What the Last Five Years of Urban Policies Reveal About Our Cities

Policy must not look at the urban as only engines of economic growth, but also as the driving force of equality, dignity and sustainability.

The 2014 general elections stood out in many ways. Not just the mandate that the Narendra Modi-led NDA received, but how ‘the urban’ featured in the campaigns and political manifestos. For the first time, a political party was able to address the aspirations of its urban denizens and their needs reflected in the election discourse.

However, the past five years have revealed, that in spite of the high decibel manifesto and the ensued thrust for urban-centric policies, the various schemes proposed were not and could not be implemented – leaving major lessons for all political parties to consider for the next term.

Now is an opportune time to retrospect, reprioritise and reframe the urban challenge and seek radical shifts in the urban discourse. This article aims to enumerate the successes and failures of the past five years of government schemes focusing on the urban. It highlights the five key repositions for Indian cities to be reimagined as inclusive, livable and sustainable.

Not housing for few, but legalisation of informal settlements

The promise of ‘housing for all’ under the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojna (PMAY) has remained a mirage. The prompt government measures to bring in ‘capital’ and ‘reforms’ in the housing sector have only been nominally successful, and mostly to the benefit of middle and high-income groups.

Even with a focus on housing in the last few years, we have managed to construct only 18 lakh houses of the original 1.8 crore housing shortage. That is less than a mere 10% of the total urban housing need. The now ubiquitous “land as resource” strategy in urban centres has led to the displacement of poor and other vulnerable sections to the outskirts of the city.

Also Read: Does Data Tell Us the Truth About Urban Informal Settlements?

It is a matter of shame that the ‘housing’ provided is worse-off than their original houses in ‘slums’. There is a need to change the housing debate from focusing on the ‘construction of houses’ to ‘protection and formalisation’ of existing housing stock built by people themselves.

The census recognises that 96% of slum houses are good and livable; it is the lack of services and amenities that is the problem. A housing programme should regularise and formalise existing people-built housing. The need is to provide better services and amenities and re-imagine housing as ‘habitat’, a crucial concept which the present PMAY scheme conveniently neglects.

India is urbanising rapidly, and struggling to house the millions who move from villages into urban areas. Credit: Reuters

From 100 smart cities to livable cities

The manifesto promise of a hundred new cities translated into retrofitting existing cities – realising that new cities are impossible in the Indian context. The smart cities scheme, though embellished by the right choice of words like ‘inclusivity, walkability and IT-centric solutions’, has seen little success.

As of 2019, we see that the programme has resulted in the forced removal of slums and workers from the area-based development of the smart city. Unfortunately, it has morphed into a scheme for exclusive enclave developments, exacerbating the existing urban inequalities – some even calling it a perfect recipe for social apartheid.

Cases from different parts of the country – the slums of Indore or Bhubaneswar or the street vendors of NDMC or the houses demolished on the ghats of Varanasi – all have faced forcible eviction under the guise of developing smart cities.

People’s participation, a key tool for inclusive planning, is reduced to Facebook likes and Twitter impressions. In the present context, various multinational design firms are participating in the smart city scheme, experimenting with imported concepts of urban design and planning which often turn out to be incongruent with Indian cities and its realities.

Smart cities by design have led urban local bodies (ULB) to compete with other cities to draw in investment and are compelled to act against the pressing concerns of city dwellers. Come 2019, the concept of smart cities must give way to ‘livable and just cities’ that acknowledges the basic living and working standards of all.

This urban vision should also be strengthened by ensuring issuance of no-eviction guidelines, with additional support – both financial and technical – to ULBs to execute the programme themselves.

Moving beyond Swachh Bharat mission (SBM) for cleaner and sustainable cities

The most celebrated programme over the past five years has been the SBM. The scheme has been successful in facilitating the construction of toilets and is claimed to have made breathtaking progress. However, the challenge that plagues the mission is the lack of access to services like water and sewers. The SBM’s achievement is restricted to construction of toilets and not its actual usage. There is also a lack of afterthought on how the expanded physical infrastructure will pollute land and water resources with the lack of sewers. It overlooks how manual scavenging, in its morphed form, will continue to thrive with millions of septic tanks that have to be cleaned.

Also Read: When it Comes to Urban Planning, India Suffers From a Poverty of Imagination

Aside from toilets, the challenge of solid waste management continues to daunt us. Even now, more than half of our waste is not segregated and is dumped in landfills. What is scarier is that the Swachh Bharat Sureykshan for clean cities fundamentally rests on a flawed premise of solid waste management – collecting, dumping and burning.

There is an an undue focus on collecting, centralised dumping of unsegregated waste and encouraging waste to energy plants in the SBM. This might hide the waste temporarily, but will have undeniable environmental consequences. It also has to be kept in mind that waste pickers and collectors, who form the strong informal network of recyclers keeping our cities clean, need to be integrated into this system.

In the coming years, programmes like the SBM need to be scaled up and broadened to look at the emerging concerns of lesser visible, but increasingly felt aspects of Indian cities like air pollution and climate change. Swachata must not be envisaged just in terms of infrastructural responses to the problems, but as calculated policy and societal response required for more cleaner and sustainable cities.

File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI

Dignity and social security for informal labour

Even though the BJP’s 2014 manifesto acknowledges workers as “pillar of our growth” and as “key to the revival of the economy”, it is unfortunate that urban informal workers, who easily constitute more than 20 crore in population, are still mostly without any identity and social security.

Across cities, they are forced to work for abysmally low wages. Do remember that they constitute the bulk of the 800 million population of India who live on mere Rs 20 a day. These uncertainties are only exacerbated by erratic macro-economic policies like demonetisation and GST. The figures for unemployment and under-employment are amongst the highest in decades, hovering around the 8% mark. Urban unemployment is outdoing rural by just one percentage point.

The state needs to simply recognise that Indian cities are built by informal workers – the chaiwalas, the pakodewalas, the chowkidars and the kaamwali baais. Unless their right to work, basic minimum wages, social security net in the form of pension, healthcare is not secured, our urban centers will remain vast oceans of poverty with islands of opulence.

Unlike the labour law reforms initiated under the government that negate the workers’ rights and retracted state welfare, real reforms required are of basic minimum wages with social security led by state contribution. This will only cost a minuscule of the GDP and reap huge benefits to millions of informal workers and their families in Indian cities.

Decentralisation as key to urban development

In the urgency and pursuit of shortcuts for implementation of schemes, the usual-first casualty is “participatory democracy”. The 2014 manifesto recognises the need for “the decentralization of power as a primary factor in the development of the nation”. In defiance of this fundamental tenet of urban development and existing constitutional provisions of the 74th Constitutional Amendment, all urban schemes in their design are re-centralising and grabbing power away from the ULBs.

The BJP manifesto of 2014 says the “FFF of Governance – Functions, Functionaries and Funds” should not only reach the panchayats, but also to the ULBs, and powers be further devolved to the citizens through “Jan Bhagidari”. Going forward, there is a need to reject the ‘special purpose vehicle’ model – that dilutes the power of elected representatives and ULBs – in no ambiguous terms.

Fundamentals of governance and decentralisation should aim for the transfer of power to the last person as imagined in the 74th CAA to have a say in the matters of urban development. This, along with financial devolution for increased community participation, will ensure that city development, though marginally slow, follows a democratic ground-up process.

This election season, it will be worthwhile to keep these five key perspectives of the urban at the forefront and make it part of the election narrative to ensure that we move one step in the right direction towards inclusive urbanisation.

Or else, India with its 10,000 or more cities and 50% urban population in the coming years might lose a very good opportunity to improve the lives of millions who make our cities. It is crucial now, more than ever before, to reimagine the urban not only as engines of economic growth but also as the driving force of equality and justice, of dignity and rights, of sustainability and inclusive human development.

Aravind Unni is an activist and urban researcher. Tikender Panwar is former deputy mayor of Shimla. Both are members of a civil society platform called National Coalition for Inclusive and Sustainable Urbanization.