The stars are aligning

Government schemes, local innovations, financial support, and knowledge sharing from multilateral organisations, foreign governments and their local bodies—a mishmash of a range of factors are working together to bring about a change in how Indian cities are built and refurbished

The ecstaticoptimism that the government will reform our cities overnight has given way to more pragmatic realism. The launch of various new initiatives for urban areas is welcome as it is the first time in India that the government has given momentous importance to urban development. They have launched schemes for urban rejuvenation—Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), for building new smart cities which can offer better facilities—Smart Cities Mission, for cleaning up environment—Swachh Bharat Mission, for building affordable houses for all—Housing for All, for restoring heritage in cities-Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY), etc.

Most of these schemes are still in the pipeline or say, actual implementation has not begun. But irrespective of whether national and state governments move things slowly or quickly, our cities should be directed towards right trajectory of development. We are at a significant point of history and it is the policy makers and urban experts who can pave the way for sustainable future for cities. The time for assuring good services and infrastructure in cities is long gone. It is the time for the government and experts to work together for ensuring efficient services, facilities and infrastructure to citizens.
It is clear that only governments cannot build Smart Cities. Perhaps, the government is aware of the fact and this is why all the urban development missions, especially Smart Cities Mission, put community engagement on a high pedestal. Citizens too are actively participating in the process. All the cities selected in the first phase of competition have witnessed pro-active citizen participation in which citizens not only voted for the sectors which need immediate attention but also put forward their suggestions for improving management of the city.

Learning from the past

Experiences of urbanisation in our existing cities along with a relook at the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act is essential to build a new perspective on new urbanisation strategy. As the Census 2011 reveals, growth will happen in existing urban areas along with smaller cities, which in the last decade have grown at a rather impressive speed. These urban areas will have to function within the ambits of a strong governance framework as enshrined within the 74th CAA albeit with its limitations which need more elaboration. Municipalities have a range of roles to play in running a city efficiently. The role and responsibilities of all kinds of municipalities are clear but the regulations and their administrative and financial powers need a relook to ensure the smooth functioning of our cities in the changing urban environment.

It is quite clear that lack of employment opportunities in villages is forcing rural populace to move to cities. Cities have consistently outpaced the rest of the country in terms of economic employment growth. This is because they tend to be more productive in terms of the value of the goods and services they generate and the efficiency with which they are produced. This is not very surprising as cities accommodate higher-value functions such as corporate headquarters, financial and business services and manufacturing, and high-order public services, such as national and provincial departments, universities and major hospitals. The McKinsey report on India’s Urbanisation predicts that cities will contribute over 70 percent of India’s GDP.

It is required of the government that they not only focus on improving infrastructure and services in cities but also make an effort to create job opportunities in small towns so that metro cities are not over populated. The report also suggests that India will have 13 cities, if the current pace of migration continues, with population of over 4 million.

This is quite an optimistic approach by the government and other urban stakeholders to take initiatives in their own capacity to address various urban problems. Successful planning and management of urbanisation depends on the strategic capabilities of local governments, defined in political, technical and administrative terms. These need to be balanced with local responsiveness and popular support in order to manage complex urban issues. It is true that the change will not be visible in a couple of months.However, with our experiences of the past and our commitment towards community expectations at large, cities can lead the way to a sustainable urban future.

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