1. Column: Census towns key to smart-city goals

Column: Census towns key to smart-city goals

States must decentralise powers to urban local bodies, which must then push for smartness even if in just enclaves.

By: | Updated: March 27, 2015 1:00 AM

When smart cities are mentioned, eyebrows are often raised. What’s this idea and what is “smart” about a city? What is the scheme? That’s a bit odd, because the Concept Note on smart cities has been on the urban development ministry’s website since December 2014. India’s urban population is low and so has been the process of urbanisation, compared not just with developed countries, but also several developing ones. In Census 2011, the “urban” share of population was 31.16%, up from 27.81% in 2001. There is a reason why I have put “urban” within quotes. There is a Census definition of “urban” and it may not always conform to our general ideas of “urban”. This isn’t a problem that is peculiar to India. Specifically, a habitation is urban if it possesses a municipality, a corporation, a cantonment board or a notified town area committee. These are statutorily defined towns. However, a habitation is also urban if it possesses a population that is more than the threshold of 5,000, at least 75% of male workers are engaged in non-agricultural pursuits and population density is at least 400 per sq km. These are census towns. In case of statutory towns, one knows who is responsible for urban governance and delivery of urban services there. In case of census towns, you don’t know. They have crossed the threshold of villages/panchayats, but haven’t yet obtained statutory status, typically because of time-lags. That’s no-man’s land.The chaotic development one witnesses around towns/cities is often because of this no-man’s land phenomenon. Compared to earlier decades, India’s urbanisation has increased, as indeed it should. Urbanisation is correlated with economic development. There are positive externalities through network effects, even in labour markets. That is the reason people migrate to urban areas. Between 2001 and 2011, India’s pattern of urbanisation, desirable though it is, needs flagging. The number of towns increased from 5,161 to 7,935, reflective of urbanisation. But number of statutory towns increased from 3,799 to 4,041, an increase of just 242. In contrast, the number of census towns increased from 1,362 to 3,894, an increase of 2,532. Hence, the governance issue. Initially, in 2014, there was an idea of developing 100 smart cities. To that has now been added an Urban Renewal Mission in 500 habitations, both spliced with the former JNNURM. What’s the definition of “smart”? This quote is lifted straight from the Concept Note. “This would mean that it will have to provide …good quality but affordable housing, cost efficient physical, social and institutional infrastructure such as adequate and quality water supply, sanitation, 24 x 7 electric supply, clean air, quality education, cost efficient health care, dependable security, entertainment, sports, robust and high speed interconnectivity, fast & efficient urban mobility.”

While that’s a long list, the key is clearly physical infrastructure, especially public transport and transport-related infrastructure. Add to that utilities like electricity, water supply, sanitation, solid waste management and drainage. If these materialise, the rest will probably inevitably follow. Which are these 100? I think the Concept Note is clear enough. (a) 1 satellite city from each of the cities with a population of 4 million or more (total of 9); (b) most cities in population range from 1 to 4 million (35 out of 44); (c) all State/UT capitals with a population less than 1 million (17); (d) cities of tourist, religious and other importance (10); and (e) cities with population between 0.2 to 1 million (25). More accurately, this isn’t a list of whether a specific city qualifies to be included in that 100 category or not. It’s more an indication of what kind of coverage that 100-basket is likely to have. I think the implicit intention was not to duplicate cities covered under JNNURM. By the way, as with JNNURM, several conditions have to be satisfied before a city is included under 100 smart cities or 500 habitations. Even under JNNURM, barring Gujarat, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh, compliance with JNNURM conditions was rather tardy.

Therefore, once states realise the smart city scheme isn’t a kitty that promises Union government funds, I am not sure how many takers there will be. Central government support is through viability gap funding, primarily for physical infrastructure and e-governance. The rest is private investments and PPP, with a little bit for initial investments. Not all of the 100/500 will be green-field. That’s logically impossible, though green-field planning is always easier. Along that green-field path and along DMIC, we will soon (probably 2019) have smart cities in Dholera, Shendra-Bidkin, Greater Noida, Ujjain and Gurgaon. However, the 100/500 concept also has two brown-field notions, converting an entire existing city into a smart city (probably unlikely and difficult) and carving out a green-field smart section from an existing city (probably more likely). I suspect the green-field/brown-field catch is elsewhere. Under Article 243Q of the Constitution, there must be a Municipal Council for a smaller urban area, unless the Governor provides an exemption through public notification. That was the clause used for those new green-field cities to have governance structures independent of the elected one, which is why those cities probably took off. It will be a welcome change if states decentralise sufficiently to urban local bodies (ULBs) and ULBs possess sufficient far-sightedness to push for smartness, even if that smartness is in a few enclaves of existing cities. Therefore, rather perversely, the census towns are a strength, not a weakness. That’s where the satellite-mode of smartness might indeed take off. Since they don’t possess elected representatives yet, there are no vested interests. Like Dholera and the other 4, one only needs to figure out vehicles (SPVs or otherwise) for undertaking reforms. We will soon know how interested the states are.

The author is Member, NITI Aayog. Views are personal

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