Meeruts urban dreams die in its half-done drains

Written by Rajat Arora | Meerut | Updated: Dec 20 2012, 06:27am hrs
The irony was not lost on anyone when Meerut, part of the ancient Harappan settlement renowned for its sophisticated drainage systems, was promised a decent sewerage system under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewable Mission (JNNURM) as late as 2005. The city seemed poised for a facelift after centuries of decrepit waste disposal infrastructure but, alas, that was not to be.

Seven years hence, even this modest project seems to have ground to a halt. With heaps of garbage lining its choked and dug-up roads, the project expected to be commissioned by March 2012 looks far from complete, adding to the citys miseries.

The problem is partly with the JNNURM design, which overestimates the ability of local urban bodies to implement and monitor large infrastructure projects. The lack of capacity with local bodies and developers selected through competitive bidding has been conspicuous in Meerut, like in many other cities that have taken up projects under JNNURM.

Meerut mirrors the state of most of Indias 71 cities dreaming of transformation through JNNURM, the central governments biggest urban development initiative, launched in 2005. Plagued by poor design and administration, many JNNURM projects have gone haywire, highlighting the need to restructure the ambitious scheme. In a recent report, Planning Commission member Arun Maira said the mission must be modified and relaunched as a 10-year Mission II, focussing on promoting financial sustainability and accountability of urban local bodies and incorporating schemes to attract private funds through public-private partnerships. Poor coordination between the two central ministries anchoring the scheme ministry of urban development and ministry of housing and urban poverty alleviation has also played spoilsport.

JNNURM-I, whose original seven-year tenure ended in March 2012, had federal budgetary funding (allocation as grants-in-aid) of R66,000 crore, out of which Rs 37,000 crore has been released. Delays have led to cost overruns and with several projects incomplete, local bodies implementing the schemes are unable to raise revenues through user fees. The government has extended the scheme by two years to correct implementation flaws and complete projects which have failed to meet original schedules. In parallel, a JNNURM-II in in the works.

According to a recent CAG report, only 18% of JNNURM infrastructure projects in 71 cities were completed on time. The main thrust of the scheme is on infrastructure projects relating to water supply, sanitation, sewerage, solid waste management, road network, urban transport, redevelopment of old city areas and providing basic services to urban poor. There are two sub-missions under JNNURM one for urban infrastructure and governance and another for providing basic services to urban poor.

Delays and shoddy work have been the culprits in many cases, as it is in Meerut. District magistrate Vikas Gothawal defended the scheme: There are genuine reasons for the delay. Work slowed down for almost six months during state elections. As far as the quality of work is concerned, third-party inspections are being conducted and I dont think the agency undertaking the work is incompetent, he told a visiting team from FE.

However, Meeruts housing project for the urban poor which comes under integrated housing and slum development is barely 30% complete. While digging is on for sewerage, there is little movement on an ambitious waste disposal plant, which was to start by 2009.

A Jal Nigam official told FE that the sewage network under construction lacks capacity and would collapse within a decade as population grows. This means a key mission objective securing linkages between asset creation and maintenance for long-run project sustainability is not being met.

The Meerut sewage project envisages laying 243 km of pipelines for waste disposal within municipal limits. The project, which was slated for completion by March 2012, now has a new deadline of September 2013. But given the pace of work and lackadaisical approach of implementing agencies, even the new deadline seems hard to achieve.

A city development plan of around Rs 1,400 crore was prepared for Meerut in 2006 under which around Rs 235 crore was to be allotted for the sewage network, Rs 341 crore for water supply and storm water drains, around Rs 25 crore for solid waste management, Rs 300 crore for roads and transportation, Rs 358 crore for urban renewal and the rest for municipal reforms and capacity building. Only one project roads and transport under which 150 low-floor buses were to be procured was completed on time.

Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam was made the implementing agency for sewage, water supply and waste management works and Meerut Nagar Nigam was the monitoring agency. According to Jal Nigam, only 45% of the network has been laid and the progress of other projects like urban renewal, storm water drain are not satisfactory. Local MP Rajendra Aggarwal is of the view that the work couldnt be completed as the municipal and implementing bodies lacked the capability to undertake a mission of such a scale.

The entire city was dug up by private contractors hired by the Jal Nigam. They started working without any plan and as a result, there was traffic chaos. The quality of work is also very shoddy, said Aggarwal, who raised the issue in Lok Sabha recently demanding a CBI probe into the irregularities in implementation of JNNURM. One can only hope the second phase of the ambitious urban renewal programme will learn from the mistakes of the first.