent India from becoming one big Dharavi.

But before committing to a new improved JNNURM, albeit under a new name, Naidu needs to study just what went wrong with the old JNNURM. Though government handouts, in the past, have talked about how a large number of reforms have been carried out—one press release talks of ‘the level of reforms has now touched 78% from a level of only 9% in pre-JNNURM period’—even a cursory reading of the Isher Ahluwalia committee report on urbanisation makes it clear little has been achieved. Only 8 cities, the report found in 2011, had been able to charge enough to cover even O&M expenses for supplying water. Of the 5,161 cities/towns India has, 4,861 don’t even have a partial sewerage network; less than 20% of the road network is covered by storm water drains, the list goes on.

The important lesson from the JNNURM experience is that the monies being talked of by the government don’t cover even a fraction of what is needed. The Ahluwalia committee had estimated a need of R39.2 lakh crore over 20 years along with another R19.9 lakh crore for O&M expenses. So, what is needed for this to happen is a completely different mindset. To begin with, the 74th Amendment which was brought in to empower local governance needs to be implemented, not just for village panchayats but for cities too. Cities need to have empowered mayors who are elected on the basis of what they do for a city—smart cities, wired up with technology, are all very well but they won't work without elected officials with the necessary clout to run a city. Till such time that the chief minister of Maharashtra has the power to decide on what allocations Mumbai gets, Mumbai is going to have many more Dharavis. Till such time that the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, an appointee of the central government, has to okay property tax rates, the Delhi government can do precious little on its own. Empowerment without financial independence is equally meaningless. Just as states get an automatic share of central taxes, cities need to get this too. Unless this philosophical change takes place, no amount of improved JNNURMs are going to help.


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