Urban Policy & City Planning is an online one-month online immersive certificate training course organised by Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies at Impact and Policy Research Institute, IMPRI, New Delhi in the month of July 2023. An informative panel discussion on the topic “India’s Urban Development Schemes: Impact & Way Forward ” was held on July 05, 2023 by Dr. Deepak Sanan, Former IAS Officer and Ex-Additional Chief Secretary, Himachal Pradesh; Senior Visiting Fellow, Centre for Policy Research (CPR); Senior Advisor, Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS).
On the seventh day, the discussion was first contextualized by the Chair, Dr. Rumi Aijaz (Senior Fellow and Head, Urban Policy Research Initiative, ORF) who introduced the theme and the speaker; namely addressing the challenges associated with Indian urbanization through government schemes.
Firstly, Dr. Sanan described the historical shift in India’s development related focus from rural to urban areas post-Independence. The late 1990s marked a significant transition with a growing emphasis on urban infrastructure brought about by an increased understanding of the fact that cities function as the epicenters of wealth and play an important role in the socio-economic progress of the country. This shift was also guided into existence by the crucial report on gaps in urban infrastructure authored by Rakesh Mohan and the contribution of various other donors.
Assessing Urban Development Schemes in India: Conception and Challenges
The shift in the government’s approach led to the formulation of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. The mission aimed to empower urban bodies and enable self-governance through various measures, primarily, project-based financing contingent on states implementing specific reforms in alignment with the goal of self-governance and greater autonomy for local bodies. The mission, however, has faced numerous hurdles due to capacity limitations and excessive conditionality imposed in the procedure of accessing funds for projects.
While acknowledging the need for increased autonomy and touching upon the principle of subsidiarity, he expounds upon the unfortunate reality of the resistance of local politicians and bureaucrats to decentralizing power and devolving roles and functions to local bodies as they perceive themselves as intermediaries awaiting positions of power at the state level rather than primary agents of change. This skewed perception of local bureaucrats and politicians as middlemen incapable of autonomy is also shared by the electorate, resulting in a stalemate preventing either stakeholder from advocating for change.
Dr. Sanan then introduced the concept of the ‘BNR’ mode (Build, Neglect, Rebuild) highlighting the propensity of central schemes to result in sporadic infrastructure development rather than sustained progress and delivery of results.
Calling attention to the structure of incentives outlined in the development scheme, he describes how bureaucrats and local bodies of governance are primarily incentivised and rewarded by meeting criteria for the establishment of new infrastructure instead of improving the quality of delivery and availability of services provided by existing infrastructure quoting examples of states with a number of development projects diverging from on-ground reality of the needs of the citizenry. He questioned whether newer initiatives like AMRUT and Smart Cities have fared better than JNNURM, concluding that they face the same set of challenges as the former.
Navigating the Path Ahead: Fostering Sustained Urban Development
Dr. Sanan advocated for a paradigm shift towards fostering demand for sustained development to improve the availability and delivery of services. While acknowledging the political realities posing hurdles to the devolution of power to local bodies, he stressed upon the need for capacity building to drive collective behavior change in the electorate leading to increased demand for continued efficacy of infrastructure and services.
The cultivation of collective consciousness within the electorate to instil a deep-rooted understanding of the benefits that can be derived from sustained development efforts is the need of the hour. A social transformation where individuals perceive themselves as active stakeholders driving the evolution of the urban spaces instead of passive recipients of services is required.
Improving various parameters that govern the quality of infrastructure and public services in a context where cities lack ownership due to existing, ill-conceived incentive structures and a BNR (Build, Neglect, Rebuild) perspective requires a strategic approach. Despite political-economic constraints that hinder power devolution to cities, fostering demand for sustained development within the electorate becomes crucial which in turn necessitates capacity building to drive collective behavior change, shifting focus towards sustainable service delivery like sanitation and waste management rather than new infrastructure.
Dr. Sanan touched upon specific issues such as the absence of guidelines for handling diaper waste highlighting gaps in the existing approach to waste management in urban spaces. The balancing of various constraints and intricacies is essential to bring about a transformation in urban governance and actively promote increased citizen engagement.
He emphasized the need for monitoring of indicators of service delivery bringing in a factor of accountability in the delivery of services. Credible data must be acquired to ensure transparency in an age of ambiguous and manipulated information. Performance data must be tracked and analyzed to establish that progress is underway. Dr.Sanan’s insightful session underscored the challenge of balancing urban governance, infrastructure development and citizen engagement within the country’s evolving political landscape.
Srinitya is a Research Intern at IMPRI.
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