South Asian countries must come together to tackle urban problems: Sumitra Mahajan

In an exclusive interview with Urban Update during the South Asian CitiesSummit-2016, Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, who started her political career as a councilor and brought about many changes at the local level, spoke about the significance of local bodies in urban development, and their growing roles and responsibilities

Sumitra Mahajan underlined the fact that local bodies are extremely important in this age of smart cities. When asked how she thinks local self governance and local bodies can help the citizens better, Mahajan said “Actually the local self government is the body that can help because planning is with them. It could be about water bodies, sanitation or playground, local bodies have to plan. Local bodies are the connecting chain between the government and the people. They definitely will send the plan to the government and government will approve. But it has to be done with the help of local people as they are directly related to the people. They know the needs of the town. So they are very important in planning the cities and not only that, it may be village, it may be panchayat; in planning it because they know it better and not only planning but working with the help of the people.”

In recent times there have been debates on the empowerment of the local bodies, their role and their powers. Local bodies have even complained that their powers are being snatched. This was the question thrown at Mahajan. She replied that this government is different. She said that “this government at the centre is committed to empower the local bodies. We have set the target that money will go directly to the panchayat account. That means money will go to the people directly. That’s why to strengthen the smart cities project that we are planning, local MLA, MP, mayor all of them will be there in the committee. They will have to plan and they will plan.” Citing her own journey and experience as a public representative over the decades from being a corporator and then going on to become a member of parliament and how she strengthened the local bodies in her constituency, Mahajan said that creating awareness is the key. She said “When you go to the people they share by themselves that has been my experience. No doubt money is always a problem. Still they share themselves. If you do something good for them, if you create awareness if you work with them it works. First I was a corporator then deputy mayor and then I became Member of Parliament. So when I was a corporator I planned with my local bodies to protect play ground especially in the school. Then we worked on parks and then local bodies planted trees in the parks. And then we presented those parks to the local committee that now you look after them. That is how we worked with the local people, local bodies. No doubt money is a problem. So state governments and central government must help them.”

Apart from the importance of local self governance, the Lok Sabha Speaker also talked about a range of issues from sustainable development to climate change to smart cities project. Mahajan said “now a days sustainable development goals are discussed around the globe. Our government has started 100 smart cities project. In India we have started smart cities project. We have selected 20 cities in the first financial year”. Referring to the SAC Summit, she said that this type of discussion is very necessary. She emphasized the need for South Asian countries to come together. “South Asian countries must come together. Because you know it better that our cultural thinking, our atmospheric thinking are a little bit similar. And together we can look forward to the USA, and other big countries and the UN; see what they are doing and how we can benefit mutually.” She expressed confidence that in the next two days the conference would discuss issues related to infrastructure, transport systems among other things as all these are very important.

Talking specifically about India she said that planned cities are not new for India. She said “In ancient India also cities used to be planned. We have examples of Sindhu valley civilization, Mohenjo-daro, etc. These days though we plan to some extent but then there are problems like population growth, encroachment, among other things. So it is important to plan the cities and according to that planning, acting and governance is equally important. I am sure you will discuss how to plan the cities”. At the same time she impressed upon the fact that “a smart city is not just about concrete structure. A city must have open space, water body, parks and cultural space as well. It must also have religious space”. Coming back to the theme of climate change she warned of the dangers of fiddling with nature. She said “our thoughts are together, one and the same. We can live with nature, we must protect nature then only nature will protect us. Now we are talking about climate change. I think in smart cities we think about all these things. Things should be done ecologically, culturally and religiously.”

Mahajan also expressed her concern over the usage and scarcity of water. How important water is for our lives. She said “We are discussing drought and water scarcity in parliament. Water is extremely important. It is being discussed from Indian parliament to UN. So I am sure when you think about smart cities in South Asia you must think about the nature. There has to be some parity. I am sure you will discuss all these things”.

Lauding the initiative of the All India Institute of Local Self-Government, she expressed confidence that something good will come out of this conference. She asked that all the points that the conference will discuss be provided to her so that she could study them. She said she will pass it on to the parliamentarians. She stated “Don’t think that politicians don’t think about all these issues”. At the end she again said that government has planned hundred smart cities in the first phase and it cannot be done without the support of the local people. “I will definitely read your thinking and convey to our parliament members as well” she said.

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