Urban governance, monitoring models need re-look, says National Institute of Urban Affairs director

NIUA’s head says Finance Minister’s emphasis in Budget was on structural reform rather than operational reform

February 12, 2022 06:04 pm | Updated 08:21 pm IST

National Institute of Urban Affairs director Hitesh Vaidya. Photo: Special Arrangement

National Institute of Urban Affairs director Hitesh Vaidya. Photo: Special Arrangement

In an interview with The Hindu’s Damini Nath, director of the National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA), Hitesh Vaidya, discusses the importance of reviewing the approach towards urban planning, as mentioned in Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s Budget speech. He says the governance of urban local bodies, as under the 74th Constitutional Amendment, also needs a re-look.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a high-level committee, five centres of excellence and a rethinking of urban planning in her Budget 2022-2023 speech. How do you see these announcements?

This was the first time that ‘urban’ came into the policy decision in any of the Budgets in the past 25 years of my career. That urban took such prominence in the decisions and had so much place in her speech itself shows the importance. When our cities are growing and we are saying that by 2050, 50% of India’s population will be urban, then it also shows that we are recognising that India is no longer going to be a rural economy and is moving towards an urban economy. Unless we start looking at urban very seriously, we will be missing the bus….When I look at the Budget, I don’t look at it as a standalone document. I’m looking at the last three or four policy instruments. One is last year’s Economic Survey, which talked about focus on water, sanitation and housing. Then, the 15th Finance Commission report, which talked about urban reforms and focus on own-source revenue of urban local bodies. Then, this year’s Economic Survey that talked about urban and climate change…And, then the Finance Minister’s announcement that the business-as-usual approach will not work.

Has the Budgetary allocation shown this focus? Apart from the five centres of excellence and an increase in the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana-Urban (PMAY-U), where are the funds for the reform mentioned?

The PMAY scheme has got roughly a 37% increase. There has been an increase in the Smart Cities Mission, which is coming to an end by 2023. So, there may be planning for new missions. There has also been an increase in last year’s Jal Jeevan Mission-Urban (JJM-U). These new missions, JJM-U and Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban 2.0, which was also announced six to eight months ago. Already, these four things have started moving on the ground. A lot of the emphasis of her speech was on structural reform, like modernising building bylaws, looking at urban planning and design process, transit-oriented development, etc. Those areas have to be looked at by think tanks like NIUA. Her emphasis was on structural reform rather than operational reform.

What role would NIUA have then?

First, is that we need to come up with strategies and standards. Based on this announcement, what are those action points and road maps? We need to come up with action-oriented road maps.

Second, we need to come up with tools and templates that they [States and cities] can start using. Urban being a State subject, it has to come from States and cities. Sixty-five per cent of the 7,933 urban settlements don’t have a masterplan. NIUA is working on the masterplan of Delhi, but we want to see what are the learnings, and we can establish those principles of planning that other local bodies can start replicating.

NIUA, based on our learnings from different projects, can be an aggregator or knowledge provider to the more than 4,000 urban local bodies. We have already started talking to a number of States about how we can be of help. The second thing is that being a think tank, we talk about resilient cities, child-friendly cities, climate-friendly cities, but one thing we also need to look at is, after the 74th Constitutional Amendment, who will do it, how will cities be governed? I think that is an area where we need to bring much more focus — the governance of cities, the role of urban local bodies. If 74th Amendment has lived its life, then what is the new way of looking at it?

Then we need to talk about creating monitoring mechanisms. Now we make a policy at Central level, we have something at State-level, and then we have master plans at city level. There are no inter-linkages. The biggest role a think tank like NIUA has to play is how do you shape the youth for the urban future? We have started looking at academic and research partnerships.

Will it require an amendment, and what would you say on the State vs. Centre political battles that we have seen when it comes to implementation and monitoring of some urban missions?

I don’t think it would need legislative action. I think we need a management intervention… Every mission, for example, Swachh Bharat Mission, it has its own assessment through Swachh Survekshan; Smart Cities Mission has its own assessment framework. They are all providing data in one form or the other.

I think the time has come that we start coming up with India’s integrated urban assessment framework. We need to apply management tools. The last diagnostic study of urban in the country was done in 1982, when the last National Commission on Urban happened. There has been an ad hoc way of looking at how urbanisation is happening. We need to have an urbanisation diagnostic study — which States are becoming more urban or less, what are the corridors that are emerging, what are different types of clusters — manufacturing clusters, production clusters, knowledge clusters, administrative clusters — and based on that, we need to look at how our National Missions support that. So I think as a think tank, we need to conduct a diagnostic study, and based on that, we need to come up with the policy controls for future directions of urbanisation.

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