Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Budget 2014: The score on the urban front is ‘grade awaited’

Six out of 253 paras of the budget reflect the continuing uphill struggle for cities. If volume of words are a substitute for importance, then urban India is still struggling to get noticed as the true flywheel of our country’s economic narrative. Disappointingly, the quality of the words were even less impressive than the quantity.

The finance minister allocates 7,000-plus crore (presumably, the reallocation of the budget outlay for Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission or JNNURM, which is now formally disbanded) for “smart cities", which are either new satellite towns around existing cities, or upgradation of existing mid-size cities. It is unclear how these funds will be spent, to trigger a larger virtuous cycle of investments and sustainable change in these cities.

In addition, the minister spoke about four fundamental activities that ought to underpin any urban development: safe drinking water and sewerage management; use of recycled water to grow organic fruits and vegetables; solid waste management, and digital connectivity. There was also a fleeting mention of pooled municipal obligations, affordable housing, urban transport and slum development as acceptable corporate social responsibility activity.

My verdict: a khichdi of urban ideas that do not convey coherence or strategic intent.

By contrast, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s 2014 election manifesto speaks to many aspects of what an “urban mission" should contain, both within the section on urbanization, but also in other parts of the manifesto. As imperatives for the new National Democratic Alliance government, the manifesto provides many points of convergence with a new national urban mission: the focus on systemic reforms, respect for the federal nature of India’s polity, focus on governance and delivery, creating trust, enabling people’s participation and people-public-private participation (PPPP) and creation of 100 new cities as well as twin/satellite cities via an approach of integrated development.

It is against this manifesto promise that the finance minister’s speech disappoints. It contains somewhat tired homilies about our urban challenges: “unless new cities are developed to accommodate the burgeoning number of people, existing cities would become unliveable"; or, “it is time that our cities undergo urban renewal and become better places to live in."

Putting it bluntly, our cities are in a mess. And the problems are getting worse. While incremental change is happening in selected cities and states, this cannot be the sum total of our collective response. Our urban problems will get exponentially worse if we don’t create a national mission-mode initiative that brings urgency and energy to reach a superior equilibrium in our country’s urban responses.

The contours of a new national urban mission will therefore be defined by these boundary conditions: our increasing pace of urbanization, the complex challenges they throw up, and the need to resolve these challenges while deepening our federal system. Doing justice to these demands is a non-trivial task, and needs to be one of the new government’s top 10 priorities. If we only tinker around the edges with a mission, all we will have are a few thousand more buses plying our city roads, some water and sewerage systems, a sprinkling of pilot slum redevelopment successes, but little else of real transformational value.

To be fair, it has only been a few weeks. Building a cogent urban vision for any government will take time. But it would be nice to have heard some fresh and frank words in the urban section. So, while the maiden budget of Narendra Modi’s government may get accolades on many other fronts, I am afraid that the score on the urban front is still “grade awaited"—our urban solutions will have to wait in the wings in anticipation, until this government’s first full-year’s budget in February 2015.

Swati Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, and chairperson, Jana Urban Space.

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