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Updated: June 6, 2013 14:05 IST

The great Indian urban mission

A. Srivathsan
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Re-visioning Indian Cities — The Urban Renewal Mission: K.C. Sivaramakrishnan; Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B1/I-1, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs. 695.
Re-visioning Indian Cities — The Urban Renewal Mission: K.C. Sivaramakrishnan; Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B1/I-1, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs. 695.

The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), launched in December 2005 with an outlay of Rs. 50,000 crore to be spent over seven years, is the single largest initiative by the Government of India to support planned development of cities. In terms of scale and ambition, there has been no comparable programme. For this very reason, it is subjected to close scrutiny.

This book by Sivaramakrishnan, an urban policy expert of repute and a member of JNNURM's technical advisory group, presents a comprehensive review of the mission and its objectives, taking a critical look at its impact on urban governance, finance, and city development.

What distinguishes the JNNURM and makes it worthy of study is its city-based nature as much as its huge size. Unlike in the earlier programmes, the Central funds are assigned to the recipient cities directly, not routed through the State Governments. For all its laudatory objectives and innovative funding arrangement, the mission has been mired in a series of conceptual conflicts right from its inception. The author gets to this point quickly, in the fifth chapter of the book, after spelling out the details of the JNNURM. .

Disconnects

Sivaramakrishnan perceptively observes that the “early start” of funding and commencement of projects was “crucial to establish JNNURM,” but the very desire to speed up the sanctioning and implementation of projects resulted in a series of “disconnects.” To start with, the “elected local bodies were not fully on board” in the process of preparing the City Development Plan (CDP), an important and basic component that is expected to project the ‘vision' 'of the city and list priorities. Secondly, the projects identified for funding did not necessarily flow from the CDP, and as such, were not a part of the larger vision.

Another significant observation relates to the method of assessing the outcomes of projects. Lacking in innovation, the JNNURM — like any other government-funded programme — preferred to measure the results in terms of the money spent and physical progress, rather than benefits accrued to the target groups.

One of the much-debated issues has been the mission's objective to usher in administrative reforms in urban local bodies by making it a condition for funding. Understandably, the book devotes considerable attention to this question. Issues such as rent control and the repeal of the enactment related to urban land ceiling are a part of the reform agenda proposed by the JNNURM.

In the light of the divergent and even opposite routes taken by the States in the area of property tax reforms, and the distortion caused in the land market for housing — as a consequence of the scrapping of the land ceiling law — the author raises serious doubts about the relevance and efficacy of these measures.

Much of the discussion is on decentralisation measures as envisaged by the 74th Constitution Amendment Act and the role of the JNNURM in serving that objective. In the author's opinion, the mission takes a “passive stand” and has done precious little by way of promoting the cause actively. The two sections on Metropolitan Planning Committee and district-level planning have not been woven well into the discussion on governance reforms.

It is in its analysis of the impact of the mission's financing mechanism that the book falls short.

Under the JNNURM, the local bodies are expected to mobilise 30 to 50 per cent of the project cost. Except in large cities, their asset base and general financial health are poor. Their ability to borrow from the private market has always been in serious doubt.

Presuming that the local bodies are able to borrow, how will they service and clear the huge debt without raising the charges for the services they provide? In this context, the JNNURM is characterised by critics as ‘the thin edge of the wedge' that would eventually lead to privatisation of the urban services.

The book points out that the State governments have been remiss in allocating their share of funds to the urban local bodies and the latter, for their part, have not sought alternative sources. But the author has not gone deep enough into these questions, nor does he provide an empirical analysis of municipal finances.

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