Another Knee Jerk Reaction In The National Urban Policy Framework
The new National Urban Policy Framework (NUPF) is a paradigm policy shift that the previous BJP government had proposed in 2018. The draft of the NUPF was uploaded by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs on its website, and suggestions and comments were sought from public.
There was widespread resentment among urban practitioners, including civil society organisations, mainly those who are working among the urban poor, on the following grounds —
(a) The time period for the comments was too less and hence an extension of the time was demanded and
(b) The space in the website of the ministry provided an option for only a 300-word response. This was utterly ridiculous, said experts and urban planners. Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the CPI(M), also wrote a letter to Hardeep Puri, Minister, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs.
The time period for people to respond was extended from March 31 to May 31.
Now that the Modi Government 2.0 — to speak after a fashion — has taken over, it is inevitable that the government will go ahead with the NUPF and shall roll over the urbanisation plan for the country.
FAILURE OF PAST SCHEMES IN THE URBAN REALM
The Nehruvian model of city development was shelved with the promulgation of the reform period. After a journey of three decades of urban reforms, government appeared to have realised that this reform process had not helped the cities to achieve desired results. Cities were considered engines of growth and to achieve this growth, the government brought in the urban reforms which were considered essential for the sustainability of this growth. However, the past period has shown that there is a complete mess in the cities and now the solution to it is considered in the form of NUPF, which is once again a knee jerk reaction.
The journey of the reform period began from the 1990s with the 74th constitutional amendment. Though it was considered very radical where 18 subjects were to be transferred to the cities and was supposedly to be the concept of democratic decentralisation of power. However the whole argument hovered around cities to be self-sustaining in their functioning and management. Property taxes, cess on water and sewage etc., were recommended. It was followed with Jawaharal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) reforms, Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY), Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Transformation (AMRUT), Smart Cities Mission (SCM), Swach Bharat Mission (SBM) and Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY). These schemes were adopted both by the Congress-led UPA and then by the BJP-led NDA. Only names of the schemes changed, whereas the gist of the schemes remained almost the same. The transformation of cities from planned outposts to market free development trajectory has not helped in sustaining them.
John Closs, the United Nations executive director, said while inaugurating World Habitat III conference in Quito that the whole notion of sustainability in an unsustainable world is completely flawed. The world moved from millennium development goals to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goal number 11 is directly linked to the cities. John Closs further reiterated that to achieve the SDGs the cities, and for that the nations, must allow that space of ‘cities going back to the basics’ in urban planning. He very emphatically stated that the past decades of ‘laissez faire’ i.e., free market economy planning of the cities is over and we must go back to the basics of planning.
India is also a signatory to the SDGs, though when it comes to implementing these goals, the government rather adopts a lackadaisical attitude. It is in this background that the NUPF is offered for the Indian people and cities. Will NUPF address some of the basic problems that the cities are ailing with or is it another episode in the privatisation of cities.
David Harvey speaks of the present governance of transformation of cities as “the cities are transforming from mere city managers to city entrepreneurs”.
The cities are seen as an entrepreneur whose business is to do business. The Indian cities too are on the same platform.
The NUPF is supposed to have an integrated and coherent approach towards the future of urban planning in India. The NUPF is structured along two lines — firstly, at its core lie 10 sutras or philosophical principles. And secondly, the 10 sutras are then applied to 10 functional areas of urban space and management. Within each functional area, the status quo and its challenges are analysed and specific possible points are suggested.
The ten sutras of philosophical areas are as —
Cities are clusters of human capital;
Cities require a ‘sense of place’;
Not static Master Plans but evolving ecosystems;
Build for density;
Public spaces that encourage social interactions;
Multi-modal public transport backbone;
Cities require clear unified leadership; and
Cities as engines of regional growth.
The 10 functional areas are — Urban Economy; Physical Infrastructure; Social Infrastructure; Housing & Affordability; Transportation & Mobility; City Planning; Urban Finance; Urban Governance; Urban Information Systems; Urban Environment. These functional areas are covered in one or many sutras of the broad framework.
The various groups working on the urban sector have criticised the NUPF prima facie and have termed it too shallow, which does not even address the basic issues plaguing urbanisation. It is because of this reason that these groups and other organisations had demanded a thorough transparent exercise to discuss NUPF through series of workshops. These meetings would have enabled to strengthen the document which supposedly is to be a guiding document for the ensuing two decades of urbanisation. Let us take some of the issues which go contrary to the basic philosophical outpourings of the NUPF itself.
The NUPF mentions that it wants to get rid of static master plan strategy for the cities and rather want dynamic master plans. It states, “For new master plans issue new guidelines based on principles of comprehensive planning and climate considerations.” This sounds good but how the city plan is to be developed is once again based on ‘real estate speculation’. The classic American model of city development is envisaged and explicitly mentioned in the document. It states: “Have a two-tier FAR arrangement, with a basic FAR which comes with property right and the rest purchased from the local authority and freely tradable. The FAR should be sold as TDR (transfer of development rights) through calibrated auctions done on a digital platform.” It further guides the master plans to divide the city into TDR zones on the combination of property prices, economic growth and development synergies. This is a simple case where regions paying higher taxes etc., will be favoured more than those which are not. This is a classic American style of differentiation between black and white colonies.
This formula has an inherent problem. Take for example the past method of zoning the cities through a master plan which was top bottom definitely but at the same time took into consideration many aspects. Suppose the city with a mix land use of industry and housing has a definite wind pattern blowing since years; in that case the housing colonies were not constructed in regions where the flow of wind would carry the polluted industrial air to such colonies. All those details are and will be missing in the new form of city planning under the NUPF. The inference that one can draw is that the ‘State’ will act as a middleman and not as a planner. All big words of sustainability will hang in the air.
Another interesting area which needs consideration is the administrative reforms to improve infrastructure delivery. Whereas there are no two opinions on the fact that there have to be widespread reforms to ensure that delivery of basic services take place to the most vulnerable in the town, but the method suggested is rather tested tried and failed in the past. The NUPF suggests for special purpose vehicles (SPVs) even at the city level for such delivery systems to improve. This in simple words would mean de-municipalisation of the services. Whereas the need is to strengthen the capacities of the local bodies i.e., the municipal corporations, the answer is in the form of SPVs. The model of SPVs is seen in the implementation of the smart city mission plans. It is also evident how variant it is to the structure of elected body in the city.
FINANCIALLY SELF RELIANT CITIES
Urban Sutra number 8 describes the intent of self-reliance. It states, “City governments have traditionally been dependent on higher levels of government to provide them with funds, even to undertake the most fundamental tasks of public service delivery. This has distracted cities from leveraging their local assets for generating economic activity and capturing revenues.”
Also read: Where Are the Smart Cities, Mr Modi?
It calls upon the new founded principle which states as, “The principle is to encourage cities to leverage their local assets including community savings to generate more financing and revenue sources. The whole range of options needs to be explored from user charges to municipal bond financing to diverse methods of value capture financing.”
The intent of the NUPF is amply clear. It wants the city governments to levy user charges and ensure that the expenditure of the city government is met within the city. It is indeed another stark misnomer that the cities have the capacities to bear such burden. Whereas the entire taxation system is too centre-centric, the cities do not have the capacities to raise revenues apart from raising user fees and property tax charges. With the promulgation of GST and even limited capacities of the cities to generate revenues getting snatched, such a belief to make cities financially self-reliant is just wishful thinking with no pragmatism.
The municipal bodies are persuaded to do business and throw open municipal bonds through which financing in the cities is envisioned. It is hilarious to note that a majority of tier 2-4 cities are unable to pay even the salaries of their employees, so who will purchase bonds of such local bodies is anybody’s guess.
The NUPF refers to the principles of planning in ancient India expressed in Manasara’s Shilpashastra, Kautilya’s Arth Shastra and Varahamihira’s Brihadsamhitha. It vehemently supports the postmodernist planning process and takes pride in ancient town planning especially towns like Ayodhya, Indraprastha, Madurai, Vanji, Kaverippumpattinam, Kanchipuram, etc.
The reference to ancient texts is without any context and relevance. The NUPF is looking at modern planning as a faulty practice, something that the British has left us. In the present context, it is extremely problematic — are we going to go to medieval times. Even the older cities that the NUPF is talking about are mainly Hindu cities. Mughals/Islamic rulers also resulted in planned cities. Also, while giving references to our past, do we ascribe to the mandala man that categorized different areas of house based on the concept of ‘pollution’ or do we ignore the streets that we grouped on the basis of caste hierarchy, the closest to temples being brahmins and dalits as outcastes? The NUPF will not speak on that but rather speak of a phony glory of old cities.
The problems with respect to post-independence planning has been reduced to just two words – rigid/static. There is no discussion on the abilities of the ULBs to plan and execute master plans; no discussion on the wrong policies drafted by MOHUA/MOUD; there is no discussion on the lack of resources for the cities and so on.
The other dangerous trend is that flexibility in planning is only seen in the context of the need to bring in investment and catering to the needs of changing dynamics of capital, but there is no reference to human rights and rights of the city dwellers. Whilst flexibility in planning and constant review mechanisms are good, the basic guidelines and static’s/standards on housing, public amenities and so on need to be safeguarded before adopting this flexible mode of urban planning to cater to the changing needs and aspirations.
Also read: The Shrinking Cultural Spaces in the Cities
NO MENTION OF EMPOWERING THE ULBs
The NUPF completely undermines the 74th CAA; it needs to be strengthened to empower the ULBs for planning. When we talk about the London example, we need to understand that how the municipalities lead the show unlike parastatals in India. Delhi Devlopment Aurhority (DDA), Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Authority (MMRDA) etc., and not the city government’s own land in large metros.
The whole argument about reducing density to FAR is flawed. Indian cities are already very dense, if not the densest in the world. The whole section in the NUPF is very detailed out and all the focus is on increasing the FAR and operationalising that, while that is fine, there is no mention about who benefits from these FARs. Is it for the builders, the real estate or the property holders? This stands in direct contrast with the vast informal sector that will not be benefiting and accommodated in the redevelopment of cities due to FARs.
There are other areas that also need elaborate discussion. The government instead of implementing the NUPF must launch a widespread exercise of engaging with the people, practitioners and elected representatives on the provisions of NUPF. The cities for sure are in the transformative stage, what is required is going back to the basics and working on the foundations of planning, rather than adopting the market-driven city development model.
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