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An age of transformation

Projects

The urban and rural have a distinct identity in India. But post-makeover being encouraged by the government with help from the private sector, the lines are set to blur, Shyam Vasudevan

India is undergoing a dramatic shift in its demography. The government is planning to decongest India’s existing cityscapes and enhance comforts for the urban middleclass. It plans to do this by building 35 new townships along the public private partnership (PPP) model.

It is estimated that over the next four decades India will see an addition of 379 million people to its urban spaces. That is more than the entire population of USA today. And this is a conservative estimate than some government estimates. The problem in India is that a very fine line divides the rural and the urban.

The new planned cities will be based on the lines of the developments in Gurgaon and Noida. Such townships are being added to all million-plus cities. The government is taking quick measures to accommodate at least 40% of its population in urban areas by 2021. According to M Ramachandran, secretary, Urban Development, “The biggest challenge before the government is to create cities with adequate economic activities to sustain an urban population. The economic factor will be addressed by keeping the new townships packed with commercial centres.”

The plan is to align this development with the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). The finance ministry has approved a corpus fund of Rs500 crore to get the project on its feet. It plans to add funds every year to keep the projects rolling. But there are a few things the state governments will have to do to make the new scheme a runaway success. It will have to rationalise stamp duty and house tax, implement rent control acts, and set up self sustainable transportation funds to receive central assistance.

Officials believe that implementation of the intelligent transport system will play a crucial role in these new cities. The urban development ministry has also made provisions in this regard.

And who says the government is least interested in assuring quality of public utility services? There is a whole new quality assurance system written down. The central government has issued new urban services benchmark to all states. As of now, it’s a directive that has been sent out to all the chief secretaries since urban development is a state subject.

“It’s an advisory as of the moment, but it depends on the people to ensure that city administration sticks to this benchmark,” says Ramachandran. “Citizens could adhere to legal redressal if a state converts these into laws enforced by the legislative and the city administration does not adhere to it.”

Unrepresented land

Sure, the new act will open up a Pandora’s Box for city administrations. The new quality directive covers four aspects ¬¬– water supply, storm water drainage, sewerage and solid waste management.

Moreover, it expects to solve the one problem that most urban dwellers face. The new directive states that urban dwellers should have running water twenty-four hours a day. It has also prescribed a minimum per capita availability of 135 lpcd (litres per capita daily). This is an improvement considering that most city dwellers across the country have been crying foul.

It’s not unusual for urban crowd to live without water for days on end. Some cities such as Delhi or Mumbai have water supply restricted to just a few hours or even minutes.

Similarly, the directive has also issued ten standards pertaining to treatment of sewerage. It mandates that 20% of sewerage water be reused and 80% of the customer’s complaint addressed at any given point in time. Further, there should be no incidence of water logging and all cities should have cent per cent coverage of storm water drainage.

While all this might sound something out of a dream for urban dwellers, it is a step in the right direction. Most states will shy from making the above-mentioned laws, but this mandate makes it compulsory for states to touch a particular bench mark.

All this is set to change with the world’s most ambitious PPP model in urbanisation. Moving so many people into urban areas is a challenge as well as an opportunity for India’s construction majors. Big players such as Unitech and DLF have already played it partially.

But they are all set to take off their gloves and delve into a minefield of opportunity. The total investment required is estimated at $350 billion. This will also call for new models of resource utilisation and planning.

Several thousand square kilometres of land will also be required before development can start.

India has 35 million-plus cities, 441 with a population above one lakh and 4,720 with a population of less than a lakh. The proactive initiatives of state governments have been crucial in developing cities and townships such as Noida, Mohali, Navi Mumbai, Bidadi and Manesar. In all these projects, the state has also made huge investments. In the present model, the private enterprises will take over from state government agencies so that projects can move faster.

The urban development ministry has also provided for enhanced transportation linkages in these new cities. The Viability Gap Funding (VGF) for transportation projects has been enhanced to 40% from the existing 20% to attract more participation from the private sector. Urban transport is one area of investment that people shy away from since the tariff was flattened by the government. The other roadblock here is that most of the investments require longer term commitments. This makes them unviable.

A case in point is the management of urban public transport in Delhi. Delhi Transport Corporation currently owns the world’s largest fleet of eco-friendly busses. Proposals to corporatise public transport have been invited from interested parties. Delhi will soon have all low-floor buses plying on its roads.

The much touted Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) has fallen flat. It is a common joke among Delhiites that the corridor has killed more people than it has transported. It is widely disliked since the concrete barriers limit access to private vehicles plying along the corridor. This results in long traffic snarls along major intersections. The government’s recent proposal to stick to implementing the corridor is sure to make the city a hell, cry media.

Urbanisation has been a key word in India’s development mantra for quite long now. The planning commission has set apart Rs23,000 crore for urbanisation in the current Five-Year plan. Though a bulk of the amount is set apart for JNNURM-related projects, many small town initiatives have also been proposed.

Several foreign partners have expressed keen interest in being partners in India’s initiatives. They include wings of the World Bank, United Nations and agencies such as the Japan Bank of International Cooperation, UNDP, Water and Sanitation Programme (WSP), Asian Development Bank, USAID, Japan International Cooperation Agency, and International Cooperation Enterprise from Germany GTZ, German Development Bank KfW and UK’s Department for International Development (DFID).

“The JBIC and ADB have extended loans to many of our development projects. Many more organisations have promised to lend us loans in our endeavour,” Ramakrishnan said. The German bank KfW has even gone ahead with a proposal to raise an India urban infrastructure fund to the ministry of finance. “Now, we don’t need to pursue multilateral agencies to bring in their expertise for executing urban projects. All of them are excited about India’s urban story, and have taken their own initiatives to explore possible collaboration with us.”

This gives a boost to India’s urban infrastructure scene. By March 2009, the idea will have been put into motion to double the capacity of India’s cities. Recently there has been a lot of controversy surrounding urban-rural migration in various states of India. This is just an example of how Indian politicians have left no stone unturned when it comes to deriving political mileage.

A study by Purushottaman, chief economist, Future Capital Holdings and Shukla, senior fellow, NCAER, highlights the fact that over 60-70% of migration is within rural areas. Most of India’s migration happens within the state and only a few appear from other states.

Whatever the politics, it is a proven fact that migration will happen and the government is preparing for the same. It is the absolute failure of the governments to provide for city dwellers that is evident in such political ploys. Now there is a need gap and we have to admit it. The next decade will belong to all the constructive thinkers – people who see challenges as opportunities.

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June 2020
10 Jun 2020