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View: The city-building never sleeps

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For decades, Indian cities were subjected to criminal neglect. Past governments chose to either overlook problems, or looked at piecemeal solutions. As against investments amounting to Rs 1,57,000 crore in the urban sector during 2004-14, 2014-20 saw a six-fold increase to nearly Rs 11 lakh crore.Budget 2021 and the 15th Finance Commission Report have ushered a new era for India’s cities. The budget and grant outlay in a pandemic year of almost Rs 7 lakh crore over five years should unlock the potential of our cities, encompassing both ease of living as well as ease of doing business. The Rs 7 lakh crore is split into a substantive Rs 5 lakh crore for water and sanitation (including solid waste management), Rs 88,000 crore for Metro rail, Rs 33,000 crore as untied grants for cities with less than one million population, Rs 26,000 crore for health services, Rs 18,000 crore for bus transport, Rs 15,000 crore for clean air, and Rs 8,450 crore for new cities and shared municipal services.The Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation, Swachh Bharat Mission and the Smart Cities Mission herald a new approach in urban governance, while keeping the basic needs of the citizenry centre-stage. The Jal Jeevan Mission with an outlay of Rs 2.87 lakh crore over five years and Swachh Bharat Mission 2.0 with an outlay of Rs 1.41 lakh crore intend to take civic amenities and infrastructure to the next level across India.GoI is working in tandem with state governments in this respect. A crucial ingredient in urban development is sustainable urban mobility solutions. Investments in bus transport and Metro rail, including the Metro Lite and Metro Neo variants for smaller cities, exemplify this imperative. Affordable public transport enhances quality of life as well as opens up more options for better livelihoods, besides positively impacting women’s participation in the workforce. A strong push towards digitalisation of online building plan sanctions at scale, and simplification of licence regimes in cities, will also reduce human interface, especially with those mandated to deliver municipal services.Strong institutional mechanisms are key to urban governance. A concerted, integrated effort has been made to strengthen local governments in cities. All these initiatives have emphasised on property tax reforms through specific measures to make municipalities financially self-reliant. In fact, nine urban local bodies (ULBs) have raised funds to the tune of Rs 3,690 crore through municipal bonds. This is a sign of the gradual professionalism being inculcated within the system, and of the confidence to make work sustainable, transparent and accountable. More ULBs will take this leap of faith to augment their resources.In the mid-term, economic growth, job creation and productivity will be led by the larger cities. The MillionPlus Challenge Fund of Rs 38,000 crore for agglomerations of one million-plus population is a welcome measure of the 15th Finance Commission. It also encourages much-needed integration and coordination between various civic agencies in metropolitan areas. The seed fund of Rs 8,000 crore for new cities provides space for innovation by states in planned urbanisation.The concept of shared municipal services, too, provides impetus to building capacities of cities in a clustered manner.Future cities will require their municipal administration to be suitably skilled to handle the problems that confront them. Recognising this challenge, the housing and urban affairs ministry, in partnership with the education ministry, launched The Urban Learning Internship Programme (TULIP).Fresh graduates, diploma-holders and postgraduates are provided internship opportunities in the sphere of urban governance across ULBs and smart cities. It is a winwin situation for students who get invaluable field experience and the ULBs who get fresh ideas from them raring to prove themselves.During the Covid-19 pandemic, the stellar role being played by Integrated Command and Control Centres (ICCCs) is now well-known. These ICCCs were converted into Covid ‘war rooms’ and provided critical real-time information to city administrators. Many such solutions to 21st century challenges before urban India require a partnership between governments across levels, civil society, business and academia.The writer is the Union minister of housing and urban affairs, GoI

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