Wednesday, July 1, 2009

JNNURM-II Failure is its own reward for MoUD


Failure is its own reward for MoUD

Indian city-dwellers, rejoice! JNNURM Mark Two is coming your way – bigger, brighter, bolder than its first avatar – more money, more reforms, more public-private partnerships, more contracts, more consultancies, more scams, and many many more creative reinterpretations of urban reality.

But how has this happened, you ask? Did JNNURM Mark One get where it was supposed to go? Did we not hear that it was facing criticism from several quarters, not just from chronic dissenters like the activist brigade? Did we not see respectable-looking middle-class citizens in some cities rubbing shoulders with scruffy activists and working-class types in street protests against some of the “reforms”? Wasn't there a notice in the papers inviting tenders from individual experts for carrying out the mid-term review of the programme? And wasn't there a rumour that some cheeky citizens were actually mounting their own home-made review? What happened to all of that?

Good questions. And there are plenty of answers. There's just one problem - the answers don't add up.

Let's do a flashback to the Prime Minister's speech at the star-studded JNNURM launch in 2005. “Our urban economy has become an important driver of economic growth” said the PM. “It is also the bridge between the domestic economy and the global economy. It is a bridge we must strengthen. The latent creativity and vitality of our cities and the people who live in them must be tapped to facilitate higher economic growth.”

JNNURM was unveiled as the miracle makeover that would enable 64 of our cities to become candidates in the global swayamvara where corporate investors prowl in search of the perfect marriage between their capital and the “creativity and vitality” of cities. This makeover was to be accomplished in a mere seven years, through a simple but brilliant strategy – polishing up and enhancing the physical infrastructure to bring it up to global standards, and simultaneously getting rid of the ugly evidence of the disorderly and less-than-perfect processes of urbanisation of the past.

JNNURM cities, we were told, would be clean, green and beautiful – cleansed of the shanty-towns and unauthorised housing colonies, the noisy pavement markets, the primitive rickshaws and polluting phat-phattis, the street vendors selling unstandardised products at ridiculously low prices, the higgledy-piggledy old neighbourhoods, the stinking landfills, the junkyards, the unhygienic dhabas. In their place would be multilane highways and toll roads, low-floor buses and elevated metros, gleaming malls and food courts, huge airports, high-rise housing, parks and short everything gratifyingly like “phoren”.

Of course a lot of the rules would need to be rewritten – after all, it would not be appropriate to leave the management of these new global cities in the hands of the old guard, especially when the World Bank and the ADB were telling us how much better market forces were at running cities than anyone else. And no doubt it was entirely in the rightness of things to turn to these same old friends, ever ready with a loan, to underwrite the programme that would put their advice into practice. Needless to say, everything would be done in accordance with the best principles of good governance – online consultations, young professionals and corporations bringing in energy and initiative to design efficient services for the poor, the brightest and best bureaucrats given a free hand and a generous kitty to get things moving, and an impressive brains trust of experts and luminaries from the NGO world to provide technical advice and inject the civil society perspective into implementation.

Of course there were critics and prophets of doom (those self-important activists again). The Urban Development Ministry did not waste any time in responding to irritating questions from this known bunch of World Bank-baiters. The scheme was rolled out in grand style – of the total kitty of Rs. 50,000 crores, 463 projects worth Rs. 49743.46 crore were approved in three years and Rs. 8253 crore was released from the Centre to the States.

Cut to the present

3 June 2009. Speaking to a reporter from the Wall Street Journal, some officials of the Ministry of Urban Development (who refuse to be named) come out with an alarming statistic - only 32 of the 463 sanctioned projects have been completed in the three years since the scheme was launched. In case anyone should think of using this statistic as a stick to beat the Ministry or the scheme itself, the informant hurries to add that this dismal performance is entirely the fault of the States, which had been far too slow and clumsy in acquiring land, shifting existing structures and populations and acquiring the professional competence to handle large projects[1].

Surely, you say, regardless of who is responsible, this qualifies as a big-time fiasco? Apparently not. Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a meeting on 10 June, the Secretary Urban Development was quoted as saying just the opposite. "There is definitely good progress made under the mission. Many of the projects (like drainage and sewerage) would not have been taken up otherwise," said Dr. Ramachandran.[2]

Dr.Ramachandran is not alone in his complacence. Vinayak Chatterjee, chairman of the National Infrastructure Council of the Confederation of Indian Industry and chairman of consultancy firm Feedback Ventures, is quoted in the same piece as saying "It is a very well crafted intelligent innovative programme. The pity is that the states and city administrators have not been proactive in pulling more funds out of the mission."

All of 32 projects in 64 cities in three years, and they manage to attract so much praise? Why are we not impressed?!

Strangely, and most unusually, this is one instance where the statistics shared by the unnamed Ministry source are actually endorsed by the folks on the other side of the fence. A Citizens' Review of the JNNURM, undertaken in 16 cities by a coalition of community groups – grassroot activists, workers' organisations, NGOs working in informal settlements – found yawning gaps between the issues prioritised in the City Development Plans and sanctioned projects, and between the sanctioned projects and the real situation on the ground. In the overwhelming majority of cities and locations, there was absolutely no physical evidence of any kind of developmental activity – not even a signboard to mark the fact that this was a JNNURM project site.

But Mr.Ramachandran is unfazed. The judgements of mere citizens regarding the success or failure of the programme are neither here nor there if the people who count are happy. On 29 June, the Ministry of Urban Development announced that a follow-up phase of JNNURM was under serious consideration. According to the Ministry spokesperson, more investment was required to reach the targeted levels of infrastructural growth. The proposed JNNURM Mark II will have a seven-year lifespan, a kitty of Rs.100,000 crores – twice the size of the present JNNURM. The new scheme will replace the present one, and will expand its reach all the way down to the level of mofussil towns with populations of 500,000, in addition to providing “top-up funds” to ongoing projects. The scheme has already been forwarded to the Finance Ministry, and the Ministry of Urban Development is hopeful of seeing it incorporated as one of the highlights of the Budget 2009-10. The World Bank, it appears, has already given its nod to the proposal.

Of course there is the small matter of the mandatory mid-term review before the World Bank signs on the dotted line and shells out the promised Rs.50,000 crores. Somewhere along the way, the tender for the consultants seems to have been dropped off the agenda. We can only speculate on the reasons. Maybe it was considered too risky? After all, even the best consultants have been known to sometimes bite the hands that feed them!

But the Ministry has found the perfect solution – a review by the Prime Minister, no less, assisted by a National Review Committee comprising that tried and trusted band of experts, the JNNURM Technical Advisory Group. In order to bring it up to speed for this onerous task, the TAG has been beefed up with the addition of three new members: Professor Amitava Kundu of JNU (whose credentials as an urban theorist are impeccable); Nandan Nilekani (whose persuasively imagined idea of India is completely in tune with the JNNURM ethos); and Roopa Purushottaman, described in her official bio as “the chief economist and strategist at the Future Group, India’s leading business group that caters to the entire Indian consumption space”. In case you are wondering about Ms.Purushottaman's qualifications for reviewing an urban development programme, we should point out that the Future Group is the corporate umbrella for a retail empire that includes Big Bazaar, Home Town, Capital and Food Bazaar.

We can all rest assured that the review process is in safe hands and will surely result in a well-argued case for JNNURM-II.

Buoyed up by the assurance of continued largesse in a era where everyone else is cutting down on spending, the corporate sector is regaining its faltering enthusiasm for urban renewal. Experts and visionaries are emerging from unexpected quarters, enthusiastically taking the lead in articulating a vision for the future of our cities.

Take a look, for instance, at the blurb for a conference organised by CII in Delhi on 18 June. “Commonwealth Games 2010 is round the corner and the capital is in the midst of a make-over as the city prepares for the biggest sporting event in its history. Will Delhi seize the chances offered by Commonwealth Games 2010 to boost its economic, social and cultural development. The time is ripe for the city to be transformed into a “World Class City” - what is required is a vision” says the CII.

Apart from the usual smattering of ministers and bureaucrats, there were several distinguished experts on various panels: Mr. Navin Raheja of Raheja Developers and Mr. Sudhir Vohra of Sudhir Vohra Consultants in the panel on the Delhi Master Plan; Mr. Sanjay Sharma of Coca Cola in the panel on water supply; Mr. Arjun Walia of Walsons Security Services in the session on public safety and Mr.Ajay Jadeja, sports personality in the session on “action planning for a better tomorrow”.

As for the rest of us, we can hold our tongues and wait for that better tomorrow


New Delhi

[1] Rahul Chandran. 3 June 2009. JNNURM projects lag over land, utilities and personnel problems.,

[2] Vandana Gombar. 10 June 2009. Government may double size of JNNURM. Business Standard.

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