If you don’t want a service, no one will force you; if you do, you must pay for it, the Urban Development Development Minister tells Shalini Nair as he looks ahead at his next three years in office.
Smart cities, Housing for All, most of your flagship programmes have a mission period longer than the tenure of your government. What will be delivered in the remaining three years?
Government is a continuation. These schemes are very popular and well accepted. Nobody can come tomorrow and say that there won’t be smart cities. Under our federal system, the Government of India formulates the schemes, funds it, and monitors it. Execution and land lie with the state and the final supervision with the urban local body… This constraint one has to appreciate. Smart Cities will take 10 to 15 years. Cities cannot be built overnight. Constructing, revitalising and retrofitting a city will take time.
What according to you is the biggest challenge in the urbanisation process?
There has been a neglect of the process. We ignored people’s participation in urban governance. We had elections, but there was no transparency and accountability. Now people are demanding transport facilities, Metro, flyovers, bypass roads, ring roads, water supply and drainage. My own city of Nellore didn’t have drainage 68 years after independence. I had to sanction it. Now cities are also competing to become creditworthy. In the case of our ongoing projects, the amount of allocation I have made is not sufficient, even a matching grant from the state is not sufficient. That’s why I have come up with the PPP model. PPP is the way forward for urbanisation in India. People have to be willing to pay for the services they want.
The apprehension about handing over infrastructure to private players is that it will hike the cost of basic services, like water supply.
If you don’t want a service, no one will force you. But if you want one, you have to pay for it. Water supply will be metered entirely so that you are charged as per your consumption… The vulnerable sections will be taken care of. For the poor, there will be no problem at all. You want water supply, you want it 24×7, then you have to pay extra based on consumption levels and the purpose for which it is used. That makes the ULBs creditworthy. That makes investors also confident about returns. That’s how Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s National Highway project succeeded. There were inhibitions about whether anyone would pay tax for roads. Now you have toll gates every 40 km and people are happily paying.
Is it true that if there is a cabinet reshuffle, you would like to take over rural development once again?
It is the PM’s prerogative, he will decide. The PM was keen on me handling this (urban development) as urbanisation is a reality, a worldwide trend… So looking at its importance, he asked me to take this over. I am doing the best I can, though I am a rural man.
With the finance minister saying that he is willing to remove the additional 1% tax on inter-state movement of goods under GST, will PM Modi hold another around of negotiations with Congress chief Sonia Gandhi?
As the parliamentary affairs minister, I went and met Soniaji earlier. Since there was a deadlock even after that, the PM called on Soniaji and Manmohanji. Consultation is a continuous process. Now all the issues have been sorted out, only a political decision has to be taken by parties concerned. I am confident that the GST bill would go through in the next Parliament session.
Two challenges for Housing for All are a poor response to slum rehabilitation through private participation, and the exclusion of a rental housing component. Any rethink on these two?
In the case of in situ redevelopment of slums through private participation, states have to take a proactive role. The only problem is that the amended land acquisition bill has got stuck and getting land for these projects has become an issue. During the UPA regime of ten years, around 13 lakh houses were approved. Of that, only 8.30 lakh houses have been constructed due to issues with land. Now in this period of two years, we have already sanctioned 6.80 lakh houses. The difference is we have a precondition that states have to identify the land, give in writing that land is available, identify the beneficiaries and then come to me. There are a number of concessions given to the housing sector including in taxation, allowing FDI; steel and cement rates are coming down. And with the Real Estate Regulatory Act in place, the credibility of the private sector also will go up. Things will move faster. There will be pressure from people and MPs. Also, we have a rental component now.
But the rental component is not part of Housing for All, which assures funding to the states. It is a policy not binding on the states.
Land is a state subject. I am offering an attractive policy. If the states come forward, I will fund it.
Swachh Bharat seems to be lagging behind on targets.
We have completed construction of 13 lakh individual toilets as against our target of 25 lakh (for 2015-16) and 68,000 community toilets as against the target of 1 lakh. We have focused on ensuring water supply to these toilets. Our target was to process 30 per cent of solid waste, we reached 19 per cent. With regard to door-to-door collection of solid waste, of the targeted 79,000 wards we could reach 33,000. The PM told me on day one not to make it a government programme, but a jan andolan. My biggest problem in Swachh Bharat is changing mindsets. I have been told by people that as in the case of Singapore, we must impose penalties for littering or urinating in public. [But] you have to create facilities first and then penalise.
What other major missions and policies are on the anvil?
I am not thinking of any new scheme. I am only focusing on implementation. We have so far launched AMRUT [Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation, Smart Cities], HRIDAY [Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana], Swachh Bharat and Housing for All… Earlier, it was a top-down approach, now it is a bottom-up approach. Everything will be prepared by local bodies, approved by states, I will only concur. This is a paradigm shift as per the direction of the PM, who… feels that states must have more legroom.
What is top priority for the third year of your ministry?
I will go with my officers to the states for a review of all my programmes. This is how I became popular with states as the rural development minister. Instead of states coming to Delhi, I will go to them.