I recently started working on an urban poverty scoping exercise with a representative from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As part of this project, I have had the opportunity to meet with many urban planners, government officials, academics and civil society workers all over the country. I have learned a great deal about the obstacles in providing basic services to the urban poor. The common woe amongst all stakeholders that I have spoken to remains the lack of capacity required to dispatch services in an effective manner. Thus, when I asked these stakeholders which area under poverty alleviation requires intervention, many pointed out that a focus on capacity-building could help make poverty reduction programs efficient and targeted to achieve more success in shorter periods of time.
The 74th Constitutional Amendment mandates the local government with the responsibility of urban poverty alleviation. However, many municipal governments have shown incompetence in utilizing funds appropriately. Mr. Ajay Suri, Regional Advisor for Cities Alliance, stressed that municipalities are starved for skilled urban planners, economists, statisticians, researchers, designers and architects to take on the role of urban development. While money is abundant, the technical assistance required to implement projects and disseminate funds are not available, due to which poverty alleviation programs, such as Basic Services to the Urban Poor (BSUP, under JnNURM), do not always achieve their goals. A recent article in the Indian Express stated that The Intergrated Housing and Slum Development Program, which is another sub-mission under JnNURM, has utilized less that 50% of its allocated funds on projects. According to housing minister Kumari Selja, one of the reasons for under-utilization of funds was lack of capacity of local bodies to implement projects.
Over the past year, the GoI has established five new urban institutes in Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Chattisgargh. These institutes are intended to be the training grounds for new generations of urban planners, research organizations, and consultancies that provide technical assistance to cities. Unfortunately, working for the municipal government is not looked upon as an attractive profession. Furthermore, organizations such as the National Institute of Urban Affairs struggle with retaining young professionals due to the diverse and attractive employment opportunities that they are presented with. There is dire need for experts in municipal governments, without whom no amount of money or schemes can fully achieve success.