Author : Ramanath Jha

Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on Apr 10, 2018
Empower municipal bodies to meet urbanisation challenges

If newspaper reports are to go by, India is all set to have its first, comprehensive National Urban Policy in the next couple of months. While this is indeed a welcome step, the policymakers should simultaneously evaluate initiatives of the past policies, importantly their failures and shortcomings and assess why the process of urbanisation across India, particularly in its metros and tier I and II cities and towns, continue to be labelled as “haphazard”.  Otherwise, there is a real danger of the new effort repeating the mistakes of the past, something India can ill-afford given that 50 per cent of the country’s projected population of 1.50 billion is slated to reside in urban areas by 2030.

More than 30 years ago, in 1985, the Government of India had set up the National Commission on Urbanisation (NUC) with the legendary Mumbai-based architect Charles Correa in the Chair. The National Census 1981, preceding the constitution of the Commission, had reported India’s urban population to be 159 million or 23.3 percent of the total population at that time. The National Census 2011, preceding this expected Policy, reported that the urban population had risen to 377 million or 31.2 per cent of the total. A more recent estimate put out by the UN-Habitat in its World Cities Report 2016 puts India’s urban population at 420 million (2015).

These figures, of course, do not take into account the phenomenon of ‘hidden urbanisation’ that may raise the urban population several millions higher. Notwithstanding the underestimation, India’s proposed new National Urban Policy intends to provide a roadmap for the second largest urban system in the world.

The proposed new Policy is reported to have been based on ten ‘urban sutras’. These comprise: i) cooperative federalism, ii) agglomeration economies, iii) harnessing rural-urban continuum, iv) inclusive growth, v) sustainability, vi) empowering local-level institutions, vii) housing and urban infrastructure, viii) urban finance, ix) social justice including gender equity, and x) a robust urban information system.


Additionally, the new policy would seek to build cities around human capital rather than around land use. The sutras also propound breaking away from the monotony of the ‘generic international model’ and embed regional culture and history in the character of cities. In terms of urban planning, more fluidity is sought to be injected into urban plans, replacing the present rigidity that dominates the structure of most city development plans.

The Union Government, post 2014, has announced a multitude of urban-centric programmes – Amrut (Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation) with a focus on water, sewerage, storm water drainage, public transport and amenities; Smart Cities Mission with components of retrofitting, redevelopment, green-field development and pan-city application of smart solutions; Hriday (National Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana) with a focus on holistic development of heritage cities; Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, envisioning ‘Housing for All’ by 2022 and Swachh Bharat Abhiyan aiming to clean up the cities through better sanitation, the elimination of open defecation and the promotion of household and community toilets.

Even the previous Dr Manmohan Singh-led UPA government had its ambitious Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNRUM), launched in 2005. The JNNRUM was a nation-wide programme aimed at improving the quality of life and infrastructure in cities. Though launched for a seven-year period up to March 2012, the JNNRUM was extended up to 2014. The mission comprised the sub-missions of ‘Urban Infrastructure and Governance’ as well as ‘Basic Services to the Urban Poor’. Money was available to select cities based on ‘reforms compliance’ by the states and cities. The JNNRUM experience has revealed that while the states and cities had dragged their feet on reforms, the scheme was suffocated through tight central management and pushed through without fixing urban government fundamentals. As a result, the achievement in terms of reforms was marginal and in terms of infrastructure and services, there was too little to reveal visible positive impact.

The proposed National Urban Policy seems to envisage the neat convergence of such past efforts to synergise a well-rounded improvement in city livability. The policy would also look to align itself with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), viz. SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, which seeks to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. It is expected that the policy would come out in the form of a draft and would allow wide consultations with urban stakeholders at all levels before the Policy assumes finality.


The significance of a National Urban Policy cannot be underestimated. Despite ‘local self-government’ being part of the State List (Entry 5) of the Indian Constitution, a National Urban Policy should stand in good stead for States to prepare their own urban policies. For this very reason, it would be necessary that States get on board the National Policy framework and take it forward in their own image. In order that this happens, it is vital that there is substantive consultation with the States in the true spirit of co-operative federalism even before the policy draft is circulated for wider civil society comments and feedback.

Therefore, it is imperative that the efforts to constitute the new National Urban Policy not only critically evaluate the slew of the existing as well as earlier programmes, but also draws upon the successes and failures of two major national attempts that dealt with cities and the question of urbanisation viz. the National Commission on Urbanisation (NUC 1988) and the Constitution (seventy-fourth) Amendment Act, 1992.

The report submitted by the NUC covered a wide gamut of urban subjects, comprising dimensions of urbanisation, spatial planning and urban form, land, urban poverty, housing, water, transport, urban management, information system and finance. The Commission also took pains to identify 329 urban centres which held high urbanisation potential. It is appropriate to expect that the Union Government  looks at the NUC and its recommendations and see what happened to them. Which were the ones that were taken forward, which fell by the way side and which got discarded. Do any of these recommendations remain relevant today? Do they offer learnings for the future? An abundance of analytical literature is available on the matter – both complementing the report and highlighting its drawbacks. This deserves a consideration before the finalisation of a new Policy.

In the same vein, a critical appraisal needs to be made on what the 74th Amendment has achieved during its existence. This much celebrated constitutional amendment was designed to herald urban local autonomy and was brought into effect in June 1993. It has now been in effect for a quarter of a century. A proper review of its efficacy in terms of what it set to deliver, where it succeeded and where it fell short would be in order.

The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Act clarified with great lucidity the reasons that led to the insertion of this Amendment Act in the Constitution. It admitted that urban “local bodies have become weak and ineffective”. Among the medley of reasons, it specifically mentioned:

  • the failure to hold regular elections,
  • prolonged supersessions and
  • inadequate devolution of powers and functions.

These disempowering deficits, inter alia, had disallowed urban local bodies to “perform effectively as vibrant democratic units of self-government”. The Act, in its objectives, was crystal clear that these inadequacies must be weeded out if ULBs (Urban Local Bodies) were to be reincarnated as self-governing institutions. The language of the Statement of Objects and Reasons also seems to imply that local self-governance would not be achieved if this were left to individual States. The Act, therefore, considered it “necessary that provisions relating to Urban Local Bodies are incorporated in the Constitution...”

The proposed new National Urban Policy, clearly, would merely mark the beginning of a process. In the light of the National Policy, the States would have to prepare their own policies, look at their statutes and regulations and redo them to bring them in line with National and State policy stipulations.


Above all, the National Urban Policy cannot afford to skirt the basic issues of ULB disempowerment and their functional and financial troubles. In the light of the past responses of the States to the 74th Amendment, this would be a Himalayan task. No degree of policy formulation would succeed if this question remains unanswered. Quality urbanisation, in the ultimate analysis, has to be delivered by ULBs. And despite whatever edifice we erect at the top, emaciated municipalities will be powerless to run with their hands and legs tied.

Dr. Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at ORF Mumbai. A former IAS officer, he is currently Chairman, Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee and Officer on Special Duty overseeing the revision of Mumbai Development Plan 2034.

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Ramanath Jha

Ramanath Jha

Dr. Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. He works on urbanisation — urban sustainability, urban governance and urban planning. Dr. Jha belongs ...

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