Views of Hardeep Singh Puri: “I am optimistic on the urban agenda”

“I am optimistic on the urban agenda”

The government has approved a number of programmes and schemes in the past few years to step up investments in the urban infrastructure sector. The Smart Cities Mission, the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), the Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban), and the Housing for All Scheme (Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana) are aimed at improving basic infrastructure facilities in urban areas. Also, metro rail systems are being set up across the country. Hardeep Singh Puri, Minister of State (Independent Charge), Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, delivered a talk on “Urbanisation in India:  Trends, Challenges and Opportunities”, at the Vivekananda International Foundation. Excerpts…

Currently, 55 per cent of the 4.2 billion people across the world live in urban areas. This is expected to reach 68 per cent by 2050. Even several years after we became an independent country, our major occupation was rural development and agriculture. However, it is changing and the contribution of agriculture to GDP is coming down very fast. Today, it is somewhere between 11 per cent and 15 per cent. India currently has a population of 1.3 billion. The economy is growing very fast; it grew at 7.7 per cent during the last quarter (April to June 2018). If it grows at the current pace, the economy is expected to reach $5 trillion by 2025 and $10 trillion by 2030, unless there is any major economic upheaval. However, the harsh reality is that we have been subjecting our urban space to criminal neglect.

As per the 1950 census, 17 per cent of India lived in urban spaces. This percentage increased to 30 per cent in the 2011 census report. Cities already account for 65 per cent of the GDP and 90 per cent of India’s tax return. In the coming years, the rate of urbanisation is expected to accelerate. Programmes such as the Swachh Bharat Mission – Urban (SBM–U) and the Smart Cities Mission (SCM) are some of the most comprehensive urbanisation programmes that have been undertaken anywhere in the world and are expected to yield great results. Under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana–Urban (PMAY–U), India plans to sanction about 10 million houses by December 2018. Swachhata as a campaign cannot be predicated on the number of toilets built or the efficient usage of water, etc. alone. Swachhta will become a success story only when it becomes a jan andolan, like in Indore, which is one of the cleanest cities in India. Swachhta has definitely caught on and it needs to be the very basis on which other urban programmes are anchored. For instance, the first Swachh Sarvekshan was carried out in 2016, in which 72 cities participated. The next one in 2017 saw participation from 423 or 432 cities. In the third one, carried out in 2018, 4,200 cities participated.

Under the PMAY, the government has decided to construct about 11 million homes after validation from the states and union territories. For affordable housing and partnership homes under the scheme, the government provides land and other concessions for building houses. As of end-June 2018, 5.1 million affordable houses have been sanctioned. Going ahead, 0.3-0.5 million houses will be sanctioned every month under different verticals. This will include the in-situ slum rehabilitation projects wherein green buildings with sewage treatment plants (STPs) are being built. This scheme will be completed by 2022. Other than the 11 million homes, a rental policy is also coming up.

Under schemes like AMRUT, 500 cities with a population of over 0.1 million each are being developed. Under the SCM, the last batch of cities was awarded in February 2018. Of the 100 cities, 90 are brownfield. We have 10 integrated command and control centres (ICCCs) across the smart cities which have already been developed. Around 32 more ICCCs are expected to be completed shortly. Within a year, 72 ICCCs are expected to come up. However, what is needed is a behavioural change in people.

The current government has adopted a policy of constructive federalism, under which the central government provides the ecosystem and the states have to deliver, as land is a state subject. Countries such as India, China and Nigeria are in the inner core of urbanisation and they account for 35 per cent of the urbanisation that is taking place in the world. The only way to deal with that is to build urban infrastructure. Thus, there is a need to build 700-900 million square metres of urban space every year until 2030. The government will amend the Delhi Master Plan scientifically to allow a larger floor area ratio. But the presence of industrial polluting units inside residential areas and people/ commercial establishments encroaching on land will continue to be a challenge.

There are a number of issues affecting planned urbanisation, key among these being the challenge of upgrading urban infrastructure. For infrastructure financing, there is no shortage of money in the country or from outside. However, what is needed is a bankable project. For instance, the Delhi metro has an operational length of 288 km, making it the fourth or fifth largest metro network in the world. By end-December 2018, it is expected to reach 380 km. A sum of Rs 280 billion has been borrowed from the Japan International Cooperation Agency for the project. Thus, the fare hike was justified as the money needs to be given back. Every Indian citizen needs to be given a choice, and the choice has to be anchored in having a public transport system that works. The way to develop urban transport is by ensuring that cities are decongested; buildings are green, sustainable and resilient, with a sewage treatment plant embedded in it; and citizens have seamless access to public transport.

There is also a very strong link between urbanisation and climate change. About 40-45 per cent of any urban space built contributes to the carbon footprint. Thus, the task is to build urban areas using green technology, which would make buildings not only carbon-neutral but also energy-positive. For instance, a green building housing 8,000 central government employees was inaugurated in Bengaluru. Going ahead, we need to focus more on the link between climate change and urbanisation.

A change is also required in the model of urban governance and total empowerment has to be granted to urban local bodies (ULBs). Recently, four or five ULBs had floated bonds which are very good. In addition to raising revenue through various means such as house tax, the ULBs need to be empowered to raise money in the market. It is working in Pune, Hyderabad, Surat, etc. Thus, we need to concentrate on how our ULBs are to be empowered.

To conclude, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs cannot achieve its objectives through a nanny-state approach; rather, it would need citizen involvement. Decisions need to be taken through citizen and stakeholder consultation. The metro rail projects are on track, given the kind of progress nationwide and the volume of investment. We are also seeing a huge shift from public buses towards electric vehicles. However, clearly, 70 per cent of the “India 2030” goal is yet to be achieved. For this, we need more sustainable and resilient constructions, and have to capture more value of land. Land is the most precious commodity and since land prices are going up, we must make the most optimal utilisation of it. Considering all these counts, the country seems to be getting there. However, populism needs to be checked. Overall, I am optimistic on the urban agenda as the major schemes that were announced are beginning to take off.

(This talk was delivered on July 23, 2018.)