For the first time, the manifestos of the Congress and the BJP refer explicitly to urban issues. Both want to build 100 smart cities. Congress has also promised to revisit the domain of mayors and municipal chairpersons. Our MPs, long used to nursing their rural constituencies with government largesse while living comfortably in cities, are beginning to realise that urban India is a political reality which they have not bothered to understand so far.
Smart cities is a superficial answer to Indias urban problems. A city does not become smart merely by tacking on that label. In the first three decades after Independence, India built more than a hundred new towns steel plant towns like Durgapur, Bhilai and Rourkela, administrative centres like Chandigarh, Bhubaneswar and Gandhinagar, project towns like Neyveli and Barauni and many others. As of 2001, the sum total of the population of all these new towns did not even add up to 5 per cent of the annual increment to Indias urban population. New settlements adjoining existing metropolitan cities, such as Navi Mumbai, Noida or Gurgaon, have fared better. In all these locations, the people have prevailed over the plans.
In the last 10 years Indias urban population has grown from 266 to 377 million. The slum population has also increased. Counting the slum population is like shooting the rapids on the Ganga: you can go up to a high of 93 million or a low of 68. Urban and slum growth has occurred across the country. Notwithstanding the fratricidal quarrels in Andhra Pradesh, Nalgonda in Telangana has grown from 110,000 to 290,000. Khammam has gone up from 160,000 to 380,000. In Ongole, the figures are 150,000 in 2001 to 413,000 in 2011. None of these medium size towns makes the claim that they are smart, nor do the several hundred across the country.
As urban India expands inexorably, the most important challenge, as economist Arvind Panagariya rightly stresses, is to find jobs, preferably in the organised manufacturing sector. Much of Indias urban economy is characterised by the unorganised sector. As of 2005-06, the number of persons engaged in organised manufacturing was about 697,000 in Gujarat, compared to 1.3 million in the unorganised sector. In Maharashtra, the figure is 1.03 million, against 2.5 million. As for services, the numbers are 870,000 in the organised sector compared to the 1.7 million who are in the unorganised sector. Our cities need to do a myriad things to help create jobs for the expanding urban labour force. Smart cities may help them perform better, but they will not produce many jobs.
Who is in charge of our cities, remains an unanswered question. Unlike the 73rd constitutional amendment on panchayats, the 74th amendment has very few champions. While periodic elections complete with the bells and whistles of reservation happen, the political accountability of elected representatives is still a far cry. The reason is that these representatives have no executive authority and therefore have the luxury of interference without responsibility. Whether in Delhi or in Bangalore, our mayors continue to be one-year wonders. Direct elections are frowned upon in many states, though they have a reasonable record in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh.
The functional and financial domain of our cities and towns is constantly eroded. Parastatals without public accountability continue to handle expensive and glittering projects favoured by the political and business elite. Land use planning with even a semblance of equity has disappeared from the municipal agenda. The state leadership has arrogated to itself a superior wisdom and ensured that the voice of the people is heard only once in five years. But the words pehle paani, phir Advani, heard in Gandhinagar in the 1999 elections, will come back to haunt us. It is both a trap and an opportunity. MPs can allow themselves to be portrayed as local problem-solvers or they can collaborate with the local bodies to work out a more enduring process. The challenge is of political maturity, not mere electoral eloquence.
The writer is chairman of the board, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi