Power, Authority and Influence

My apologies for a recap of Anthropology 101, but it is necessary to understand what I mean by the title of this post.  Anthropologists define political organization as the way in which a society handles the distribution of power, to maintain order which will enable the peaceful social and economic functioning of society.  When this power is legitimized on the basis of culture/mores, it becomes traditional authority (as in a Council of Elders); and when it is legitimized through a modern legal-institutional framework, it is termed rational authority. In other words, if I have the power I can make you act in a particular way, whether you want to do so or not, and if I exercise authority over you then you must act in the way outlined, or face social and legal sanctions.  The third element in this triad is influence – a far more subtle ability to make others think and act in a particular way, of their own volition.

I was reminded of these lessons of long ago by the constant harping in the Indian media about the Trump Twitter forays and the ‘War of Thrones’ in State elections in key North Indian States – with a liberal use of words like ‘power’, ‘defeat’, ‘victory’ and ‘demolition’ ad nauseam. The two self-proclaimed greatest democracies on Earth, reducing the hopes and aspirations of over a billion and a half souls  to a tawdry reality show on commercial TV. And this is how it works – in theory:

But how much of this much vaunted ‘power’ is real? Given the quirky electoral systems in both countries, the US Presidential race was won with just 46% of the popular vote; and India’s General Elections of 2014 gave the present government a great number of seats with just 31% of the electoral vote. Since then, Indian State Government elections have become vital to strengthen the government’s hands in the Upper House. This is seen as very important, because the sitting government wishes to tweak the legal-institutional framework to enhance its authority in a way that will enable it to achieve its agenda before the next General Election, in 2019 – just as POTUS can affect the legal process there, by select appointments to the judiciary.

Whenever there is an attempt to put the cart before the horse (assuming authority before legitimizing power) it falls flat – like the Trump travel ban and the hasty amendments to India’s Land Laws. I doubt whether both countries will allow their basic systems of legitimacy to be tweaked quite as easily as the incumbents seem to imagine – there are far too many checks and balances in both Constitutions, too many dissenting voices, too much inbuilt inertia, and rampant multiculturalism – the only safeguard for democracy in a globalised, multipolar world.

However, there is a clear and present danger that until this much coveted legitimate authority materializes, there will be extra-legal efforts to intimidate and coerce, through the rewriting of history, the marginalization of immigrants and minorities, and the quelling of all dissent by questioning the integrity of all those who disagree – like the campus unrest in India and the media war in the US. It is again the bottom 20% in both countries who will bear the brunt of these ambitions.

What is surprising is the convergence of vision between two such disparate leaders – one wants to make America great again, the other wants Development for all – but through the common route of infrastructure! This sector is globally acknowledged as the greatest source of corruption, and has been used in both countries to win elections – taking clientelism and crony capitalism to a new high : support today, profit tomorrow.

In fact the American Society of Civil Engineers has already submitted a wish list by outlining the horrendous costs to the country of deteriorating infrastructure, and the aspiring classes in India too dream of totally unviable and expensive bullet train networks criss-crossing their vast country.

Infrastructure development provides both a carrot and a stick in times of elections: on the one hand, investment in physical infrastructure benefits large companies in the heavy engineering, construction and mining sectors, whose shareholders are among the richest and have the deepest pockets; and on the other hand, it keeps the recalcitrant and minorities in line through coercion – the highly centralized governance in India gives an immense advantage to the party in power at the Centre, and States that choose to go with other parties pay a very heavy price in terms of systematic deprivation of development funds.

The price paid by West Bengal for voting in the Communists for a quarter century was huge – and Kolkata as the consumptive dowager metropolis of India is living proof of this, while Delhi was lavished with beautifying additions at the cost of other cities. Further, it is not only the cities but the rural areas which are impacted adversely if the Central and State Government are political adversaries. The Ministry of Rural Development gets the bulk of Government subsidies and aid, and antagonizing the powers-that-be at the Centre can dry up a river, create a famine, isolate a village, target a community, unleash a deadly epidemic, or devastate an eco-system.

So as they forge new means to maximize the private profits from public investment in infrastructure, both countries will forget their shortcomings – like the world’s largest incarcerated population, child poverty, growing homelessness, deteriorating public schools, crippling student debts and unaffordable healthcare in the US; and the highest incidence of modern slavery, growing malnutrition, child labour, non-existent social security and rampant informalisation of the economy, in India.

And the poorest will continue to fall off the grid…

 

Suffer Little Children…

One watches the TV News at one’s own peril these days. The UN Secretary-General asking for over $4 billion for the starving children of Africa; the ragged and emaciated children scavenging for scraps in Yemen; the wounded children of Aleppo and the dead of Gaza… and TV channels vying with one another with more ‘in-depth’ reports about the inhumane juvenile justice system in ‘developed’ countries. Peddling more and more misery in High Definition, but with a polite warning ‘Viewers may find some of the images disturbing.’ Then they move on to more important things, like the Great Twitter Wars of the twenty-first century…

Frankly, activists and development agencies have simply given up on the poorest of the poor. In the face of growing disparities, extremist polities, unprecedented inequality and insatiable greed, what chance do the children of humanity’s lowest quintile have? Branded and damned by an accident of birth. Ironic that millions live and die with their low ascribed status in an era which worships merit and achievement and makes billionaires of tech lords for a single innovation.

UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children 2016 reflects this growing despair with the same tired pleas for:

  • More accurate Information (They have to beg for this in the age of Information?!)
  • Greater Integration across sectors like education, nutrition, health and housing
  • Innovations that accelerate development for the most disadvantaged
  • Investment to create equitable solutions
  • Involvement of communities, businesses, organizations and citizens around the world who believe that change is possible.

Five I’s to combat the big I – Inequality.

However elegantly alliterative the Report may be, it doesn’t acknowledge one simple fact. The poorest of the poor across the world have not only become marginalized, but are increasingly redundant for the rest of us, our governments and our big businesses. The five I’s listed above will not happen, because it is in nobody’s interest to alleviate the lot of the most disadvantaged – as simple as that.

Just look at each of these in the South Asian context, for instance:

  • India prides itself on developing and implementing the biggest biometric ID programme (Aadhar) for a billion-plus people, and provides the bulk of Information Technology’s foot soldiers across the world. Yet in its deep hinterland, millions of births go unregistered. Why?
  • The Human Development Index was said to be the brainchild of a Pakistani and an Indian, yet neither country has been innovative or effective in integrating child development programmes, and both remain high on the malnutrition and illiteracy indices. Instead, tireless advocates of child rights like Kailash Satyarthi remain unheard and unknown until anointed by the Nobel Prize, when they are famous for a week and return meekly to obscurity, with nobody paying heed to their words anymore. Instead, the Indian Government goes so far as to legitimize child labour in family trades, washing its hands of millions of the most disadvantaged children in the country. Why?
  • As regards investment, no country in this region is willing to step back from an unnecessary arms race, and invest instead in its women and children and their future. Why?
  • And the middle and business classes in the entire South Asian Region are clones of one another – materialistic and self-centred to a fault. So much for their involvement in reaching the poorest of the poor…

The report has its dire warnings too, if the Sustainable Development Goals are not met by 2030:

unicef-sowc-2016


The Report rightly points out:

The arithmetic of equity is relatively simple and it is not a zero-sum game. Everyone should move forward, in rich and poor countries alike. But with greater investment and effort focused on reaching the children and families who have made the least progress, advances in child survival, health and education can be more equally shared to the benefit of all. To realize our global development goals, we must invest first in the children who are furthest behind.”

All we need: political will and a social conscience… and the resources can always be found.

 

WDR 2017: Revisiting Corruption, Capture and Clientelism

It was one of those cold misty mornings that you only get in North India in January, and I was being dropped to the airport at 5 a.m. by the hotel cabbie, and we were  lamenting the state of the world (ALL Indians always lament the state of the world when passing the time with total strangers…). Anyway, it emerged that despite working for a luxury hotel run by what is considered India’s most ethical business group, the driver is paid such a paltry salary that his family just makes it above the poverty line. And this despite being at the hotel’s beck and call 24/7. I am sure his father would have blamed his poverty on bad karma from an earlier life, and as a younger man, this gentleman would have ranted about discrimination (in arguably the world’s most discriminatory and unequal society), but in Modi’s India he blamed it on one single thing – corruption.

There is of course, a growing school of thought which believes that neo-conservative regimes like the current Indian government come to power by promising development, and blaming the preceding governments for holding the country back because of widespread corruption. Come elections, they promise to eradicate corruption through ‘good governance’. Their concept of governance (based on the classic World Bank model) is however, more like corporate governance with all emphasis on efficiency, grand announcements and fast but centralized decision-making, with the citizen-centric governance promoted by UNDP, totally forgotten along with effectiveness, participation, responsiveness, and accountability. Naturally, in this context, the entirely business-centric scales like Transparency International’s to measure corruption, or WEF’s ease of business are given far too much importance, and the UN reports on social indicators generally neglected. Consequently, wealth qua wealth is worshipped and accumulated, enterprise rewarded, bad debts incurred, and the informality and inequality in the country keep rising.

This is how the very core neocon agenda undermines itself, because as the social analyst Jong-Sung You argues in his latest book, inequality produces several causal mechanisms that serve to embed corruption within democratic structures and make them difficult to eradicate. Linking economic to political power, he explains how the ruling elite in an attempt to safeguard its own interests, buys political influence through both legal and illegal channels in order to ensure their interests are over-represented in the corridors of power. High rates of inequality thus compound the problem of state capture by powerful figures in politics, business and the media, with the result that democratic processes of accountability are undermined by corrupt practices.

Further, Dr You points out that an unequal state with enfeebled democratic infrastructure is ripe for persistent and prevalent clientelism, forcing the poor to become dependent on corrupt chains of patronage for the provision of particular benefits like medicine, education and nourishment, which would otherwise be considered entitlements in a functioning democracy. These chains of patronage on which the poor rely, are then mobilized during elections to buy votes and, in the bureaucracy, to buy favours. Importantly, this illustrates that the role elections should play as a mechanism for accountability ceases to function under high conditions of inequality; elections meant to fight corruption, become a means to legitimize a corrupt regime. And so we have come full circle.

Maybe it is the work of thinkers like Dr Jong-sung You which has begun to influence that bastion of free enterprise, the World Bank. Their latest World Development Report is a refreshing recant on their earlier version of governance and now considers governance as “… the process through which state and non-state actors interact to design and implement policies within a given set of formal and informal rules that shape and are shaped by power. This Report defines power as the ability of groups and individuals to make others act in the interest of those groups and individuals and to bring about specific outcomes.”

So there you have it: in the end, the institutions of governance do eventually subserve the demands of the most powerful in society. The WDR 2017 acknowledges that the power asymmetries in society can greatly undermine development and policy making and implementation because they lead to exclusion, capture, and clientelism. This in turn leads to the power of elite bargaining in a modern democracy, and its impact on policy-making and eventually, development.


As part of the World Development Report 2017, the World Bank, in collaboration with the V-Dem Institute, has conducted expert surveys to generate cross-national indicators that enable comparison of who holds bargaining power and how they wield this influence. The surveys cover more than 100 years of data in 12 countries across six regions and their findings are very interesting, as this graph shows:

WDR 2017 Elites.png

Some observations:

  • Power in Russia, Turkey (and Rwanda!) is apparently centralized totally to the exclusion of all other actors. So what happens when the mighty One is no more?
  • Do Brazilians really feel that the media there are such powerful players? Perhaps, especially after the media hounding of a democratically elected President…
  • Are foreign governments and international donor agencies really so powerful in Sri Lanka, or is there a defence angle India should worry about?
  • Local Governments, Organized Labour Unions and Civil Society Organizations seem to wield power only in Bolivia making it some sort of last refuge for the socialist idealist, and
  • Finally, India is true to the South Asian archetype, where power is centralized in the National Executive, National legislature, the Judiciary, national political parties and the All-India Civil Services – a permanent bureaucracy bequeathed by our erstwhile rulers to the entire sub-continent. Noticeable too is the absence of influence at the local or municipal level, despite the 74th Constitutional Amendment on decentralization, dating back to 1992, and that goes a long way in explaining the pathetic state of India’s burgeoning cities…

REPUBLIC DAY INDIA

Here’s wishing my fellow Indians a Happy Republic Day, arguably the most important day in the country’s modern history, because on that day, we, the people of India, gave to ourselves the Constitution of a sovereign, socialist, secular and democratic Republic.

In my post last year I had looked at the Fundamental Rights of Indian Citizens enshrined in the Constitution, so why not even the books with a look at our Fundamental Duties, this year? As these fundamental duties cannot be enforced by writs, and can only be promoted by constitutional methods, they do not make the news as often as a high profile case on the violation of Fundamental Rights.

Nonetheless, our Fundamental Duties define the very essence of Indianness  and the essential oneness and inclusion of a vastly diverse society such as ours.

A gentle reminder:

It shall be the duty of every citizen of India:

  • To abide by the Constitution and respect its ideals and institutions, the National Flag and the National Anthem;
  • To cherish and follow the noble ideals which inspired our national struggle for freedom;
  • To uphold and protect the sovereignty, unity and integrity of India;
  • To defend the country and render national service when called upon to do so;
  • To promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities; to renounce practices derogatory to the dignity of women;
  • To value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture;
  • To protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wild life, and to have compassion for living creatures;
  • To develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform;
  • To safeguard public property and to abjure violence;
  • To strive towards excellence in all spheres of individual and collective activity so that the nation constantly rises to higher levels of endeavour and achievement.”

And which were the values that drove our Independence struggle and our subsequent endeavours at nation-building? Justice, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity as so poetically enunciated in the Preamble to the Constitution…

So in this election season, let citizens evaluate their candidates based on their commitment to these values and their efforts at ensuring sustainable, equitable, inclusive and just development for all Indians, so that the map of India can never be so cruelly used to depict its inequalities as this:

indian-disparities

 

Jai Hind!

Dimensions of Urban Poverty – Revisited

My rather long absence from the blog was meant to be an assessment of the usefulness and direction of what I have been writing on issues of development and governance, and it is quite gratifying to learn that the traffic on the site holds steady, and the readership has now extended to 115 countries… What is rather surprising, is the continuing popularity of the ‘dimensions of urban poverty’ post I put up almost two years ago.

I had then optimistically hoped that with a new government, which came to power in India on a promise of ‘Development for All’, the following issues would receive serious consideration:

  • Ending the rural-urban bifurcation
  • Tertiarising the rural economy to stem distress migration to cities
  • Assuring food security for all: rural and urban
  • Providing a place of business that is legitimate, affordable and secure
  • Moving towards urban housing that is formal, affordable and secure
  • Putting in place a representational system for all assets, liabilities, and inventories
  • Augmenting access to institutional finance for all, not just rich industrialists
  • Vigorously enforcing the Right to Education
  • Giving easy and universal access to immunisation and health care
  • Guaranteeing public goods and services on the basis of equity and inclusion
  • Putting in place a social security net to cope with the unexpected

However, recent events in India force me to revisit this subject, and perhaps add a refinement or two to the original enunciation. I have been covering the different dimensions in various posts, and wish to bring them together only to underline one sad reality: that a country cannot progress, no matter how many missions are launched to make it SMART, digital or business-friendly, unless the various dimensions of poverty, especially urban deprivation, are addressed with long-term, cogent, inter-related, holistic policies and programmes.

Under the Income Dimension of urban poverty, we had noted that its commonest manifestation was the daily cash transactions that constitute the economy of the poor. Nowhere was this point better illustrated than in the furore and hardship caused to the urban poor and middle classes, by the Indian government’s decision to demonetize 86% of the country’s currency in one fell swoop. Venezuela too tried something of the sort, leading to riots in the streets.

Another side effect of the demonetization was that it turned the focus on the urban informal sector (again marked by cash transactions) which is on the verge of choking the formal economy to extinction, as mentioned in my previous post. It emerged that it is this informalisation of the urban economy (unchecked over the years) which results in tax evasion on a massive scale, though in a myriad petty ways, by the poorer classes of middle India. And I iterate that unless these informal sectors are formalized through cooperatives, labour collectives and self-help groups, with a user friendly tax regime to back it, the transactions of the average Indian consumer will continue to be in cash, unrecorded and therefore untaxed.

Under the Health Dimension of urban poverty, we had noted the pernicious impact of chronic malnutrition, and how it debilitated a nation’s human resources, bringing India’s demographic dividend to naught. It is also well documented that in a food deprived household in a largely patriarchal society like India (with a marked son-preference), the meagre resources go to feed the men in the family – the male ‘breadwinner’ and the beloved son; and the girl child is doomed to a lifetime of malnutrition and anemia.  In such a scenario, any attempt to introduce a fixed basic income cash transfer to replace subsidized food grains under the Public Distribution System, would be tantamount to condemning vast swathes of the population to virtual starvation, as the direct cash transfer is unlikely to feed an individual buying food on the open market. So much for the basic human right of food security. This does not augur well for the future of India, which is already home to 25% of the world’s hungry.

Under the Education Dimension, we had noted how the lack of access, facilities and quality in primary education doomed the urban poor to a lifetime of deprivation – generation after generation. The Indian Government has made no new investments in primary and secondary education and even the Prime Minister limits himself to the children of the well-heeled in his frequent radio and TV broadcasts to motivate them about such earth-shaking things as Yoga! Of course, the worst thing this government has done to the children of the poor, is to virtually legitimize child labour by permitting it in ‘family’ businesses. The same absence of policy results in a total failure to take concrete steps along other dimensions of urban poverty like housing, security and empowerment.


The single-minded pursuit of higher economic growth in a globalized world, has only resulted in increasing inequality and disparities, the flip side of which is the growing marginalization of the world’s poor, and a cold disregard for the UN’s recently announced Sustainable Development Goals.  This graphic from Statista, based upon the latest Oxfam Report on disparity, says it all:

world-inequality-in-oxfam-report

What an irony then, that the move away from globalization to a more insular and protectionist mode has begun in the West, where it was born; and its strongest defendant today is the President of Marxist China addressing the world at Davos…

Formalizing the Informal – the only economic reform that matters

Two incidents last week: a friend’s enthusiastically launched ‘start-up’ is downsizing in less than a  year and will probably become ‘stop-down’ soon; and another friend’s 16 year old but spacious flat has been attracting great interest from the local small businessmen, even before she has put it on the market. In other words, the money in India is inexorably moving from the formal to the informal sector. With the advent of a hefty Goods and Services Tax, the situation will only get worse. And there is little the Government can do, or is willing to do, to stop this leaching away of its legitimate tax revenue.

Given that its traditional support base has always been the urban business class, the ruling party is unlikely to take stringent action against this class which is the biggest beneficiary of that twilight zone of the informal sector that now covers over 68% of the economy of India’s commercial capital – Mumbai.

By promising greater ease of business to attract domestic and foreign investors, the business-friendly and business-financed central government has weakened the regulatory framework to such an extent that it has opened the floodgates for environmentally irresponsible infrastructure projects, and the exploitation of child labour – now legitimized by allowing children to work in family businesses or ‘learn’ traditional crafts. (Though there is hardly any skill or craft to be learnt, at the cost of regular schooling, to serve tea in your uncle’s roadside cafe, is there?)

Not quite familiar with consumer preferences in the West and the growing importance of ethical supply chains (especially among EU importers), both the Indian Government and the Indian business community are at a loss to understand why foreign direct investment in the country continues to remain sluggish.

But domestic consumption continues to grow and this demand is increasingly being met by informal and semi-informal enterprise, both in services and light manufacturing. As a result, quality and safety standards are readily sacrificed to cut costs. Ever wondered why a plumber or carpenter brings along a drill with bare leads which he pushes into the nearest electric socket? Because there is no standardization in the electric fittings produced cheaply in some back alley, and no two plugs/sockets in India will ever be compatible… This haphazard style of ‘making do’ with whatever is available then gets eulogized in management books as the inherent Indian genius of ‘jugaad’ while its corollary of ‘Chalta hai’ or ‘anything goes’ is blamed for every social evil from corruption to traffic snarls… God save us from management gurus.

But what of the workers in the informal sector? Most of them are likely to be poor male migrants from the North, with little education and only the skill of their specialization – which means they are exclusively employed in the construction, interior design or garment sectors. They also tend to belong to the lower castes and religious and ethnic minorities who have few opportunities for education and development on their home soil. They are ready to live and work in abysmal conditions so long as they make good money, to look after their families back home. In essence, as the informal sectors of the economy expand, so do the slums and informal settlements in a city – with all the concomitant consequences of anomie, alienation, violence and crime.

And as the formal sector keeps shrinking under the onslaught of the informal, the job market shrinks, and those lucky enough to be born into a higher caste/class and able to afford the qualifications to work in the formal sector, are so grateful to find a job – any job – that Indian workers report the greatest sense of well-being in their jobs, while paradoxically also being the hardest working, as these two Statista infographics indicate:

Percentage expressing well-being at work:

STATISTA WELL-BEING AT WORK

Working hours of Millennials (20-34 age group):

STATISTA WHERE MILLENNIALS WORK LONGEST HOURS

 

The point is that no amount of policy tweaking can swing a country’s economy this way or that because the way the economy works is inexorably tied to the way that society is organised. And all economic reform must necessarily be underpinned by social reform – greater equality of opportunity, inclusion, universal education, equitable regulation … and so on…

 

 

Independence Day

When I started this blog, I wanted to keep tabs on the Indian Government’s promises of development and good governance, and after the third Independence Day in the Modi era, it seemed appropriate to review where the country finds itself today.

I had always taught my students the UNDP version of Good Governance, for which I also gave them an easy mnemonic: E-PARTICLE: Efficiency and Effectiveness, Participation, Accountability, Responsiveness, Transparency, Inclusion, Consensus Orientation, Law (Rule of) and Equity. And I had defined Governance as Government + Citizen. Silly, silly me!

As any search engine will now tell you, governance was first used and defined by the World Bank as “…the exercise of political powers to manage a nation’s affairs”. And according to the same august institution, the Worldwide Governance Indicators are: Voice and Accountability, Political Stability and absence of Violence/terrorism, Government Effectiveness, Regulatory Quality, Rule of Law, and Control of corruption. So by these criteria, both Saddam and Gaddafi were providing excellent governance, then why did the West have to wreak such havoc on two great nations in the name of regime change? Because big business decreed that it be so, mainly to safeguard their oil interests in these two benighted countries…

In an excellent op-ed piece in the Hindu last year, G Sampath traces the origins of the this new ‘corporate-centric’ idea of good governance: “This trajectory – of aspirations first raised and then betrayed by economic reforms, leading to mass discontent, which zeroes in on corruption as the problem, with good governance presented as the solution – is very evident in recent Indian history. But it is by no means unique to India. As Jenkins points out, the “international anti-corruption consensus” has been a powerful vehicle for manoeuvring recalcitrant nations onto the neo-liberal track.” And of course, UNDP’s inclusion and equity are no longer relevant…

What this means is that accountability is no more to the citizens, but to business and to investors, who are risking their money with expectations in return. Similarly, transparency has translated into ‘ease of business’, especially for foreign investors, “… who are tired of trying to find their way through the intricate webs of political patronage (also known as corruption) and often lose out to domestic capital, which enjoys a cultural advantage (so-called crony capitalism).” As for empowerment, the emphasis has shifted from universal rights, to individual ‘consumer’ rights, according to Sampath. And as for participation, this is again increasingly limited to the ‘haves’ with the disenfranchised and poor reduced to nameless ‘populations’ that simply do not matter!

The inevitable conclusion is that the only ‘development’ model available under this paradigm of good governance is market-led development, which reduces a government to a facilitator of big business rather than a guarantor of the socio-economic rights of the citizens.

Is this the ‘tryst with destiny’ that Nehruji referred to on that historic night 70 years ago? I should think not…

 

 

Inclusive Cities – But who pays?

The world today is becoming increasingly difficult to classify along old ideological strands of left and right, or liberal and conservative. Essentially, it is divided between those who have benefited greatly from globalization, and those who have qualms about its impact on the environment and the vulnerable.

While the new right believes in a free market, wealth accumulation, exclusivity, exceptionalism and stronger state protection; the new left today is defined less by working class solidarity (virtually destroyed in any case, by 25 years of globalization) and more by its concern for the environment, renewable energy, climate change, gender discrimination and universally acceptable and ‘politically correct’ causes like child labour, slavery, LGBT rights and extreme poverty. The new left mantras are: Inclusion, Sustainability and Equity. And they are spattered all across the latest draft (18 July 2016) of the UN-Habitat’s New Urban Agenda, expected to be discussed, modified and accepted at the Habitat III in Quito, come October.

A look at the Agenda’s principles and commitments makes this point very clear:

Leave no one behind, by ending poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including the eradication of extreme poverty, by ensuring equal rights and opportunities, socio-economic and cultural diversity, integration in the urban space, enhancing livability, health and well-being; promoting safety and eliminate all forms of discrimination and violence; ensuring public participation; and providing equal access for all to physical and social infrastructure and basic services.

Sustainable and inclusive urban economies, by leveraging the agglomeration benefits of well-planned urbanization, high productivity, competitiveness and innovation; ensuring full and productive employment creation and equitable access for all to economic and productive resources and opportunities; preventing land speculation; and promoting secure land tenure.

Environmental sustainability, by promoting clean energy, resource and land use efficiency in urban development, as well as protecting ecosystems and biodiversity, including adopting healthy lifestyles in harmony with nature; ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns; building urban resilience; reducing disaster risks; and mitigating and adapting to climate change.

The draft agenda then moves on to transformative commitments for sustainable urban development, covering everything like: growing inequality and discrimination in cities; growth of internal, international and crisis migration; inadequate housing and social infrastructure; and paucity of safe public spaces. On institutions of urban governance, the agenda commits to facilitate grassroots democracy and also look beyond city-specific governments, to larger regional mechanisms.

Please bear in mind that this is an agenda for a fast changing world, where the face of urbanization will be definitively Asian:

Urbanization by 2030

And that is why, when it comes to the commitments to the urban economy, I find it too rose-tinted, idealistic and impractical. For instance point #51 reads:

We commit to recognize the working poor in the informal economy, particularly women, as contributors and legitimate actors of the urban economies, including the unpaid and domestic workers. We further commit to develop a gradual approach to formalization with a view to facilitating the transition from the informal to the formal economy, extending access to legal and social protections to informal livelihoods, as well as support services to the informal workforce.

If the new urban age is going to be essentially Asian, then there are two fallacies in the above point: The urban informal sector is no more the exclusive realm of the urban poor; and the assumption that efforts to formalize the informal will be welcomed by the practitioners of informality is also false – at least in the prevailing Asian context.

In India, for example, if you are redecorating your house, it is possible to procure the services of a decorator, builder, plumber, electrician, AC man without paying a penny tax, and you may even buy the materials in cash (without receipt) and save some more on tax! It is the middle class, and not the poor, who keep the urban informal sector going. Secondly, although everybody likes the idea of ‘inclusive’ municipal services, nobody likes the idea of ‘inclusive’ taxes, rates and user charges to pay for them. As a result, every hike proposed by municipal officers tends to get shot down by our elected representatives as being ‘anti-people’, thus ensuring their victory in the next election… And the infrastructure and services continue to deteriorate because of inadequate funding.

So if Habitat III is to be more than a talking shop for the international ‘urban mafia’, the New Urban Agenda needs to be more grounded in reality (and increasingly, the Asian reality) and propose more practical ways of making both income and expenditure truly ‘inclusive’ at the local level.

 

Good Countries, Bad Countries…

Growing xenophobia, islamophobia, racism and communalism do not sit well in an increasingly connected and globalised world – especially where challenges like climate change, air pollution, depleting fresh water resources, and disaster management require a transnational and multinational response. And any attempts to go it alone only end up dividing a nation, as the British have recently found out…

Simon Anholt is a British researcher and independent policy adviser, who believes that leaders across the world must be accountable not only for what they do within their national borders, but for the good or harm they do to the greater global community. To provide a quantifiable and comparable tool for the assessment of countries in the good/harm they do globally, he came up with the Good Country Index in 2014. This index concerns itself with the balance sheet of each of the 163 countries (for whom data are available) in terms of what it takes from others, and what its global contribution is, as reflected in these 7 essential indicators:

  1. SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY, measured by the number of international students, journal exports, international publications, Nobel Prizes, patents
  2. CULTURE, measured by creative goods exports, creative services exports, UNESCO dues in arrears as percentage of contribution, freedom of movement, press freedom
  3. INTERNATIONAL PEACE AND SECURITY, measured by peace-keeping troops, dues in arrears to UN peace keeping budgets, international violent conflict, arms exports, internet security
  4. WORLD ORDER, measured by charity given, refugees hosted, refugees generated, birth rate, UN treaties signed
  5. PLANET AND CLIMATE, measured by ecological footprint, reforestation since 1992, hazardous pesticides exports, CO2 emissions, ozone
  6. PROSPERITY AND EQUALITY, measured by open trading, UN volunteers abroad, Fairtrade market size, FDI outflows, development assistance
  7. HEALTH AND WELLBEING, measured by food aid, pharmaceutical exports, voluntary excess donations to the WHO, humanitarian aid donations

Not surprisingly, the top 10 in the latest rankings are: Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, UK, Switzerland, Germany, Finland, France, Austria and Canada – the high resourced and low population countries, which have done all they can to ensure the best quality of life for their own people, and can now afford to look elsewhere and do some good at the global level.

However, if we take a detailed look at what the BRICS countries contribute to the greater good of humanity, per this index, we come across plenty of surprises:

BRICS GOOD COUNTRY INDEX

Firstly, it’s a pleasant surprise that all BRICS countries are in the upper half of global Good Country rankings but that Brazil fares the best and Russia the worst, is rather surprising. Another encouraging fact is that BRICS as a whole is doing reasonably well in the health and well-being sector globally, even when their domestic health services are often downright abysmal and inequitable. But that’s the way the indicator is designed. For instance, Indian pharmaceutical companies have fought restrictive trade practices to reverse engineer several life-saving drugs, making them available cheaply for the worst affected areas, as in the case of HIV drugs in Africa.

That South Africa ranks as the number one contributor to international peace and security is indeed a matter of pride, and China, India and Brazil all do well in this regard. Russia is again the odd man out – but being the world’s second largest arms exporter, that is hardly surprising!

The fact that Brazil has at last got its environmental act together is a relief for the whole planet, but the world’s most polluted cities and reckless mining continue to give India, China and South Africa low rankings on this count.

Finally, the saddest performance of BRICS as a whole is in their failure to eradicate (or even reduce) poverty among their citizens, and narrow the growing divide between rich and poor – BRICS has among the highest Gini Coefficients of any group of countries. This makes them net consumers, rather than contributors of development aid and brings down their ranking (with Russia as an exception in this instance).


Globalisation is inescapable and has both negative and positive fallouts: who would have believed that a blog, essentially on governance and development in India, would be read in 111 countries within a year of its inception? But that’s global connectivity for you. So why not a new paradigm of governance based upon global participation, global accountability and global responsibility?

After all Rabindranath Tagore’s prayer for his beloved country ran:

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high…

Where knowledge is free.

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments

By narrow domestic walls…”

 

Cities without Shelter…

The maiden edition of UN Habitat’s World Cities Report (WCR 2016) reviews the changing face of urbanization in the last 20 years, covering the period when the global urban population hit the critical 50% mark, and our world was forever changed.

It identifies and discusses the following key issues or challenges before our cities, citizens and local and federal governments:

Emerging Issues in World City Report 2016

Of particular interest to countries like India is the section on Slums and Informal Settlements. UN-Habitat defines slums as “… a contiguous settlement that lacks one or more of the following five conditions: access to clean water, access to improved sanitation, sufficient living area that is not overcrowded, durable housing and secure tenure.” The WCR 2016 clearly avers that “…slums are the products of failed policies, poor governance, corruption, inappropriate regulation, dysfunctional land markets, unresponsive financial systems, and a lack of political will.”

And what is apparently true of the world, is true of India as well. In spades.

The WCR 2016 draws a dismal picture of government efforts to address the problem of informal settlements, across the world:

  • Over the last 20 years, housing has not been central to national and international development agendas, and urban land management and administration have suffered as a result
  • The housing policies put in place through the enabling approach have failed to promote adequate and affordable housing
  • Inequality, focus on homeownership, speculation and neglect of rental housing have gone on unchecked
  • Most involvement by governments has focused on helping the middle class to achieve home-ownership in a formal sector that only they can afford
  • The dependence on the private sector to provide housing has steadily increased across the world

The Report suggests the following policy initiatives at all tiers of government, to address the issue of adequate and affordable housing:

  • If the emerging future of cities is to be sustainable, a new approach that places housing at the centre of urban policies is required, to re-establish the important role of housing in achieving sustainable urbanization
  • At the national level, the goal is to integrate housing into national urban policies
  • At the local level, the importance of housing must be reinforced within appropriate regulatory frameworks, urban planning and finance, and as part of the development of cities and people.

Nobody in India is paying the least attention, as housing subsidies for the poor are rapidly replaced by ‘subsidized housing loans’ and initiatives like Smart Cities run into local resistance, because they are seen as a means of further enrichment of multinational IT firms, by raising local tariffs and taxes. RIP!

And as the Government of India jettisons all rights-based approaches in the social sector, the situation in the country’s slums will only get worse. Urban land transactions have bred land and construction mafias, which have totally penetrated and undermined local governments; engendered corruption on an unimaginable scale in State and Central Governments; and transferred huge tracts of public lands into private hands through the back door – in the name of the poor. Where else but in Mumbai can a rich man buy a 5 bedroom penthouse, signing 4 different contracts with the developer for 4 ‘lower income’ flats ‘merged’ into one while the government authorities conveniently looked the other way? And even the beleaguered and heavily indebted middle class must turn its hard earned ‘white’ money into ‘black’ to appease the property developer who demands part of the price of a house in this form, to avoid paying taxes. None of the successive governments of various ideological hues has done anything to address these woes, and none will, because the builders’ lobby is simply too strong and influential.

So it goes in various guises across the world, as the global housing shortage is expected to hit a billion by 2025…