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New Cities for Old

Re-visioning Indian Cities: The Urban Renewal Mission by K C Sivaramakrishnan (New Delhi: Sage Publications), 2011; pp 279, Rs 695.

New Cities for Old

Anant Maringanti

T
he passing of the 74th amendment to the Constitution in 1994 and the launching of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) in 2005 are arguably the two most significant events in spatial restructuring in post-reforms India. Together, they set in motion a slew of transformations in structures of government and the processes of managing cities. Two decades after the overall context for these transformations was first created in 1991, critical literature that renders transparent the structural transformations and their consequences for Indian society is still sparse.

This is hardly surprising. In post-Independence India studies on cities and their governance remained in the margins of Indian policymaking and policy studies. Yet, cities had undergone tremendous transformations during those four decades, particularly since early 1970s. The gradual disempowerment of urban local bodies, the public sector investments in large industry, the rise of the regional capital, the waxing and waning flows of ideas about urban poverty through transnational aid chains, the emergence of urban development authorities; the changes in social and physical mobility of populations – had all been barely commented upon but rarely investigated in depth.

A Reflective Eye

Against that backdrop, Re-visioning Indian Cities is a valuable source book for new research. The author was an insider to the creation of the 74th amendment and a close observer of and participant in the unfolding of the JNNURM. He brings the advantage of experience and hindsight to the book to turn a reflexive eye to the emergence of cities as loci of new governance regimes in the last decade. The book’s main strength is the highly sharpened commonsense of an insider to government. This is reflected in the ease with which the author can cut to the chase. Yet, this strength is also the weakness of the book because a

book review

Re-visioning Indian Cities: The Urban Renewal Mission by K C Sivaramakrishnan (New Delhi: Sage Publications), 2011; pp 279, Rs 695.

reader who comes to the book without the advantage of familiarity with the politics of governance in India would miss the significance of many of the insights.

The book could have benefited from an introductory essay by a practitioner or academic scholar who could have placed it in context for the community. Such an introduction could easily have pre-empted the risk that the book runs of being judged unfairly by telling the readers precisely what to expect and give them a road map through the chapters. As it stands, the organisation of the chapters follows an internal logic that the reader is not privy to. Insights spring out of the pages and take the reader by surprise. Despite the extensive use of statistical data and tables, this is a book that must be read at leisure and not with a view to grasp the gist and move on. And in order to do so, one must begin with appreciating the author’s vantage point which he captures succinctly in the preface when he briefly mentions how his “burden of memory” came to aid him in resisting the temptation to let the internet (Google search) define the horizons of knowledge.

Assessment of JNNURM

The substance of the book is an excellent compilation of answers to a number of “what?” questions that a student of urban policy in India might ask. It describes the JNNURM in historical perspective, and assesses the success and enlists bottlenecks. The author gives the reader the benefit of his ability to take a bird’s-eye view of the state of Indian cities. Yet, it remains silent on the troubling “why?” questions that any serious student of policy is bound to ask.

For example, it is common knowledge among the small community of national

december 10, 2011

urban policymakers that as a cumulative effect of a number of political and economic transformations since 1970s transformations; the “state government” had emerged as the principal scale at which both delib

erative and executive power over cities and their management is organised in India. This is precisely why both in the implementation of the 74th amendment and later the JNNURM, it is the state government which proved both the enabler and the stumbling block. Reform-oriented transnational policy communities have been alert to the emergence of this scalar configuration, particularly in the context of coalitional party politics at least since 1995 when the World Bank and aid consortia first began to leverage their influence at the state government level (Kirk 2005). That the small but influential urban policymaking community in India understands this well would be evident to students of policy who track the formal and informal statements made by policymakers to the media. To readers familiar with all this, many of the author’s observations will seem intuitively correct.

The author captures this whole backdrop, when he observes that the functional domain of urban local bodies in India has come to be regarded both in practice and through case law, to be the functional domain of state governments. He notes in particular that

even though as per the 74th Constitutional Amendment, they are set up as constitutional bodies, what they are supposed to do and how they are supposed to do it, has been left to the imagination of the state governments.

Crucial Questions

The crucial question, however, is why did the central government leave such an important area of policy implementation to the imagination of the state governments? How did the central government think that it is going to deal with the consequences of this lapse?

Later on, the author notes,

The National Urban Renewal Mission bears the heavy stamp of design by one group of officials in Delhi, partial consultations with another group in the state capitals and a nodding discourse with a few cities.

Indeed, as all serious students of urban processes know, the JNNURM is the work

vol xlvi no 50

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

BOOK REVIEW

of a technically savvy, internationally exposed, reform-oriented policy network that has come into existence in the last 20 years. These attributes and structures are both the strength and the weakness of the network because in practice, the implementation of the policies has to be refracted through the political legacies of institutions rather than through networks. After all, as the author observes, JNNURM funding, despite its intention of incentivising performance, has to conform to the Planning Commission ceilings for each state.

How can we make sense of the processes of spatial restructuring of India in such a context? Recalcitrant states which retain executive power over cities and dynamic flexible network of policymakers? What options are available for urban local bodies when state governments pursue a strategy of selective compliance when they access funds from the central government and extract revenues from cities but do not devolve them to urban local bodies? Why did

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the JNNURM not make it mandatory that selection of cities in a particular state would be conditional upon state governments making the necessary financial transfers to cities? Over the past year, it has become clear that without this critical tool in place, most cities have transitioned into debt financing without the necessary powers to demand their share from the state governments and have passed on the fiscal pressures to urban dwellers? Should this be interpreted as short sight on the part of policymakers or should it be seen as a case of “liberalisation imperative” taking precedence over “effective governance imperative?”.

Such questions are hinted at by the author when he notes that “there is no clear indication why some of the reforms are mandatory and others are optional”. The book remains within the strict confines of the policy discourse and its conventions and norms of disclosure so much so that it does not articulate such follow-up questions particularly when they point to politics. But it sets the backdrop for articulating

them. Hopefully the author will raise and answer some of the questions himself in further writing. At any rate, the book opens the doors for new researchers.

Re-visioning Indian Cities is divided into 12 chapters: the policy background, coverage and components, housing and services for the poor; the JNNURM and urban mobility; disconnects and deficiencies, the reforms agenda; dealing with planning, the metropolitan dimension; reinforcements for the reforms agenda; the advisory group: looking over the shoulder; the mission amidst many realities; the mission’s journey: thus far and the way ahead. Each of the chapters is a useful window into our urban reality.

Anant Maringanti (anantmn@gmail.com) is an independent urban researcher based in Hyderabad.

Reference

Kirk, A Jason (2005): “Banking on India’s States: The Politics of World Bank Reform Programmes in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka”, India Review, Volume 4, Issue 3-4, pp 287-325.

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Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
december 10, 2011 vol xlvi no 50

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