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Let's Talk About AMRUT Before We Get To Smart Cities

22/09/2016 12:43 PM IST | Updated 28/09/2016 8:37 AM IST
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Come monsoons and the newspapers are full of articles on poor urban infrastructure and services. The rains bring along flooding of streets, reflecting the poor drainage network in even metropolitan cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai. This is followed by traffic congestion, worse than the kind that we witness on a daily basis. The receding rains leave behind a public health disaster. The increasing numbers of dengue and chikungunya cases are a worrying sign of the inefficiency of our urban local governments' public health departments. Equally worrisome is the sight of uncollected household waste and overflowing sewers.

Smart Cities are not enough

Despite the deplorable state of our cities' basic infrastructure and services network, talks of the Smart Cities Mission raise citizens' aspirations. The Mission aims to transform urban services in 100 cities across the country through "smart" solutions. Each Smart City is undertaking one area-based project and multiple pan-city solutions that range from e-governance and citizen engagement to urban mobility and waste management.

AMRUT projects aim to reengineer access to quality water and sewerage network, improve waste management, promote greenery and open spaces, and upgrade public transport and non-motorized transport.

However, only 100 cities out of 7935 towns of India (Census 2011) are getting "smart". The selection of 100 cities is staggered due to the City Challenge Competition. So far, over three phases, proposals of 60 cities have been selected, including 27 that were chosen on 20 September; the remaining 40 will be selected by 2018. According to the conceived structure of the Mission, retrofitting or redevelopment in a city is geographically confined due to the area-based development. Also the Smart City proposal will be financed and implemented by a city-specific Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV). This entity has equal equity stake from the state and the local government but minority stake can be owned by a consortium of private players. Many of the functions and powers of the local government are likely to be delegated to the SPVs to "allow functional autonomy and independence in decision-making." Thus, there is an overarching concern that the disadvantages of an SPV could outweigh the advantages as "possible structural shifts and the devolution of urban planning functions are (assigned) to a corporate entity versus a statutory body," according to a Brookings India report on Smart Cities.

This is a new model being tried in India to make our cities meet global standards. Before the launch of the Smart Cities Mission, the green-field GIFT City of Gujarat set up SPVs for utilities like water infrastructure, waste management services, ICT services, etc. But the performance of these SPVs can't be assessed at this stage as GIFT City has been marred with delays and hasn't got many takers yet. The international experience with SPVs too has been a mixed bag.

Can AMRUT fulfil urban aspirations?

On the same day that the Smart Cities Mission was launched, Prime Minister Narendra Modi also launched Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), with a total investment outlay of ₹50,000 crore. AMRUT is replacing the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM). However, there are some fundamental changes in AMRUT's structure. It covers 500 towns and cities, a number much higher than the 67 JnNURM Mission cities and 100 Smart Cities. One major departure from JnNURM, keeping in line with cooperative federalism, is that state governments are now empowered to sanction projects for their AMRUT cities. The municipal governments are mandated to prepare Service Level Improvement Plans (SLIPs) that feed into the State Annual Action Plans (SAAPs)—the Union government approves only the SAAPs.

AMRUT projects aim to reengineer access to quality water and sewerage network, improve waste management, promote greenery and open spaces, and upgrade public transport and non-motorized transport. These are crucial aspects for quality of life, and are visibly measurable on a daily basis but are seriously lacking in Indian cities. By ensuring provision of these basic services, AMRUT can set the foundation for making these cities "smart" at a later stage.

Only if AMRUT is truly able to raise the capacity of urban local governments through funds, functions and functionaries will the service delivery in our cities improve.

It is important to ensure that the fate of projects under current urban schemes doesn't end up being similar to what befell many JnNURM projects. Even after running for its seven-year planned term plus a two-year extension, as of 29 April 2014, only 227 (42%) out of 538 JnNURM projects were completed. JnNURM had also mandated devolution of all 18 functions mentioned in the 12th Schedule of the 74th Constitutional Amendment. But 24 years hence, only 12 states have fully devolved all functions to their respective municipal governments. Other states show varying degrees of devolution, with Northeastern states, except Assam and Tripura, performing the worst (Brookings India Report). It is also important to note that legislative devolution does not imply actual transfer of functions. Many functions like water supply, slum improvement and urban planning continue to be performed by parastatals or development authorities. Only if AMRUT is truly able to raise the capacity of urban local governments through funds, functions and functionaries will the service delivery in our cities improve.

Catalysts to urban development

While these Union government's schemes are meant to act as catalysts for improving urban governance and service delivery, the actual performance will depend on the initiative of the state and municipal governments. According to Telegraph India, 16 AMRUT projects have been approved in Bhubaneswar (ranked No. 1 under the Smart Cities Mission) but none have taken off on the ground. In this regard, eight other cities of the state—Cuttack, Puri, Berhampur, Rourkela, Sambalpur, Balasore, Bhadrak and Baripada—are all ahead of Bhubaneswar.

It is a scheme actually meant to reform the institutional structure of urban local governments and improve urban service delivery.

Thus, both cities and state governments should not solely focus on planning and implementing their Smart Cities proposals, but also on the progress of AMRUT projects. Unlike the Smart Cities Mission, AMRUT's investment is not limited to an area or a few particular kinds of solutions across the city. It is a scheme actually meant to reform the institutional structure of urban local governments and improve urban service delivery. Citizens must also actively engage in planning for and monitoring their city's development. Such representative participatory governance can truly help in ensuring timely success of these projects.

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