As Modi’s government gears up to unveil its ambitious ‘100 Smart Cities’ plan on June 25, new research by a UK based thinktank unearths the dark side of the top-town model of urban development which has in recent times “excluded the poor and damaged community relations” in Ahmedabad. The largest city of Gujarat, Ahmedabad has risen to fame internationally as the jewel of the ‘Gujarat Model’ of which the PM was himself the architect as Chief Minister (2001-2014).
Pulsating with a Gandhian legacy of consensual politics, civil disobedience and a rich political culture since the pre-independence era, Ahmedabad’s town planning was historically shaped by community group demands, often women led, that succeeded in leveraging municipal sensitivity towards combating poverty, disease and slum issues . Some of the successful outcomes of this ‘dialogic development” are the Slum Electrification Scheme, bringing power to 200,000 houses across 710 slums between 2001 and 2007 and the Slum Networking Project (1995-2008) which upgraded 60 city slums, benefitting 13,000 homes with sanitation and sewage services.
But the report by Overseas Development Institute (ODI) titled “Towards a better Life: A cautionary tale of progress in Ahmedabad” warns against the erosion of this democratic culture and the brewing mistrust between the city and its civil society. The shift is largely due to “increasing adoption of centralised approaches to development, marked by greater control from the state government, and also a heightened focus on economic growth through a large corporate sector.”
The report will be released on June 12 as part of an ODI discussion on “Urban Futures: Making cities work for people.” “With large investment planned for urban areas going forward, we hope this report contributes towards a constructive dialogue to reflect on what seems to have worked and what hasn’t. This report aims to contribute to the discussion of what development means in the urban context and highlight the need for the conception of development to truly include everyone in ‘aspirational India’,” one of the researchers, Tanvi Bhatkal told The Wire.
Tracing the “development progress” of the city, it acknowledges Ahmedabad overall as a successful example of inclusive urbanisation, seen in a decline in urban poverty rate from 28% to 10% and slum settlement populations from 25.6% to 4.5% in less than 20 years. The ODI report observes that the city has also dealt better with urban sprawl and environmental challenges as compared to Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad.
However, it notes a recent break in the pattern with the replacement of inclusive growth by the creation of ‘ capital intensive global cities’ that have “neglected the needs of the poor”. It gives two instances of projects of such nature- the pride of Gujarat Government-Sabarmati Riverfront project and the Bus Rapid Transport System (BRTS).
Sabarmati beautification at cost of slum households
Findings by the report’s researchers reveal that the $242 million project to beautify and reclaim the Sabarmati River may have reduced river pollution, but at the cost of 10,000 slum households who were relocated to the periphery of the city amid deep community opposition as their land was sold off to private developers. Slum dwellers and civil society organisations did come together to resist this dislocation, but “strong political will backing projects has meant that these have gone ahead without paying sufficient attention to ensuring that the vulnerable are adequately compensated,” Bhatkal said.
“The abandonment of slum upgrading in favour of a return to old policies of the resettlement of slum dwellers has accentuated the exclusion of the urban poor,” says the report. “Sites selected to rehabilitate displaced slum residents tend to be far from the city centre often in poorly developed or industrial areas, with poor access to transport links. As a result, many people are unable to continue with their earlier occupations.” Moreover it discovered that “allocation of families to housing units has generally been based on a lottery system. This often negatively affects their social networks and contributes to greater social isolation and lower access to informal insurance.”
Critiquing its lack of affordability of BRTS, research suggests the service has neglected city’s old bus transport system, the Ahmedabad Municipal Transport System (AMTS), which has “a larger coverage and lower fares.”
Inequity of access
The study is also sensitive to spatial organisation of the city along religious lines since the communal tensions of 2002. It argues “The industrial area on the eastern side is largely occupied by lower caste and Muslim families, while the western side is occupied by the rich and middle classes in gated communities interspersed with pockets of migrant labour and social housing. As a result, “there are evident inequities in access to basic services: the western side of the city has the highest level of basic services, public spaces, schools and universities, and other institutions and amenities . On the other hand, the east and its periphery has much lower levels of amenities, exacerbating inequalities in living standards and opportunities.”
The research was conducted by Tanvi Bhatkal, William Avis and Susan Nicolai and based on 50 semi-structured interviews with policymakers at the municipal, state and national level, academics and researchers, civil-society organisations and planners and private-sector developers in Ahmedabad.