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Kerala's Urban Commission As A Model For Other States – IMPRI Impact And Policy Research Institute

Kerala's Urban Commission as a Model for Other States

Tikender Singh Panwar

The Kerala Urban Commission can lead the way for the rest of India in understanding urbanisation as a whole process.

As 2024 begins, there is some good news in the urban spectrum. After almost 38 years there is another urban commission, this time in the State of Kerala. The first, i.e., the National Commission on Urbanisation, was formed by the then Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi, and was headed by Charles Correa, one of the finest architects of the country. However, with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, some of the important recommendations were not taken into consideration. But the 74th Constitutional Amendment was one of the positive outcomes. Since then, there has been a shift in policy paradigm for more private initiative and investment in urban development

Necessity of an urban commission

Currently, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities (56%). When Capital was written by Marx, and cities were considered to be centres of industrial production and capital accumulation, there was just over 5% of the global population living in urban centres. The process of urbanisation has led to phenomenal changes across the world. Not only has it impacted climate change but has also created spatial and temporal changes such as massive land use, building typologies, iniquitous cities, duality, informality, crisis of pollution, housing, water and sanitation challenges, and some of the most unequal city spaces. One of the major processes of capital accumulation is the process of city development.

Post-independent India has witnessed two stark periods of development in the urban spectrum. The Nehruvian period lasted for almost three decades and began unravelling in the late 1980s. During this period, around 150 new towns were built with a holistic city approach, a characteristic feature being a centralised planning mechanism emphasising master plans/development plans. However, this process also failed miserably as it was drawn by the core idea of the state acting as a basic instrument of capital accumulation, pushing millions of people from rural to urban spaces, with manufacturing as the driving force.

Manufacturing did not remain the central pivot of driving migration to the cities as it fell miserably and new areas were opened up. The cities still drew millions into its fold with the informal sector taking centre stage and the urban plans failing miserably.

The period of the 1990s is the one where the abject privatisation of cities began and global cities were the image on which the development process was built. Master plans were handed over to large parastatals, and big consultancy firms were hired to draw such plans. These companies gave away the concept of social housing, public health, education, and real estate was supposedly to be the core element of this hypothesis.

Cities were made competitive and termed as ‘engines of growth’ — not spaces of enlightenment, future of dreams, and habitat. Instead of a whole city approach, a project-oriented approach was the guiding principle; mission mode of development, the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, and the Smart Cities Mission were the buzzwords.

It is in such a background that the Urban Commission, formed in 1985, has to be revisited and relooked. Piecemeal approaches will not help. And neither are they making any breakthrough. Hence, an urban commission is required at the national and State levels to understand some of the interesting objective patterns of urbanisation. Migration is one of them. Settlement patterns are another one, and information technology is one of the enablers but also disablers.

A holistic understanding of the process is required and must be developed. The urbanisation process cannot be reduced to some mission approaches such as the Swachh Bharat Mission or Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), National Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY), or Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY). All of them have failed in their desired results and are bound to fall further as they are distant from objective realities.

Likewise, the governance in cities is in a real mess. Eighteen subjects under the 12th Schedule that were supposed to be transferred to the cities are still far away. There is debate in political circles that there should be managers, instead of elected officials, running city affairs. The over-centralisation in the financial architecture is evident from the Fifteenth Finance Commission recommendations where the grants to the cities are linked to their performance in collecting property taxes and the increase in that should be commensurate to the State’s Goods and Services Tax. These are complex processes unfolding in the urban realm.

It is in this light that the formation of the Kerala Urban Commission must be seen. Kerala has adopted this urban policy commission initiative that should address these complexities. Some of its members include M. Sathishkumar, an urban professor from Dublin, Janaki Nair, a historian, and K.T. Ravindran, Professor and Head of Urban Design at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi.

The commission’s 12-month mandate aims to address the challenges of urbanisation, particularly in the context of Kerala’s urbanised population, which NITI Aayog has estimated around 90%. The commission’s role is to lay a road map for at least 25 years of urban development. Kerala’s urban development cannot be divorced from the overall urban processes unleashed both at the global and national levels, and, hence, a proper estimation of them is also required.

Kerala Urban Commission: Lighthouse for other States

What was desired was another national commission. However, even in its absence, the Kerala Urban Commission can be the lighthouse for other States such as Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Punjab that have a high urban population. It is the process of taking forward the urban commission that should be a learning lesson for these highly urban populated States.

Tikender Singh Panwar is former Deputy Mayor, Shimla, and Member of the Kerala Urban Commission.

The article was first published in The Hindu as Breaking new ground the Kerala way on January 05, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organization.

Read more at IMPRI:

Bangladesh and Pakistan’s Political Landscapes and its Implications for India

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Aasthaba Jadeja, a research intern at IMPRI.

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