Cities & Architecture

Smart Urban Growth Must Involve a Dialogue With the Poor

As the government pours money into urbanisation, some of the more participatory approaches of the past are making way for top-down decision-making

Community members in a local slum participate in discussions after watching video documentaries screened by the Self Employed Women's Association of India. Credit: Gates Foundation

Community members in a local slum participate in discussions after watching video documentaries screened by the Self Employed Women’s Association of India. Credit: Gates Foundation

Unusually for an Indian city, Ahmedabad’s municipal policy has been shaped heavily by its vibrant civil society, often women-led grass-roots community groups, which has helped cut poverty and improve living conditions in the city’s slums.

We at the Overseas Development Institute, a think-tank in the UK, have been looking at how cities work for the poor. While Ahmedabad is not perfect we have selected it as it has taken many positive steps vis-a-vis urban development over the past two decades.

Take housing. In the 1990s, slum inhabitants mobilised under the auspices of groups such as the Self-Employed Women’s Association of India and Saath Charitable Trust to agitate for municipal authorities to improve their living conditions.

In 1995, the Slum Networking Project was born. It brought a range of basic services, including water and sanitation systems and paved passages, along with a guarantee to not evict households for 10 years. This project supported around 13,000 homes over eight years. It was followed by a drop in reported illness, improvements in children’s school attendance, and in time spent on work by women as they no longer had to queue to collect water. Since then, other initiatives have used pragmatic means to provide slum families with access to basic services while avoiding more complicated issues of tenure. In 2001, the Slum Electrification Scheme was introduced, bringing power to 200,000 houses across all 710 slums in the city. Similarly, the NOC-500 programme has provided over 10,500 slum households official access to water and sanitation services.

Take town planning. The fast pace of urbanisation demands municipal governments plan for urban growth, but municipal governments in India often fail to coordinate policy across sectors. Ahmedabad is one of the few cities that fares well in terms of urban planning, thereby avoiding urban sprawl. Landowners within a town planning scheme, usually of some 1-2 sq. km of land, volunteer their plots which are pooled together by the Urban Development Authority. The authority returns part of the land to the owner and uses a small part of the land to build roads, affordable housing and other civil infrastructure. In this way, Ahmedabad expands in a more ordered way. About 3-5% of the land developed under such schemes has been used to provide housing for economically weaker sections – in Ahmedabad about 11,000 houses have been provided for the poor between 2000 and 2010.

Such progressive innovations to urban development have been made possible by an active civil society which Ahmedabad inherited from the days when Mahatma Gandhi used the city as a base to oust the British Raj. Gandhi’s style of consensual politics and civil disobedience has rubbed off on both citizens and local government, who have regularly worked together for the greater public good.

But our research also warns that as new money is poured into urbanisation, some of these more participatory approaches are being put aside.

Since the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM), launched  in 2005 to modernise Indian cities and provide basic services for the poor, money has flowed from the Central government to build vital urban development projects. While many cities struggled to access finance due to weak municipal capacity, Ahmedabad’s strong local governance has been able to leverage JnNURM funds to create both city level infrastructure as well as housing for the poor. However, too often some of these large infrastructure projects are implemented with little or no consultation with the people who will be using the new housing. Many of those we’ve interviewed felt that projects meant to benefit poor families have had inappropriate design, and in fact contributed to their social dislocation. This has threatened to exclude the poor, at least in a physical sense, to the margins of Ahmedabad.

India’s government recognises the importance of urbanisation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi campaigned on a pledge to modernise the country and build 100 Smart Cities that would be focused on attracting investment.

However, the Smart Cities agenda contains risks as it remains unclear how the poor will be incorporated into the vision of modern growth – would the creation of vibrant growth engines translate into the elimination of poverty or does it risk further marginalising the poor?

While formulating future urban development policy in India, there is value in reflecting on what seems to have worked well in the past, and what hasn’t. Building modern housing for slum dwellers on the face of it sounds like a strong policy. But Ahmedabad’s earlier approach of engaging with its slum communities resulted in more slums being upgraded with official access to basic services, rather than their residents being rehoused some distance away from the city. A top-down approach also tends to neglect the importance of community relations and proximity to employment. For instance, a study of slum families offered improved housing on Ahmedabad’s periphery found that up to a third of the beneficiaries didn’t actually move into the assigned housing and another third moved back into the centre due to increased social isolation.

Going forward, with India poised to have the largest growth in the number of urban population over the next few decades, the country’s urban dilemma is complicated and demands further discussion on what will work. Most importantly, there is a need to think carefully about the concept of ‘development’ itself to make sure that the urban process is able to benefit all, including its poorest residents.

Tanvi Bhatkal is a researcher in Growth, Poverty and Inequality at the Overseas Development Institute, a UK think tank

  • Svati Chakravarty

    Tanvi, really appreciate the research you are undertaking. I agree completely that urbanisation cannot equal marginalisation of the poor. I also think that the creation of smart villages will stem the rush of migration to ill equipped, already over burdened cities.