In the wake of 33 cities being chosen as Smart Cities, Mint interviews M. Venkaiah Naidu, Union minister of urban development, to discuss the future of urban development in India.
You were the Union Minister for Rural Development under the Vajpayee government, and you are now the Union minister for urban development, which gives you a very unique vantage point as an observer of India’s urban development. According to you, what are the key challenges faced by Indian cities today?
There is a lack of civic participation, a lack of civic governance. You only complain if it affects you. You throw away your waste outside, you encroach upon others. You don’t bother about the natural resources that are available, there is no community awareness. Now they want rejuvenation of lakes in Bengaluru, started by RWAs (Resident Welfare Associations). Then there is the problem of populism. There is a campaign against Smart Cities going around that smart means charges will go up. If you want to go up in life, you have to pay some charges. If you want 24x7 water supply, you have to pay charges. But I am also taking care to see that the vulnerable sections’ interests are taken care of. For instance, for slum dwellers, there is a nominal charge for drinking water. For people consuming water beyond a particular level, the slab will be different. For those consuming the water for commercial purposes, the slab will be different. For those consuming water for industrial purposes, the slab will be different. All these things have to be done by the local bodies. I am monitoring them, having conferences with 500 municipal commissioners.
What are the focus areas for the government with respect to urban development?
This government has brought about an urban renaissance in the country. People are now looking inwards into their city and at how to improve it. The earlier Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) programme of the Congress government—the approach was a bottom-down approach. Now, I have shifted into a bottom up approach. That also has a wonderful effect on the people because stakeholder consultations and citizen partnerships are vital. The Smart Cities competition has brought about a certain level of competitive spirit among states to improve their parameters. It’s not like sanctions and political considerations—you have to compete. That spirit has come. Secondly, the urban local bodies started involving the people. For example, in Indore, one fourth of the city participated in the process. Urban transformation is not possible without people’s involvement and stakeholder consultations. This is one of the paradigm shifts. Second is transparency and accountability. People will support you if you are transparent. If you promise something and don’t deliver on it, it will be a major issue. The third one is ease of approvals. It is a major issue because urban development cannot be handled entirely by government resources—it needs money from the market. There are opportunities here. The economy may be down but people have money. They are not finding better returns for their investments in their country. Worldwide, people are looking for better opportunities for investment and India is the place for investment. The World Bank report, ADB report and (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi’s ratings—everywhere India’s ratings are positive. The advantage of that is that I am focusing on ease of approvals. I am holding meetings with my colleagues because to get approval for construction, you need to go to 41 places. I have studied this in the last two years and now we are trying to reduce it and finally take it to a single window clearance. All these issues have been addressed and (we) have come out with some solutions. There are colour-coded maps so sitting in your city you can figure out the level that you are allowed.
Those maps are made available to the urban local bodies and these powers have been transferred to them. Use of technology has also been introduced. Building by-laws are also being amended. First for Delhi and Mumbai – you will now get permission within 30 days of application. Fourth is that the plans that are made from Delhi do not suit the galli (street). Now, total autonomy has been given to the urban local bodies. They will plan, consult, design and decide. I am only seeing whether they are following the parameters, credit worthiness to go to market. The reforms—is the corporation ready for reforms? Each smart city will have a special purpose vehicle and will tie up with an Indian Administrative Service officer. There has to be a vision for every city. These 100 smart cities are also selected in the most transparent and accountable manner by certain parameters. Nobody has any complaints anymore. Initially, there were complaints from certain states that were not included in the first list. So now, 23 states and union territories have been given an opportunity to participate in the fast track competition of which 13 have been selected. The geographical spread is also widespread. We also found some capital cities missing and there was criticism against the state government. That has also been taken care of and seven capital cities have been included.
Through Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation and the Shyama Prasad Mukherji Rurban Mission, there is considerable attention being paid to the places outside of the big cities. Could you comment on the rationale behind such schemes and how you imagine they will contribute to overall urban development?
You cannot have a uniform approach to all. In certain areas, you have to go for retrofitting, certain areas for redevelopment; certain areas you have to go for satellite cities, certain areas you have to plan for the next 25 years. Migration is a reality of urbanization. Because education, employment, entertainment, academic activity, enhanced medical facilities are available in urban areas, they are all concentrated in urban areas. The idea of the PM in this Rurban (rural-urban) scheme is to...provide them the infrastructure in their towns. Have college, training institutes, hospitals. This is the multi-pronged approach.
You have repeatedly raised the point across various conferences that state governments in India continue to run their cities, as opposed to cities like London and New York, which have powerful city governments. How does your government aim to strengthen the administrative and fiscal backbone of municipalities?
This is an important question. The 73rd and 74th amendment of the constitution, passed during P.V. Narasimha Rao’s regime, envisages the transfer and devolution of 29 subjects to local bodies. It has not happened satisfactorily. Funds, functions and functionaries need to be devolved to the local bodies. The PM in a very drastic step has in one go apportioned 5% of the funds of the government of India to local bodies. Each Panchayat is going to get Rs.80 lakh-Rs.1crore. It will not go via the state, but directly into the accounts of the local bodies. Secondly, the money which I am sanctioning for various schemes, the states can keep it with them for seven days. After the seventh day, interest will be charged. I cannot bypass the states. I don’t have my own independent mechanism. I don’t use the phrase ‘carrot and stick policy’; I use ‘incentives and disincentives’. The disincentive is interest. Thirdly, these are part of reforms. If you are lagging behind the reforms, then there will be a 10% cut.
The schemes are focused on the public–private partnership model of development. Has the response from the private sector been satisfactory?
They are studying. They want to be assured of returns. Are they coming for charity? If you want better services, then you have to pay for service charges. There are ways of realizing a resource. In Surat, the city opted for a ring road, without enhancing anything. They got Rs.600 crore. Instead of incurring expenditure, the recovered expenditure as well as made additional income of Rs.600 crore. In other cities such as Hyderabad and Bangalore, they are digitizing their properties. Most people are undervaluing their properties. Now, everything is digitized, and automatically the income has gone up. So, there are innovative ideas for raising resources. Then there is land, which can yield additional revenue. There is FAR (floor area ratio) and FSI (floor space index). Your costs will come down. The younger generation is coming up with ideas also. On road separators, the municipalities are putting up advertisements and getting revenue.
What will India’s cities look like in 2050?
There will be a lot of improvement. I am insisting on one more thing. I want Smart Cities to be about nature, culture, combined with future. The native architecture should be preserved. We must feel proud about our heritage. I went to Barcelona. Before I went there, I was under the impression that Barcelona would be highly developed. But when I went there, all the native architecture has been preserved. I went to the mayor’s office and he showed me around. He showed me how the native architecture has been conserved. I want our cities to become liveable. We must at first make our cities liveable, and then attractive.