New government must learn from successes and failures of past urban schemes

Sama Khan
A graded urban policy that addresses the needs of the smallest urban settlements will be more effective in catering to every section of society. (File)

With the country's urban population rising and cities being seen as engines of economic growth, urban policy is gaining currency as a marker of political will. Hence, it is important to understand the strength and weaknesses of our urban programmes.

The Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) was launched as a continuation of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). But AMRUT focused only on big cities as opposed to the JNNURM that covered smaller towns as well. Even though the JNNURM was criticised for favouring big cities over small towns, it covered a wide variety of sectors from roads and transport to water and sanitation. AMRUT covers roads, transport, water and sewerage, but waste management was transferred to the massive sanitation programme - the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM).

JNNURM also uncovered the lack of capacity of local governments with small and medium towns struggling to complete projects. JNNURM intended to promote self-governing cities and that's why it included governance reforms, much like AMRUT. Even though, AMRUT was envisaged as a continuation of the previous regimes' urban transformation project, it seem to have learnt very little from its predecessor's experiences.

A major achievement of the current urban programme, though, has been in decentralising the project sanction process - it was centralised under JNNURM. But this has hampered project monitoring, which, in turn, affected the dissemination of information.

The Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) was launched to build one crore houses for the urban poor. The scheme includes components that enable the construction of houses through public-private partnership (affordable housing partnership, AHP) and empowers beneficiaries to build and upgrade their houses (Beneficiary-Led Construction). The AHP component of PMAY is similar to the previous regime's Basic Services to the Urban Poor (BSUP) scheme that focused primarily on building houses on the peripheries of cities. AHP will, therefore, raise similar issues of non-occupancy and ineligible beneficiaries. Improvement of existing settlements is a far more sustainable option that considers actual improvement in people's living conditions along with safeguarding their employment opportunities.

The Smart Cities Mission (SCM) was launched as a "bold, new" initiative to cater to the ambitions of the urban middle class, escalate the country's digital transformation and justify the current government's commitment to the eternal aspiration of modernity. But the mission largely covers traditional infrastructure projects which are already eligible under AMRUT, with only a few projects relying on new information and communication technologies. The formation of a special purpose vehicle for the implementation of the mission is at the cost of empowering local governments, which are seen as inefficient even in the delivery of basic services.

The Swachh Bharat Mission was widely publicised as the government's flagship idea to improve the sanitation situation. It was meant to cater to every section of society as sanitation is a basic human right. Its focus primarily was on toilet construction. The larger gamut of sanitation services were included under AMRUT. The understanding that the sanitation cycle requires the proper functioning of several elements was missing from the programmes.

Deep-rooted inequalities have hampered project implementation and outcome. The efficiency of local governance holds the key to resolving this issue. Decentralisation should be encouraged but needs effective monitoring. The Centre will have to undertake timely data reporting protocols to ensure the proper functioning of its schemes. Moreover, one approach cannot work for urban areas of different sizes. We also need to reconsider the simplistic rural-urban binary in formulating policy. A graded urban policy that addresses the needs of the smallest urban settlements will be more effective in catering to every section of society.

This article first appeared in the print edition on April 26, 2019, under the title ‘Vision for our cities’. The writer is a research associate at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi.