On Wednesday, the Centre approved Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 100 smart cities project, besides a complete overhaul of the national urban renewal mission. In its bid to fast track the project, the Centre has allocated Rs 48,000 crore to the Smart Cities Mission and Rs 50,000 crore to what will now be called the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT). In addition, Rs 100 crore will be set aside for every city for the Centre for five years, with built-in incentives to ascertain whether rigorous urban reforms are achieved. As per news reports, Smart Cities will be picked by something called the City Challenge Competition. In its essence, the competition seeks to link financing to these cities with their ability to perform, with 20 expected to be picked in the first round.
Once it gets the Centre’s nod, urban municipal bodies can seek augmented and planned assistance from the Centre. There is no doubt that our cities have been crying out for attention for a very long time.
Municipal structures in most cities have remained in a dysfunctional state for a long time. Shortages in basic staff and financial constraints, without adequate access to basic technology, continue to haunt civic municipalities. Its members too usually do not possess the requisite skills. The ability of our cities to govern and take care of basic civic issues largely depends on the concurrence between the political affiliations of the ruling party in the State and municipal body, allied with the political weight of its legislator. Although it is fair to suggest that metropolitan areas have fared better, significant sections of the city’s populace continue to remain outside their area of concern primarily due to a lack of resources and crumbling infrastructure. With the constant migration of people from the rural to urban centres in large numbers, the resources under various municipal structures are stretched beyond their very limits, with many unable to fulfil the demands of rising numbers. This is not to say that methods have not been sought to enhance civic governance in our country. In the early ‘90s, the Central government had passed the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendments to empower States to create effective tiers for local governance. Once these amendments came into force, States were mandated to create reformed urban local bodies and initiate steps to make them effective. Unfortunately, many State governments have not followed suit. The problem, some suggest, stems from the politics involved in urban local bodies. Policy in the state is driven by the chief minister’s office and nothing can proceed without its incumbent’s approval. Due to the vagaries of politics, where the aim is to confine members of opposition, urban local bodies are kept under the thumb of its legislators, particularly those who form the government. The opposition is happy to go along with this idiom of State politics, as it suits their political future too. Eventually nothing gets done and its citizens are forced to fend for themselves.
Prime Minister Modi’s Smart City project, therefore, would force municipal bodies to reorganise themselves to qualify for the City Challenge Competition. The incentives created are a step in the right direction. In addition to the project, however, the Centre must tweak legislation to create fixed tenures for Mayors and Commissions, besides the formation of a municipal-service driven cadre.