Envisioning a Humane Urban Policy for India

India’s urban policy should encapsulate a people- and ecology-centric approach rather than engineering-centric.

The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs is in the process of formulating the National Urban Policy in consultation with state governments. Since India is at the cusp of a major urban transformation, this is an opportune moment to ponder over some of the critical issues plaguing our cities and explore their bearing in urban policy.

With the neoliberal development model firmly entrenched in the policy narrative, urban transformation since the early 1990s has been propelled by the quest for economic growth. Cities are increasingly being envisaged as engines of economic growth. A McKinsey study has projected that by 2025, urban areas will contribute 75% of global growth. In the national context, Barclay’s report has projected that by 2020, urban areas are will contribute 70-75 percent of India’s gross domestic product. The Centre’s flagship programmes such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) and Smart Cities focus on big infrastructure and digital technology to make Indian cities ‘world class’, but they have had little impact on the quality of life.

The WHO’s polluted cities index features 14 Indian cities in the global top 20, with Kanpur topping the list. While stocks on Dalal Street keep rising, an hour of downpour brings the rest of Mumbai to a halt. In Delhi, traffic gridlocks have become as much a part of the daily life of millions of aam admis as the gridlock in parliament has in the life of millionaire netas. Clean roads and safe drinking water, which much of the developed world takes for granted, continue to elude us, barring a handful of exceptions such as Indore, Surat and Visakhapatnam.

So what is failing in Indian cities? What are the systemic deficiencies that make cities dysfunctional? How can urban policy address this? Here are three major issues that need to be addressed:

Urban informality

Informality is part and parcel of India’s urban fabric, and its importance cannot be overlooked. The informal sector accounts for 70% of the workforce and over 60% of the city economy. Between a quarter and a third of the residents in big cities live in slums and informal settlements. No urban mission can succeed if this reality is not acknowledged and the informal sector excluded from the city-building process.

People associated with the informal city continue to face issues of low wages and adverse service conditions, and are located outside the purview of social safety nets.  Administrators and the urban middle class are visibly hostile towards the urban poor. Consequently, large-scale evictions linked to city beautification and infrastructure projects in Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and Mumbai have become integral to the new urban strategy to lure private capital. Slum rehousing projects being carried out by public-private partnerships, and are dislodging people towards the periphery to free up prime real estate.

Such disruptive practices that adversely affect livelihoods and social ties should be replaced by a people-friendly approach that focuses on in-situ solutions, such as creating shelters near the place of work. Similarly, the new urban policy should sensitise the civic authorities regarding proper implementation of progressive legislations like the Street Vendors Act to safeguard the livelihood of the urban poor and integrate them in ward-level municipal governance rather than pushing them away using police action.

John Haslam/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Degeneration of the inner city

Metropolitan cities have been witnessing a change in their economic geography since the mid-1990s. City peripheries, such as Gurgaon and Noida in the NCR, Rajarhat New Town adjoining Kolkata and Whitefield in Bangalore, have become gateways to the international market, overtaking old, established city centres. The aspirational middle class is relocating to such peripheral cities. Meanwhile, inner cities are experiencing a decline in their residential population, increasing commercialisation and petty trading, dilapidation of housing stock, acute traffic snarls and overstretching of infrastructure. Public health is a major concern in these dense, ill-governed and spontaneously transforming areas. Fragmented governance, ambiguity in land records and the absence of coordinated land management are the causes of perpetual decay in these high-value lands. It is essential to revitalise these inner city areas as the livelihood of millions of city residents is associated with the bazaar economy.

Crisis of urban resilience

Urban missions like JNNURM and AMRUT fund capital-intensive and engineering-focused solutions, without much regard for the ecological contexts of cities. The practices of decentralised and natural solutions of stormwater management, rainwater harvesting or wetlands for sewage treatment are disregarded. Bangalore, once a city of 2,500 interconnected lakes, is at the mercy of nature due to a ten-fold increase in its built-up areas in a laissez-faire manner. Mumbai invests hundreds of crores in the development of roads, waterworks and storm drainage, but kills its life support system of 300 canals and mangroves through the indiscriminate sanction of real estate. Shimla, the ‘queen’ of the hills, is facing its worst ever water crisis for disturbing the hydrological regime due to the unregulated growth of tourism and urban sprawl.

Need for a paradigm shift

Growth is the mantra to fast-track urban transformation in India. The discourse of development is centred on creating a first-world experience in cities steeped in wide-ranging diversity. The existing urban scenario is a collective of divergent development patterns, multiple norms and conflicting priorities of numerous stakeholders inherited from indigenous, colonial, socialist and neoliberal political orders. These layers interact with a diverse natural and socio-economic landscape, inducing a complex heterogeneity in cities. Public works and land monetisation – two main pillars of the ongoing rejuvenation efforts – are inadequate to address the complex issues of informality, inner city decay and vulnerability to natural hazards. These are inevitable consequences of the laissez-faire interplay of market forces, the absence of strategic vision to manage growth and a silos-based approach to infrastructure development.

Dawn Danby/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Here are the key points that emerge vis-à-vis the National Urban Policy:

First, coexistence of formal and informal sectors needs to be accepted and integrated creatively without affecting the living environment in cities. Since slum relocation is a highly contentious issue with a history of large-scale evictions, in-situ community-based slum-upgrading with secure tenure and infrastructure augmentation appears to be a humane alternative. Odisha has undertaken a bold initiative to confer land rights to slum dwellers, a move that could benefit one million urban poor people across the state. Other states can initiate similar measures.

Second, inner cities warrant a strategic vision and long-term roadmap to revitalise their economy, built environment and crumbling infrastructure. This calls for a careful policy, drafted on the basis of specific strengths and weaknesses. The regeneration of old housing stock and retrofitting this with open spaces and basic amenities should be the priority, so as to ensure public health and safety. Working solutions depend on the convergence of multi-pronged actions, streamlining land records and conflict resolution between diverse stakeholders so that no one is left out. Success depends on putting in place an appropriate institutional mechanism and the right kind of incentives to ensure community engagement in the rejuvenation effort.

Third, the problem of resilience in Indian cities has its roots in the process of growth disregarding local and regional ecosystems. Cities have grown by accretion and subsequently been retrofitted with infrastructure. The geographical area and population of large cities have crossed the ecological thresholds. The resilience of cities will depend on replacing the urban engineering mode of growth management with urban ecosystem-centric solutions. For large cities, infrastructure problems may be solved through the principle of subsidiarity – exploring possibilities of decentralised solutions by replacing capital-intensive, centralised approaches.

Current approaches of public works and land monetisation will not provide an answer to the present systemic disorder. Issues of informality, inner city decay and crisis of urban resilience can be addressed through a well-knit policy programme – projects conceived within an overarching framework of three ‘E’s – economy, equity and ecology.

Will the National Urban Policy be just a perpetuation of the status quo or become a game changer in this direction?

Souvanic Roy is Professor of Urban Planning at IIEST, Shibpur. Tathagata Chatterji is Professor of Urban Management and Governance at Xavier University, Bhubaneswar. Views expressed are personal.