No safe drinking water, public transport: Why urban and not rural should be government’s focus

By Kala S Sridhar

In his Budget 2018, finance minister Arun Jaitley focused on much-needed rural development. But given the contributions cities make to overall macroeconomic growth due to their scale and agglomeration economies, India needs to showcase urbanisation, of which ‘smart cities’ are the flagship programme. Given the condition of our cities and urban local bodies, the ‘smart city’, distracts attention away from the provision of basic amenities to those based on technology.

Technology no doubt enhances productivity and makes life easier. But it is only a tool, not the end. To improve urban living, basic services in all cities have to improve significantly. Only then will they attract high-skilled and educated residents.

Budget 2018 proposes the construction of two crore toilets. Analysis based on Census 2011 slums indicates an average coverage of households with latrines of only 50% (with 80% coverage for all-India urban population). There is a need for public toilets. There is a demand-supply mismatch. We need to make toilets functional where they exist, while at a microlevel, the inadequate availability of toilets hasn’t made life easy in public places, despite efforts of the Swachh Bharat mission.

The Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) programme focuses on water supply to all households in 500 cities. Contracts for 494 projects worth .`19,428 crore have been awarded. It is not clear what the wisdom is in ‘awarding projects’, assuming the private sector is better, as it diverts attention away from governance reform in the water sector. Institutional reforms are needed such that users are incentivised to pay.

Financial reforms in cities are no small part, with credit rating being a praiseworthy effort. However, the smaller cities need help with staff capacity, resources, skills and autonomy, in that order, for credit rating, which enables them to float municipal bonds. The Budget states that India will have universal housing by 2022. In urban areas, assistance has been sanctioned for the construction of 37 lakh houses. While there has been a reduction in households living in single bedroom and ‘dilapidated’ dwellings, and an increase in ‘good condition dwellings’ during Census 2001-11, at the beginning of the Eleventh Five-Year Plan (2007-12), there was an urban housing shortage of 24.7 million, of which 99% represented the lower income groups. Given this shortage has presumably accentuated by several times now, the assistance offered is clearly inadequate.

Aspecial scheme to address air pollution in Delhi-NCR region has been proposed. While the subsidy for in situ management of crop residue to tackle stubble burning is a potential solution, programmes for urban pollution cannot be done in isolation. An integrated approach that takes into account urban planning, lifestyles and transport is necessary in all cities, and not just Delhi.

Mumbai’s public suburban transport system being expanded is good news, as is the plan to establish a 160-km suburban network in Bengaluru. On an average, only 26% of commuters in cities across India use public transport.

Consistent with our ethos of technology overtaking basic services, the Budget stated that the NITI Aayog “will initiate a national programme to direct our efforts in the area of artificial intelligence, including research and development of its applications”.

One wishes such a thing were stated with regard to urban research, which enables us to understand more about the nature of urban problems that are quite different from those faced by rural areas. Initiatives for our cities outside of the Budget, such as the livability and Swachh Survekshan surveys, are good. But to make our urban areas more vibrant, substantive research, along with facilitating of efforts for gathering better and reliable data, must receive attention.

While urban development is a state subject, it is GoI that should lead the way by allocating more funds for urban research. This is necessary if India has to continue to stand out among the fastest-growing economies of the world. Until we showcase our human and intellectual capital, it is a tall claim to say that we are outstanding.

The writer is professor, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru

Source: Economic Times

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