Surat Commissioner Aparna: Thinking Big, Leading with Results

As the lead manager of India’s 9th largest city, Surat Municipal Corporation Commissioner Aparna has earned high marks from constituents and urban stakeholders for her efficiency and her progressive thinking on promoting inclusive, sustainable growth for Surat. Although only there for a short meeting, we were impressed with the grace and focus with which she addressed a wide range of social, economic and technical issues that cropped up during our visit. She spoke enthusiastically about her Interest in inclusive housing, disaster resilience, open spaces, urban heritage development, integrated conventional and alternative road development coordinated with public transit, among other topics – all in 45 minutes.

Initiatives currently under Commissioner Aparna’s leadership that we felt were indicative of Surat’s progressive approach included:

  • Housing focusing on slum-free Surat, rehousing 150,000 people, some of whom for relocation due to infrastructure expansion and environmental vulnerability, with approximately 40,000 units of Economically Weaker Section (EWS) housing (23,000 units built)
  • Open spaces: Tapi riverfront development project, including footpaths, lighting and seating
  • Integrated Road Development Project including pedestrian walkways, cycle paths, street furniture, accessible elevator over-road crosswalks

The SMC’s land acquisition powers, embodied in the Town Planning Act, allow the government to take away as much as 40% of the land from private landowners for public use. So, for instance, the SMC has the capacity to make land grants for the construction of EWS housing.

We were surprised at Commissioner Aparna’s interest in pedestrianization, which is extremely unusual in India as two-wheelers hold sway in even the tightest inner city streets and cars increasingly invade those spaces as well. In this case, the SMC may pedestrianize the ‘Chowta’ bazaar, a small shopping street for fabric, trimmings and beauty goods. (Note: We visited later and noted that the street was basically de facto pedestrianized but for the irritating and perilous invasion of two-wheelers cutting through the crowded space. Official pedestrianization would go a long way to recognizing the existing reality of the space.)

We had asked about revitalization of the area around the train station as a gateway to Surat, given the large flow of arrivals via that port. The issue of overlapping authorities over land came up again.  The Commissioner did not deem the train station area a good place for public place-making because of the Central Government’s ownership of the land and the slow response. Nonetheless, the train station appeared to have been cleaned up with quite a bit of commercial activity in the area.

In parting, Commissioner Aparna indicated her interest in resources like practical best practice documentation, a survey of policies for developing historic city centers and technical expertise on sustainable property. The Commissioner was also interested in networks that might help transmit experiences, such as the global “Walled City” network.

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