Ambition versus Achievement

Can India implement Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visionary urban development programmes? The answer lies in building capacities

Urban Planning - option 5 shutterstock_215149768

Over the past 25 years, attempts have been made by Indian governments to empower and assist local bodies to change the face of urban India. These initiatives include the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act (74th CAA) enacted in 1993 and the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) officially inaugurated by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2005. The 74th CAA and JNNURM were expected to bring about massive change in the urban landscape. However, the reality over the past 25 years has not matched expectations at all. It is strongly believed that two factors were responsible for this — inadequate capacity at the local level to make use of the opportunity provided to them, and inaction at the national and state government levels to help and build the capacity of urban local bodies. Now once again, Modi’s government wishes to change the face of urban India through ambitious urban development programmes and housing. Will history repeat itself? The Smart Cities Mission is the vision of a pro-active and capable prime minister to bring about a massive change in urban India both for the poor and rich alike. A change that not only brings prestige to the nation, but also induces national growth and prosperity. The Smart Cities Mission, complemented by the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) and the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY), has the potential to make the Indian experi­ence a global model of good practice and further aug­ment prestige and national pride. To fulfill Mr. Modi’s vision, two main processes go hand in hand. One is action at the national level and the second is action at the local level. The former in­volves coordinating activities and creating an enabling environment for implementation. It is widely expected that the process at the national level will move ahead under the leadership of the PM and his capable team at the Ministry of Urban Development. However, action at the local level is a matter of concern. Adequate local action for implementation depends mainly on local capacity that, in most cases, currently falls short of being adequate. Although there exists a considerable amount of good intention at the local level, successful implementation requires more than just good intention. It needs local capac­ity; effective leadership, managerial and technical skills to move the process forward. The experience in recent years suggests that capacity at the lo­cal level is too weak to fufill the goals of PM Modi’s ambitious ur­ban development pro­grammes. Thus, the priority is to build lo­cal capacity profes­sionally, systematically and quickly. The decision to es­tablish a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) headed by a CEO for each smart city is a sound decision and cer­tainly contributes to one aspect of local capacity. It is widely believed that capacity depends on three differ­ent components. First, the individual; second, the or­ganisation; and third, the environment within which the organisation functions. Creation of SPVs and appointment of CEOs will narrow the gap as far as the organisational capacity at the local level is concerned. However, SPVs cannot function without the support of individuals within municipalities and other stakeholders. This article is an attempt to highlight the critical role that building the capacity of these individuals plays in the success of implementation at the local level. Noting that there will be no SPVs within AMRUT, it should be recognised that the need for training and ca­pacity building of individuals within urban local bod­ies that come within the jurisdiction of AMRUT is far greater. The programme of individual training and capacity building must be delivered professionally and system­atically. The training strategy should aim at building knowledge, technical skills and, more importantly, commitment to deliver. Technical areas that fall under this would include town planning, innovative financ­ing of infrastructure and Public Private Partnerships (PPPs), to mention a few. The strategy should also aim at designing spe­cial exposure to good practices, programmes for policy makers and high-profile managers that result in motiva­tion to ensure perfor­mance and successful implementation. The supply of capacity building and training must match the need. India is not a small country, the three flagship projects of the government of India include 100 smart cities, 500 cities under AMRUT and con­struction of 20 million houses in urban areas. Isolated seminars, as useful as they may be, will not be ade­quate to attain training objectives. Mr. Modi has highlighted that urban development should be led by city leaders and not by developers. To translate this into action, urban local bodies require significant skills, knowledge and capacity to practise smart town planning – town planning that is proactive and not reactive. Planning that precedes develop­ment. However, in urban India, in most cases, there is little proactive planning and, more often than not, de­velopment precedes planning. Planning after develop­ment is inefficient, less effective and more expensive. Another area of capacity concerns PPPs. The Smart Cities Mission, AMRUT and PMAY are expected to draw a large amount of private sector funds for implementation of projects. Interna­tional experiences have shown that PPPs can either be poison or a healing medicine. PPPs become poison when the local author­ity does not have the capacity to negotiate contracts and monitor implementation. The result here would be a huge loss to the public sector. PPPs become a healing medicine when a local author­ity has the capacity to negotiate good contracts with the private sector and monitor implementation. Mr. Modi’s vision presents a golden opportunity to improve the beauty of Indian cities, enhance provision of services and promote national prosperity. Never before has there been such volume of commitment at the highest level of government to change the face of urban India. The road map to implement Smart Cities, AMRUT and PMAY should revisit capacity building strategies and plans. Some of the ques­tions that will need to be addressed are: is there a clear strategy? Is there a sound plan? Does the plan match the needs of India? Who will drive the pro­cess? National, state or local governments? A few sporadic pro­grammes of training would be of little conse­quence. The volume of capacity building must match the need. This opportunity is too precious to be missed.