Call for Action: Better planning needed for speedy implementation of city infrastructure projects

Better planning needed for speedy implementation of city infrastructure projects

Dr M. Ramachandran, IAS (retired), Former Secretary, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Government of India

Urban development being a state subject, the central government provides guidance, advice and support through central projects for the development of 4,000-plus cities. Until 2005, the centre confined itself to issuing advisories and providing financial support to specific projects and activities. But 2005 became a landmark year with the central government launching the National Urban Renewal Mission for select cities and towns for a seven-year period (later extended up to the year 2014), with an initial allocation of Rs 500 billion (later enhanced to Rs 660 billion). This, in effect, meant that the size of the programme was doubled with the contribution of state governments and urban bodies. This seven-year mission focused on the integrated development of infrastructure services across cities. An agenda of 23 reforms was also introduced as part of the mission. Thus, for the first time, many cities and towns could undertake various infrastructure improvement programmes during the period of the mission. Some of these included development of 24×7 water supply systems and bus rapid transit systems, private sector participation in solid waste management and replacement of trunk pipelines for water supply. In order to facilitate cities to raise resources, credit rating was also carried out. Meanwhile, the property tax collection improved substantially, citizen services were shifted to a digital platform, construction of sewage treatment plants  (STPs) was taken up and slum dwellers were given proper dwelling units in various cities.

Another key initiative was the introduction of service-level benchmarks for the water supply, sewage, solid waste management, drainage, urban transport and e-governance sectors. This enabled the urban local bodies to implement systems for measuring, reporting and monitoring performance. Ideally, each city should have a plan of action to bring about improvements in these areas and the city residents should be updated on a yearly basis as to what has been done, what has been achieved and what is proposed to be done in the coming years.

The launch of the National Urban Transport Policy, 2006 provided cities with a roadmap to improve city mobility, while the National Urban Sanitation Policy, announced in 2008, highlighted the need for having a city sanitation plan and a state sanitation strategy — two essentials recognised during the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) in 2015. In the area of urban transport, many cities got over 25,000 brand new buses and new metro rail projects were approved for some of the major cities. Though critics and commentators may say that the “grant culture” from the centre has in a way spoiled the cities, it is a fact that our cities started getting used to taking up various new urban initiatives and city residents could feel the change that was happening. If not all, several cities and towns started considering bringing about a significant change in the management of cities, handling city issues and making life better for the common man.

Convinced that we can no longer afford to ignore our cities and it is not enough to leave the city management matters to the states alone, the present central government took some major decisions to further strengthen infrastructure. In 2015, AMRUT was initiated with a central allocation of Rs 500 billion to cover 500 cities with focus on water supply; sewerage facilities and septage management; storm- water drainage; pedestrian, non-motorised and public transport facilities; and enhancing the amenity value of cities by creating and upgrading green spaces, parks, etc.

The Smart Cities Mission was launched in 2015, with a five-year allocation of Rs 480 billion from the centre. It aimed to develop cities that provided core infrastructure, give a decent quality of life to its citizens, provide a clean and sustainable environment; and enable the application of “smart” solutions.

Through another scheme, HRIDAY, strategic and planned development of 12 heritage cities was taken up, aiming at improvement in the overall quality of life with specific focus on sanitation, security, tourism, heritage revitalisation and livelihoods while retaining the cultural identity of the cities.

We were living with the fact that close to 8,000,000 households do not have access to toilets and defecate in the open until the central government announced the SBM. The five-year programme covering all statutory towns of the country with the objective of eliminating open defecation, eradication of manual scavenging, providing modern and scientific municipal solid waste management, and raising awareness about sanitation and its linkage with public health. The estimated cost of implementation of this mission is Rs 620 billion, of which Rs 146 billion will be provided by the central government.

Launched in 2015, the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (Housing for All Mission) for urban areas aims to provide houses to all eligible families/beneficiaries by 2022. It is estimated that about 20 million additional houses may be required to be constructed to meet the target.

What next?

This brief survey of the central government initiatives in the urban sector shows that in the last 13 years the centre has made significant attempts to help cities in improving the standard of living. I will now try to list some of the key areas that require intense action to provide appropriate living conditions and to develop facilities in the cities, that contribute a major part of the country’s GDP.

Water management

It is known that urban water supply is beset with problems relating to coverage, quality, poor operations and maintenance, and sustainability. We still have a long way to go as far as covering all urban households with water connections is concerned. There is no standard definition of potable water and its quality that the utility responsible for supplying water can adhere to. Thus, 24×7 water supply in all cities and towns is a distant dream. Each city should make an assessment of the water requirement for the future and accordingly build the supply infrastructure to match the future demand. There has to be a clear estimation of the non-revenue water level in cities as well as strategies to address the wastage. Each city must have a clear roadmap on the implementation of the AMRUT objective to ensure that every household has access to a tap with assured supply of water.

Solid waste management

In 2014, a report of the then Planning Commission’s Task Force on Waste to Energy pointed out that of the estimated 62 million tonnes of MSW generated annually by 377 million people in urban areas, more than 80 per cent is disposed of indiscriminately at dump yards in an unhygienic manner by the municipal authorities, leading to health problems and environmental degradation. This type of dumping will need 340,000 cubic metres of landfill space every day. Here again, our cities still have a long distance to travel. States must have a strategy for handling different types of waste. Since identification of landfill sites is becoming increasingly difficult, the state governments have to guide cities or clusters of towns and cities to jointly manage waste. Our per capita generation of waste is only going up now. So who is to take up the “three R” initiative – reduce, reuse, recycle. Yes, the SBM places emphasis on preparing project reports for the implementation of solid waste management and forming clusters among small cities to become viable entities.

Sewage

The Report on Indian Urban Infrastructure (2011) while discussing the state of urban sewerage and sanitation pointed out that 4,861 of the 5,161 cities and towns in the country do not even have a partial sewerage network. About 18 per cent of urban households do not have access to any form of latrine facility and out of the 79 STPs under state ownership reviewed in 2007, as many as 46 are operating under very poor conditions. The State of India’s Environment report points out that nobody really knows how much sewage is generated in India. The rule of thumb technique of assessing sewage assumes that 70 to 80 per cent of the water supplied returns as sewage. An estimate that we have is the Central Pollution Control Board’s 2006 assessment that all Class I and Class II cities together generated a total of 29,129 million litres of sewage daily. So our cities first need to have proper data generating systems followed by workable methods of handling sewage.

Drainage

Cities without proper drainage find it difficult to exit water during heavy rains and flooding  because of concretisation. There is also lack of awareness about required drainage routes for water to flow out. Our cities have to prioritise preparation of master plans for citywide drainage networks and implement them strictly.

Urban transport

It is said that if cities are to be made engines of growth that power India’s development in the present century, transportation systems have to be their lifeline. Congestion and pollution are increasingly becoming critical issues in our cities. As per the World Health Organisation’s recently released global air pollution database, 14 of the 15 most polluted cities in the world are in India. Investments in promoting public transport are not taking place in the way they should be and public transport is also not being given adequate importance in a city’s mobility agenda. Bus infrastructure in cities remains inadequate and problematic. Dependence on personalised vehicles is perpetually on the rise. Last-mile connectivity is another unattended area.

Even after repeated emphasis for constituting a city-level Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (UMTA) in the National Urban Transport Policy and by the centre, only Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have made legislative provisions for the same. Although some other states have provided for UMTA through executive orders, these authorities have not reached a level wherein they can seriously undertake city-level coordinated transport initiatives like in London or Singapore. Metro rail projects are being taken up in more cities, thanks to the policy encouragement provided in the finance minister’s 2014 budget speech wherein it was stated that planning for metro projects must begin for cities with over 2 million population and the government should encourage the development of metro rail systems. The Metro Rail Policy of 2017 clearly lays down how the cities should take forward this agenda. If we do not take up urban mobility planning for each of our cities seriously, we would land up in situations where city life is going to reach miserable levels.

Housing

The Housing for All agenda has to be implemented on priority and cities have to devise a mechanism whereby it is possible to keep track of the inflow of people into the cities and how to meet their housing needs. Could rental housing be one of the solutions? If no land is available and if people cannot afford the rents for the houses available, how will they to be made a part of the city’s development process? This should be a key focus area in city management. It is to be noted that cities across the world are now trying to find new types of solutions to handle the uncontrollable expansion of the urban population.

Governance

The way urban planning is being undertaken now will have to undergo a rapid change if cities are to manage within the given infrastructure and resources. As multiple authorities will continue to exist, what is important now is to bring in mechanisms that will actively work to bring about integration and coordination among them. Each city should be able to plan effectively in an integrated and holistic manner concerning all areas of governance.

It is also time to consider whether the isolated existence of cities will really work in the future or there have to be increasing instances of regional cooperation and working. The City Growth Commission in the UK had observed, in its report in 2014, that if geographically close cities can have the best transport between them, allowing their current and potential consumers and producers to feel as though they are all part of one urban mass, then the benefits that typically accrue to London could be repeated elsewhere. In fact in the UK, legislation provides for combined authorities among cities as many local authorities understand that scale is the key to unlocking public service efficiencies and managing strategic economic development.

Empowerment

It is time that states take a call on how to best empower city bodies in line with the spirit of the 74th Constitutional Amendment. Empowered and accountable mayors and chairpersons have to take command of all those subjects entrusted to the city governments. A well-structured municipal cadre structure also has to be facilitated.

Resource mobilisation

Cities have to find more resources to take up the various activities. Municipal bonds will have to gain prominence. The credit rating system for the cities has to be activated all over the country. The state finance commissions also have to play an active role with regard to resources for the local governments.

Making life better

Even though there are many other issues to be addressed so that cities become more functional and are able to meet the expectations of their residents, I would like to briefly refer to two more items. The first one is the need to give importance to reducing pollution levels in our cities. Cities should have mechanisms in place to regularly monitor the pollution levels and take steps to bring about improvements. Service-level benchmarks are another key concept which the cities have to take seriously so that where the city stands is constantly reviewed and the public is regularly informed about the improvements brought about. Recently, the centre came out with the ease-of-living ranking, in which Pune was at the top but the score of 58.11 did not impress many. In 2010, the Confederation of Indian Industry had come up with a liveability index, which ranked Delhi at the top and Pune was at the eighth position. Such competitive ratings enable the cities to take stock of where they stand with regard to citizen services. More such initiatives need to be institutionalised so that cities can remain constantly alert.