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‘Financially Independent Cities Will Be More Welfare Oriented’

City governance is a complex system. The governance framework at the city level must be in sync with the with the culture, heritage, economy, competitiveness and institutions. That is the reason just constituting special purpose vehicle is not enough for the success of the Smart Cities in India. D. Dhanuraj, Chairman of Centre for Public Policy Re-search (CPPR), a think tank dedicated to research on current economic, social, and political issues, in conversation with Chahat Jain of BW SmartCities talks about the city governance, the need for financial and administrative autonomy of the cities and the various transportation models, which are required for the success of Smart Cities in India. An edited excerpt:

Can the current governance framework work for the effective implementation of smart cities mission in India?

Every city has a lineage and a past. Each of them is unique in its characteristics. So the governance framework should identify with the culture, heritage, economy, competitiveness and institutions. The smartness should lead to the livability encompassed by all the above.The smartness cannot be enforced and defined by external agencies but, should be reflected by the needs and requirements of the local population leveraging on the characteristics of the city. The present administration system shows a disconnect. How much SPV gets integrated into the elected council which is accountable to the people through a democratic process is something that we have to wait and watch. 

I Wish we do not end up creating two parallel bodies whose functions overlap and interchangeably used. It would have been better to revisit 74th amendment and amend it for the need of 21st century urbanisation in-stead of creating a SPV. What is required is a powerful elected body at the city level and capacity building and, not the adhoc arrangements like SPVs. When smart city concept was conceived there were talks of giving more autonomy to urban local bodies in form of SPVs. However, the autonomy remained restricted to paper.

How do you feel Smart Cities can improve their governance and gain autonomy?

The SPVs may usher a new approach to the engineering and development in cities. But, it may not be a sustainable model. We need to scrap the present 74th amendment provisions and need to update it with the present and future requirements of the city development by transferring more powers to the city corporations and by building capacities. The Mayor and the council should have autonomy in their functions and rights to decide on the revenue generation and spending. I do not think the present structure will improve its governance and autonomy rather I fear it may create problems in the longer run.

Many Indian cities have a very poor air quality. While, cities like Delhi have taken extreme steps like Odd-Even and restricting construction work, this is not viable in the long term for every city. What according to you should be the policy measures which can make the city environmentally sustainable, without harming the economic prospects?

The more powerful the cities are, the more they could implement environmentally sustainable policies. The city administration could tackle many of the current issues at the local level in a better manner if they are given autonomy. Let the cities compete with each other by branding themselves on various aspects of the economic growth that would include the provisions for the environmental uptakes also. Let the cities compete with each other for the better facilities for public transport, clean air, more greenery etc so that the market players will grade the cities accordingly which eventually will lead to the self-regulatory mechanisms at the local level.

Eventually, cities like Kochi and Lucknow, are going for metro rail to improve their mobility. Do you feel this model is financially viable? And which are the cities that are facing financial crunch for the same?

These models are not financially viable. I believe almost all cities having metro are facing these challenges if we do a cross sectional analysis. Most of the cities having metro could have chosen better and affordable transport modes.Somehow, the fancy items like metro capture the imagination of the decision makers but not others. For eg; deregulating the feeder services would lead to the innovation in the industry and improve mobility in all cities in India.

Many Cities are talking of raising finances by increasing the utility charges like parking fee, water price etc. However, it is never effectively implemented due to populist policies so far. Do you feel the concept of financially independent cities can go ahead with the idea of a welfare state?

More than the populist policies, the cities lack the capacity, teeth and rights over many of these parastatal agencies. Financially independent cities will be more welfare oriented in nature as they represent the local peoples’ demands and needs. They will be more representative in nature and accountable.