Diplomat-turned-politician Hardeep Singh Puri, who was inducted into the Union Council of Ministers in September, has had a distinguished career and brings his rich experience to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs where he has been actively involved in implementing three flagship programmes of the government.
Puri, a student of history at Delhi University’s Hindu College, also taught at St Stephens College. He joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1974. During a career spanning 39 years, he served in senior positions in the Ministries of External Affairs and Defence, held ambassadorial level posts in the United Kingdom, Brazil and served as Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations, both in Geneva and New York. He had earlier served in India’s Missions in Tokyo and Colombo.
Puri took over as Minister of State (Independent Charge) of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs on 4 September. In a wide-ranging interview to SRI KRISHNA, he spoke of the various initiatives of his ministry and the three flagship programmes he has been focusing on to ensure speedy implementation. Excerpts:

Q: As a diplomat you would have visited many cities around the world. So what do you think needs to be done to make India’s urban centres as well developed?

A: The problems of Indian cities are different because there is rapid urbanisation and we are a fast growing economy ~ I don’t like to use the term emerging economy. As a civilization, we emerged almost 5,000 years ago before most other countries did. When the Industrial Revolution was starting in the United Kingdom, between 1750 to 1850, India was a highly advanced economy. In many respects the industrialisation of the West was anchored in the de-industrialisation of India. We had a massive developmental lag because the country that colonised us decided to view India as a country which was providing inputs for its own industrialisation.

The 2011 census noted that 17 per cent of India in 1947 lived in the urban areas out of a population of 300 million whilst showing that the population in urban areas has now gone up to 30 per cent and that on a population base of 1.25 billion. This will go up to 40 per cent by 2030 on an increasing population base and by 2040 to 50 per cent. So, most Indian urban areas are reeling under pressure from rapid and autonomous urbanisation because though the bulk of the population still lives in rural areas it accounts for only 16 per cent of the GDP. Now for 16 per cent to sustain 70 per cent of the population is difficult and that is why Indian cities are under greater pressure than those in the so-called developed West. You can compare the problems of Indian cities with other megapolises and other developing countries.

Q: There are almost a dozen projects under your ministry. What will your focus areas be?

A: The priorities of the ministry are very well established. I have come into a situation where we are three years into our first term as the government and the major priorities at this point of time are the three flagship programmes of the Prime Minister which are anchored in this ministry. These are the Swachh Bharat Mission, the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana or affordable housing and the Smart Cities project and these are at different stages of completion.

The Swachh Bharat Mission launched by the prime minister from the ramparts of the Red Fort on 15 August 2014, has a five-year completion date in 2019 when we will be celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Our intention is to complete the programme well before that and it will be done.

The second is the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana which has a completion date of 2022. This project that started in May 2015 has three segments ~ the economically weaker sections, lower income group and the middle income group section. Initially it was confined to EWS and lower income group. On 31 December 2016, the PM added the middle income group but it began in right earnest only in May 2017. It is a very bold and ambitious scheme. At the heart of the scheme is the objective that every Indian citizen, irrespective of where he or she comes from or their economic background, should be able to own a home by 2022. We have already spent a considerable amount of money for the EWS and LIG segment and for the MIG scheme we have taken decisions to make it more attractive. We have increased the carpet area of MIG-1 and MIG-2. Earlier it was 90 square metres and 110 square metres and now we have raised it to 120 square metres and 150 square metres respectively.

Q: How has progress of the Smart Cities been and plans for 2018?

A: The Smart Cities programme appears a bit slow but we have already done contracting in 765 projects spread over 90 cities and I think by next year you will see the outlines of some of the features of what smart cities look like. In the first phase of Smart Cities we have a target of 100 out of which 90 have already been selected and work is on.

Q: The Prime Minister has been stressing on Swachh Bharat and on doing away with open defecation. Targets have been set for construction of toilets at individual, community and public levels. How much has been achieved?

A: As far as physical targets go, I am concerned with the urban part. There are two key objectives. One is total elimination of open defecation and 100 per cent scientific management of municipal solid waste.The number of toilets to be constructed will be completed. Getting rid of open defecation would clearly require a change in mind-set and a lifestyle change which is not something I can guarantee. Even the Prime Minister said that it would require 1,000 Modis to do this. But the good news is there is an awakening and we now need to build on that.

On waste management, let me be very clear that we are processing only 23 per cent of the waste though we have several programmes which would raise it further. There must be consciousness among people as also awareness to segregate the waste at the point of production. Secondly, have the waste collected and taken to the dhalaos and then transport and use it for making compost and energy. Work is in progress and I am reasonably optimistic.

Q: Has using actors like Amitabh Bachchan and Vidya Balan as brand ambassadors for Swachh Bharat been successful? What feedback do you have?

A: Three years after the Swachh Bharat Mission was launched, we have declared 1,789 cities as open defecation free (ODF). These include urban areas of Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Chandigarh, Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Andaman and Nicobar and Dadra Nagar Haveli. There is a realisation among people that it is not hygienic and that you would have to pay more money in medical treatment. We welcome the initiative by well-meaning citizens. I am aware of some of the hurdles they are facing as there are criminal elements. I would like to take the campaign to a level where I could declare that the impediments would classify as criminal activity.

Q: You have been in the Ministry for about three months. What do you feel about the work done?

A: I have come into a ministry where a lot of work has already been done. The machine is moving at a fast pace and in some respects I will have to get to know its functioning. I have learnt a lot in the three months that I have been in this ministry.

Q: The issue of hike in fares of Delhi Metro has kicked up a controversy. As a long-time resident of Delhi what do you feel?

A: This is a false controversy. When once you have declared having a metro, it is a capital intensive project. If you have your own money than spend it but if you have borrowed money and you don’t pay it back, no one else in the country is going to pay it. If the metro fare is high, then somebody should be willing to subsidise it. The people who are making the most amount of noise are the ones who are not willing even to do a little bit for the metro.

Q: The Real Estate Regulatory Authority (RERA) and the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Ordinance have come into effect. How far would these help people who are suffering at the hands of builders having invested money for flats?

A: We are facing a situation of crony capitalism where a lot of people have milked the system through contacts with the government and collusion and borrowed money from the banks and not paid back. Seventy years after independence we are getting a regulator. So, various measures such as RERA, Bankruptcy and Insolvency Ordinance, demonetisation, GST and fiscal incentives will be able to clean up the system. There will be blood on the floor because in the initial stages when you introduce reforms there are bound to be problems. Some people tweaked the system and the ongoing projects in order not to address the issue.

(The interview appeared in the Delhi edition of The Statesman on 16 December 2017)