National Urban Policy – Part I

In a book published in 2000, one had lamented the fact that even after 50 years of independence, India had no National Urban Policy. It was a very naive conclusion: One cannot forget that at the time of Independence, the tragedy of Partition and the havoc of colonial rule required the Indian government to concentrate solely on the famine stalking the Indian countryside, and cities had to be left to fend for themselves.

However, this neglect of urban areas also meant that outdated and retrograde laws inherited from the British colonial masters continue to rule the way Indian cities are governed to this day. For example the Bombay Municipal Corporation Act of 1888 spawned all the municipal legislation not just in India, but also surrounding areas like Pakistan, Sri Lanka and eventually Bangladesh. There was also no effort to update the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, and the new Act proposed in 2013 and drastically amended since, is mired in party politics and yet to become law. Finally, the eminently ‘British’ Town Planning laws and procedures were imported wholesale to India without any modification to make them relevant to the Indian urban scenario.

The problem with retaining these colonial laws is that they were premised on a deep distrust of the ‘natives’ and gave too many powers to the permanent civil servant at the helm of municipal affairs, and this bifurcation of powers between a permanent bureaucracy and representatives elected for 5 years continues to hamstring local governments, and breeds corruption, clientelism and capture in the local economy.

These issues are not exclusive to India and continue to dog former colonies in Asia, Africa and Latin America as well, and this widespread malaise prompted UN-Habitat, the urban organization of the UN, to draw up guidelines for formulation of national urban policies.

The basic premise of the NUP: A Guiding Framework is that given the increasing clout of cities in national economies in a globalized world, federal governments have the opportunity and responsibility to establish the “rules of the game”. The Report emphasizes that in addition to setting a vision for their cities, countries must establish a financing and implementation framework to realize that vision.

The structure of this framework will determine:

  • The responsibility for implementation
  • The powers delegated
  • The resources allocated
  • The monitoring and evaluation process, and
  • The enforcement mechanisms to ensure follow-through

The guide makes it very clear that without strong, effective “rules” within the national urban policy, neither cities nor countries can achieve the goals set out within the foundational vision.

A well-constructed national urban policy can establish a clear, cohesive vision for sustainable urban growth and development. At the same time, it can create systems that empower cities with the freedom to make the right choices on sustainable solutions for their unique contexts — and to ensure the financial resources to invest in them.

Interestingly, while debate on the NUP Framework in the developing countries is focused on greater privatization, liberalization, infrastructure and business; in the advanced economies the focus is clearly on putting people at the centre of national urban policies, emphasizing the environmental aspects of sustainable urban development and highlighting the role of cities in decelerating climate change.

A National Urban Policy should enable national governments to control and direct urbanization and capitalize on the opportunities it offers, for the sustainable and equitable development of the country as a whole, without negatively impacting global well-being. Further, as the Guide rightly points out, working within a national policy framework will promote good practices, innovative management, stakeholder consultation, capacity development and evaluation of country policy processes. Integrating these lessons into future policy practice can promote systems change and institutional learning.

This Guiding Framework outlines five NUP phases: feasibility, diagnosis, formulation, implementation and monitoring, and evaluation. In addition, the Framework considers the inclusion of the three NUP pillars: participation, capacity development, acupuncture projects resulting in iterative policy design. (Incidentally, ‘acupuncture projects’ is a phrase originally coined by Barcelonan architect and urbanist, Manuel de Sola Morales and developed by Finnish architect and social theorist Marco Casagrande, applying the tenets of acupuncture to urban renewal: just as you treat the points of blockage and let relief ripple throughout the body, so also localized initiatives can release pressure at strategic points, and thus release pressure for the whole city.)

These five elements are simultaneous and overlapping in most cases and the Guide represents them in the following diagram:

National Urban Policy Process.png

It is expected that the National Urban Policy, once formulated and accepted by a national government, will manifest itself in transformations in Urban Legislation, Urban Economy and Urban Planning.

How this framework can work for an emerging economy like India, I shall discuss in Part II of this post. Until then….