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Insights Into Urban Policy: Exploring Challenges And Solutions – IMPRI Impact And Policy Research Institute

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The second edition of the Impact and Policy Research Institute‘s transformative course on public policy, Fundamentals of Public Policy 2.0, was initiated following the resounding success of its inaugural cohort. The course delved into the multifaceted aspects, warrants, and caveats of public policy, aiming to illuminate its intricate nature. This new course continued its investigation of public policy within the Indian setting, taking place from March 1st to March 30th, 2024.

Across ten enlightening sessions led by experts from diverse fields, the course offered a valuable opportunity to acquire insights into the complex challenges of modern governance. These sessions covered crucial topics including economics, agriculture, foreign policy, urban management, climate change, disaster management, media and civil society roles, and emerging themes such as feminism in policy-making.

On Day 7 of the “Fundamentals Of Public Policy – Cohort 2.0”, Prof. Chetan Vaidya commenced the session by reflecting on the remarks made by Prof. Mukal Asherji, highlighting the historical focus on rural areas and industrialization until the past decade. He then delved into a comprehensive discussion, deconstructing the session into three key parts: historical context, government response, and critical issues from a public policy perspective.

Historical Context:

Prof. Vaidya initiated the discourse by elucidating the government’s definition of urban areas in India. He emphasized the rigidity of the current definition, predominantly based on population thresholds, which often fails to condense the true essence of urbanisation. Furthermore, he shed light on the significant diversity within urban India, emphasizing the need for tailored, context-specific policies rather than adopting a uniform approach. Highlighting the importance of sustainable and inclusive urban development, he reinforced the indispensability of both infrastructure improvement and governance enhancement to achieve economic objectives effectively.

Government Response:

The discussion then shifted towards an analysis of the government’s response to urban development over the years. Prof. Vaidya traced the evolution from the pre-1992 era, characterized by weak executive systems and extensive state control, to the post-1992 period marked by constitutional amendments empowering urban local bodies. He elucidated various mechanisms such as the State Finance Commission and the Constitution Award Committees aimed at decentralizing governance and enhancing local autonomy. However, he also spotlighted the challenges posed by the discretionary nature of function transfers to urban local bodies – stressing the need for a more standardized approach.

Furthermore, Prof. Vaidya provided insights into the five urban missions initiated since 2015, focusing on areas such as infrastructure improvement, heritage preservation, and sanitation. He emphasized the role of these missions in providing technical and financial support to address key urban challenges. Additionally, he discussed investment-linked urban sector reforms and performance-based grant systems aimed at incentivizing efficient governance and service delivery.

Key Public Policy Issues:

The session culminated in a detailed examination of critical public policy issues currently confronting modern-day urban India. He explored various dilemmas and potential solutions related to urban development, governance, infrastructure, and sustainability.

In summary, the key issues discussed include the following:

  • The Prioritization of Development Efforts: Large Cities vs. Small & Medium Towns: Prof. Vaidya examined the debate over prioritizing development efforts between large cities and small to medium towns. While acknowledging the efficiency gains in investing in large cities, he emphasized the importance of also focusing on smaller urban areas. Citing data from Professor A Kundu, he highlighted the projected shift in urban population distribution towards smaller towns by 2045, necessitating tailored strategies for each urban category.
  • Empowering Urban Local Bodies vs. Urban Development Authorities/State Government Agencies: The discussion centred on the effectiveness of empowering urban local bodies versus relying on urban development authorities or state government agencies. Prof. Vaidya cited Kerala’s successful urban decentralization model, emphasizing active citizen participation, fiscal decentralization, and the role of local governance structures in service delivery.
  • Increasing Local Revenue through Incentives vs. State Transfers: Prof. Vaidya advocated for incentivizing local revenue generation, particularly through property taxes and a portion of GST allocations to local bodies. He further underscored the importance of financial autonomy for local bodies in improving service delivery and infrastructure.
  • Public Transport through Metro vs. BRTS/Improved Bus Services: The debate between investing in metro systems versus improving bus services was explored, with an emphasis on transit-oriented development and the need for context-specific solutions. Prof. Vaidya highlighted the importance of prioritizing public transport to enhance mobility and accessibility, promoting walking and cycling, and leveraging intelligent transport systems.
  • Public-Private Partnership vs. Simple Public Delivery: The session delved into the merits of public-private partnerships versus purely public delivery models in urban service delivery, citing examples from waste management and water supply sectors. Prof. Vaidya emphasized the need for a nuanced approach, leveraging private sector efficiency where feasible while ensuring public oversight and accountability.
  • Centralized vs. Decentralized Delivery: The debate over centralized versus decentralized service delivery, particularly in sewage systems, was examined. Prof. Vaidya highlighted the growing trend towards decentralized sewage treatment systems, emphasizing the need for city-specific solutions based on cost-effectiveness and environmental sustainability.
  • Climate Change Actions: The session revolved around mitigation versus adaptation strategies for climate change, stressing the importance of pursuing both short-term mitigation measures and long-term adaptation strategies in urban areas.
  • Affordable Housing: Full-Fledged Housing vs. Incremental Shelter: Prof. Vaidya discussed the Indian government’s affordable housing initiatives, advocating for a marriage between full-fledged housing projects and incremental shelter solutions. He highlighted the need for inclusive housing policies that cater to diverse needs and income levels.
  • Smart City Mission: Special Purpose Vehicle vs. Strengthening Capacity of Urban Local Bodies: Finally, the session examined the implementation approach of the Smart City Mission, considering the merits of a special purpose vehicle versus strengthening the capacity of urban local bodies. Prof. Vaidya expressed reservations about the exclusive focus on special-purpose vehicles; instead advocating for greater support to strengthen the capacity of local governance structures.

Overall, Prof. Vaidya concluding the session underscored the multifaceted nature of urban development and the importance of addressing its complexities through nuanced policy interventions.

Read more at IMPRI:

Insights into Fundamentals of Public Policy 2.0: Understanding Climate Change and Sustainability

Acknowledgement: Apekshya Basnet is a Research Intern at IMPRI.

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