"The idea is also an improvement in the ways cities are governed."

danish

Danish Raza | July 26, 2010




It’s been five years since the centre launched the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) and sought to change the way India developed and governed its cities. Some cities have availed of funds under this mission. But, as a recent nationwide survey of sanitation facilities across urban centres revealed, India is yet to have even a single clean, green city. In an interview with Danish Raza, urban development secretary M Ramachandran (Kerala, 1972) spoke about these and other concerns. Edited excerpts:

Have we graduated to planning for the next 20 years, instead of trying to catch up with what we should have done 20 years ago?
Before 2005, there were a limited number of schemes for very few towns and cities. Development of cities was a state subject and the centre was at the periphery. The JNNURM gave the centre a big canvas. The initial Rs 50,000 crore earmarked for a seven-year period, subsequently enhanced to Rs 66,000 crore, suddenly meant a lot of work for the 65 mission cities.
It is a welcome change because cities generate GDP (gross domestic product, measure of economic growth) and employment. Now it is a joint venture between the centre, state governments and the local bodies. Cities form the third level of governance. States have to recognise this, transfer the functions they are constitutionally supposed to, empower the cities and make them as functional as possible.
We need to do a lot of work, starting with basic infrastructure, water supply, solid waste management, drainage system and sewerage system. Many cities do not even have 100 percent coverage of sewerage. Luckily, we have been able to approve projects, more or less committing the amounts which have been earmarked. Now it is about implementation and spending the entire amount.
I must refer to the metro initiative taken by our ministry. Initially, only Kolkata had its metro. Then metro happened in Delhi and proved to be a success. Now, the rule of thumb is that buses can carry 8,000-10,000 persons per hour. Beyond that, we need some better mode of public transport. That’s where the metro becomes relevant. Further to the expansion of the metro project in Delhi, we have been able to take up such projects with the centre’s participation in Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai and with private participation in Mumbai. The national urban transport policy set the pace for all this. Currently, we are in talks with the World Bank for a $1 billion aid for the JNNURM. Earlier, one never thought of credit rating for cities. We took it up to tell them where they stood so far as their finances were concerned.

Less than half the amount allocated to the JNNURM under the 11th five-year plan (2007-12) has been utilised so far. How do you plan to step it up?
In the first three years, the pace of implementation was not that good. But it picked up in the fourth and fifth years. We have committed to provide close to Rs 28,000 crore over a seven-year period. Most of the 65 cities have taken up projects and they have claimed a little over Rs 12,000 crore from the centre. That means, cities are getting used to taking up projects and implementing them. I am expecting that a substantial amount will be claimed by the states this year and by next year it will move even faster. We already have a commitment from the states that they will be able to complete close to 200 projects this year against only 70 completed so far.

Which city or corporation has made the best use of the JNNURM funds?
It is difficult to judge this nationally. We have some cities with only 5 percent coverage of sewerage facility. If such a city moves to a little more coverage due to some support, it is a big improvement for that city. In Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, urban activities are more in the forefront.. But the states in the northeast have not been exposed to such kind of urban requirement. Similarly, in north India there are problems. But there is growing awareness among all the states that they have to move forward.

Which are the showpiece projects of the JNNURM?
I must mention the 24X7 water supply: some cities have made a beginning in this regard. Then there are cities where segregated garbage is being collected from households and disposed of. BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) is another example. I call it the common man’s metro. We are supporting BRT in nine cities. There is a 16 km or so dedicated corridor and good quality buses are available. If you board the bus at one point, you know you will reach your destination in this much time. These are some of the examples that stand out. But every project has a certain value in a city-specific situation.

Empowerment of urban local bodies is a prerequisite for claiming funds under the JNNURM. Why hasn’t that happened?
There are not very many occasions when a national mission runs on two principles—reform agenda and project agenda. The two cannot be segregated in the JNNURM. For the reform part, a seven-year window was made available. But such changes cannot be expected to happen overnight especially when it involves a cultural change. The constitution mandates that 18 functions should get transferred from the states to the cities and the cities should be enabled and empowered to undertake those tasks. This is a big challenge, but the states have committed that by the seventh year, the transfer of functions would be complete. We have the example of West Bengal where it has already happened. But West Bengal already had such a culture; other states are doing it now.

Why have you decided on a third-party audit of funds for JNNURM-II?
We decided to put in place some independent monitors. The idea is to ensure proper implementation. There was a discussion about elected representatives not being involved. We have issued instructions that at the city and district levels, the members of parliament and assemblies concerned would also form a monitoring group.

Why has your ministry asked every city with a population of more than 10 lakh to set up a Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority?
The idea is to look at transportation issues as a whole. At present, there is a transport department which issues permits and licences. Traffic management is by police. Then there are master plan-related issues. There are so many such factors that play a role in contributing to a well-organised city transport system. There could be the suburban rail system, metro and other modes of transport. The idea is to look at these issues as an integrated whole. We have also introduced the concept of service-level benchmarks in urban transport.

Why is it that such authorities scarcely hold any meetings, be it in Mumbai, Bangalore or Hyderabad?
They have made a beginning but a lot of back-up is required. It is one thing to say that all these issues need to be addressed and another to see that we have sufficient data. We need to have a mechanism where the required data is generated, analysed and decisions taken accordingly.

Don’t we need service benchmarks in housing also?
The question of providing housing is a larger issue. Our sister ministry, for housing and urban poverty alleviation, has formulated a policy and is also in the process of developing a model legislation. We are thinking in terms of having a regulatory arrangement to address the concerns of people in Delhi when they want to book a house. But yes, issues related to the implementation of housing schemes by private developers and even authorities like DDA need to be addressed. We are moving steadily in that direction to have a regulator to look into these issues.

How do you see the growing role of private players, given the mixed performance of PPP projects? While power distribution has improved in Delhi, for example, there have been complaints of overbilling as well.
The urban sector is used to funds from the government, but user charges is not a very popular concept. We still have a long journey to cover even to have metered connections. Levying user charges is something we have emphasised in the JNNURM. Only when these basics are in place, PPP will take off. Therefore, another reform measure is to have a proper PPP policy. How much guarantee we can give to the private player that he is entering a regime where there would be fair play? That takes us to a discussion about having an urban  regulator also. We cannot have regulators for every segment and section. One could look at the city as a whole and look at what sort of regulatory system would work. We have a lead from the finance commission’s report which talks about nine parameters which, if implemented, could lead to the local bodies getting performance grant.

What about assurances to the consumers? Will the urban regulator help in that respect?
It depends on how it is structured. It should not become another system which adds to complications. Maharashtra has a water regulator for the bulk water supply and not for the other areas of water supply. We have to look at such examples to see what can be learned and improved.

The Madras High Court recently ruled a PPP project delivering public utilities such as water must be considered a public authority under the RTI Act. Your views?
This is a systemic improvement we have to bring about. What is being done should be shared with the public. The websites of the local bodies are expected to provide information about various projects. We also initiated a process of having an interactive mechanism so that people can come to know what we collect as information about the projects. This is currently in the process of being developed. There is a transparency legislation which is part of the reform agenda. After all, this is the age of right to information.
 
The first ranking of cities on sanitation revealed that India does not have a single clean, green city...
What we have talked about is just an open defecation-free city. More awareness generation can immediately lead to a substantial improvement. That was the idea of the survey: to sensitise the cities about where they stood in terms of sanitation.

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