NURM: Hope for cities
Indian cities do not reflect the growth the nation's economy has achieved over the years. Despite various attempts to make our cities shine, the progress has been slow. There has been no coordinated effort to lift their standard. But all that might change now if the vision of the National Urban Renewal Mission (NURM) becomes a reality. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has launched the most ambitious of UPA governments' plans ever, and the expectations are that it would do to our cities what his economic policies did to the country in his stint as the finance minister.
NURM is a mission for integrated development of urban infrastructure services with the assistance of the Centre, state and local bodies. The Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission is being set up with Rs 1 lakh crore outlay to cover 60 cities with a million-plus population in the next seven years. The emphasis is to provide basic services to the urban poor - housing, water supply, sanitation, slum improvement, community toilets and enhance overall urban infrastructure.
The mission has two simultaneous objectives - urban infrastructure governance and basic services to the urban poor. It is laudable that improving the conditions of the urban poor is being taken care of while launching the urban renewal mission. Often, the economic liberalisation and globalisation policies of governments worldwide are blamed for the worsening condition of the poorer sections of society. But the catch here is the rider on reforms in local bodies to be eligible for the Central grant. Funds for developing water supply, sewerage system and so on become contingent on privatisation of these services and that is an experiment whose results have not been clearly established to be in favour of the poor.
Though some parts of reforms agenda linked to NURM, like the compulsory computerisation of land records data, changing accounting norms are good, the experiment of letting local bodies be market friendly and competent to attract direct funding could prove dangerous in the long run. One such recent example is what happened to the Alabama state county which was lured into an exotic interest rate swap promising lower costs that drained it continuously of its funds even as their merchant bankers kept making money.
Some of the daring reforms the states would be forced to undertake are the repeal of the urban land ceiling act, reform of the rent control act and lowering of stamp duties. This without any doubt would lead to intense activity in the construction sector. NURM also takes care of all related aspects like transportation, environment management, land use, but the fear is that the Centre would get to be the big brother, directly dictating the functioning of municipal bodies and rob the constitutional guarantee of self-governance.
Under NURM local bodies are supposed to draw up city development plans that are NURM-compliant and once that is finalised the state, Centre and the identified cities would enter into a tripartite agreement. When local bodies agree to the conditions laid out, do they take into account public participation or do they have the approval of the ultimate stakeholders? If these grey areas are cleared, NURM can definitely transform our cities and lift the living standard of its citizens.
[5 December 2005]