February 21, 2021

Urban in the Budget, even Rhetoric Missing

Tikender Singh Panwar

THE budget for the year 2021-22 was placed in the background of the ravaging pandemic and with a hope that the urban centres, which saw the worst kind of forced-reverse migration in recent times would be addressed holistically. The budget speech began with the recognition of the crisis that the pandemic has brought to the nation and its people, the finance minister whilst recognizing the role played by essential workers offer very little to them in return. With such a strong pro-people stance at the beginning of the speech the finance minister veered off to a budget that can be summarised as a one that aims to ‘strategically disinvest’, promoting ‘infrastructure development’ and is narrowly focusing to address ‘electoral challenges’ in the upcoming state elections. The pandemic and the resultant economic crisis for marginal and worker groups – many of whom are in the urban – only get a rare mention at best. And an opportunity to address the challenges of equity and sustainability that the pandemic brought to the forefront has been lost.

Urban development and many flagship schemes with a strong – grandiose urban visions with accompanying rhetoric are missing in the budget. The total budgetary outlay for urban development is Rs 54,581 crore, which is just nine per cent points above the budgetary estimates of 2020-21. Though the revised estimates for the previous year too fell far below to Rs 46,791 crores. There is no chance and scope of even meeting the BE(Budget Estimates) of 2021-22. But then what is this amount at all? It is just 1.5 per cent of the total budget, even though 34 per cent of the people live in urban centres and the cities contribute to nearly 67 per cent of the GDP and 90 per cent of total government revenues. In all proposed amount for the urban falls short of the budgets of four metros of the country. Even in this budget, there is a shortfall in the total grants outlay to the urban local bodies. There is a reduction from Rs 25,098 to Rs 22,114, which is a fall of nearly 11 per cent. This means that the urban bodies will be forced to shore up its resources through either user fees on various utilities, or other means taxing people more. The centre has employed this opportunity not to further strengthen state’s role in providing urban services and amenities that the pandemic revealed was required, but on the contrary, relied more on private investment in cities to ameliorate the problems.

The budget figures for 2021-22 can be analysed under three categories of schemes that capture the budget’s disposition to the urban.  First, the ones being pushed through aggressively, like the thrust on infrastructure augmentation in urban centres. Under the guise of “raising the share of public transport in urban areas” the budget pushes through unsustainable debt-ridden expansion of metro rail network. The city bus service systems wherever operating will be converted into “innovative PPP models” to enable private sector players to enter bus services in the cities. Thereby further dismantling the existing ‘more public’ means of bus transport in favour of metros. This is further augmented by playing the car industry with a “voluntary vehicle scrapping policy” and not to push through a strong policy for electric vehicles and non-motorised transport. With the expected increase in vehicles, while bracing for more air pollution due to cars, the outlay promises only a Rs 2,217 crore program for air pollution – a mere palliative for our cities boasting of most polluted centres in the world.

Urban development was therefore merely reduced to infrastructure enhancement and imminent climate crisis facing our cities have no mention nor allocation.

The second set of policies are the ones that are continued like a run of the mill in the urban.  Like a closer reading into schemes will reveal that there are hardly any new or increased allocations in key sectors as housing, sanitation and services. Like for example in PMAY, the scheme has been extended by one more year. Similar continued allocations are visible for AMRUT and Swachh Bharat. And curiously, though there are continued allocations, there was no mention of the much-showcased smart cities initiative. These smart cities were supposed to be the ‘lighthouses’ for other cities in the country. The budget speech is completely silent over it as it has become one of the biggest embarrassments due to lack of implementation and policy failure.

The third set of measures are the ones where there is a grievous absence of any substantial allocations, only rhetoric and promises are made in the budget. The best examples are of migrant housing - instead of government providing immediate thrust on housing and labour hostels, they will be given tax concessions, and there are no separate allocations that ensure the delivery of housing options to migrant workers whose suffering during the pandemic will remain in our collective memory. There is also a section on labour welfare in the budget, but it fails to delineate any measures and assignations of resource to the lost livelihoods, reduced wages, and income insecurity that the workers are currently. The budget does mention of universal social security and online portals to access information on workers but returns nothing in a penny for the cash – resource-starved informal sector that runs the urban centres.

An urban employment guarantee scheme was the most direly required to be addressed during the pandemic period. It is not that the BJP has not been speaking about it. In fact, since the 2009 election campaign, the BJP was promising for an employment guarantee scheme and BJP ruled state like Himachal Pradesh has adopted this measure alongside many other states, but the budget ignores this much-needed livelihood support measure. This is decisive as data has shown that India is facing the worst form of the unemployment crisis. And most critically, the budget though points that the more than 9,000 urban centres, comprising tier 1,2 and 3 cities, small towns, and other non-statutory urban settlements, which hold nearly 34 per cent of the Indian population, but aside from the big million cities, the smaller urban centres where urbanisation is unfolding has been left unsupported. Innovative attempts from other

Covid impacted countries (and even some Indian states like Kerala, Odisha etc.) that are now heavily investing in labour securities, green infrastructures and sustainable developments could have been a better and a bold direction to take in the changed circumstances.

It should also be mentioned that in the overall this is a very damp budget. The Jal Jeevan Mission (Urban), and the much needed The Urban Swachh Bharat Mission 2.0 is a much-touted scheme of this budget, how it unfolds and delivers to the urban population will have to be watched eagerly. The past lessons of SBM are however quite bitter. These schemes also remain conspicuous in the absence of inclusion of workforces delivering the services and the larger environmental concerns that require urgent drastic policy measures and not policy nit-picks that do not address the unequal and unsustainable urban centres we are becoming.