“Habitat III” is shorthand for a major global summit, formally known as the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, to be held in Quito, Ecuador, from 17 to 20 October 2016. The United Nations has called the conference, the third in a series that began in 1976, to “reinvigorate” the global political commitment to the sustainable development of towns, cities and other human settlements, both rural and urban. The product of that reinvigoration, along with pledges and new obligations, is being referred to as the New Urban Agenda. That agenda will set a new global strategy around urbanization for the next two decades. Habitat III offers Member States an opportunity to discuss a New Urban Agenda that will focus on policies and strategies that can result in effectively harnessing the power and forces behind urbanization.
What will be the key elements to consider at Habitat III for creating a pattern of sustainable urban growth?
Firstly, it is expected that member states will realize that the future of this planet is inescapably urban, and a National Urban Policy is therefore necessary to establish a connection between the dynamics of urbanization and the overall process of national development.
Secondly, it is expected that a National Urbanization Policy will in turn result in the modernization and upgradation of the laws, institutions and systems of urban governance, creating the normative basis of action, the operational principles, organizational structures and institutional and societal relationships underlying the process of urbanization.
Finally, while there is a strong positive correlation between economic growth and urbanization, this potential relationship is not spontaneous and self-generating. Habitat III could be the means to place the central pillars for robust urban economic development, such as:
- Urban Planning: The vision of the city, its physical configuration, the definition of technical solutions, and environmental considerations are all determined through urban/regional planning. A reinvigorated urban planning will optimize economies of agglomeration, promote sustainable density, encourage social diversity and mixed-land uses, foster inclusiveness, maximize heterogeneity, promote livable public spaces and vibrant streets, and thus make the city more functional, maintaining environmental balances.
- Local fiscal systems: To change from being instruments of revenue generation and budget management, to vectors of change which generate real development outcomes.
- Investment in urban basic services: Proper planning allows for less costly provision of basic services such as water and sanitation, higher resilience, climate change mitigation and adaptation, poverty reduction and pro-poor policies.
In short, the sponsors of Habitat III firmly believe that by embracing urbanization as a positive force and weaving equity into all development equations, sustainable urbanization may become a reality in our lifetimes, or at least by 2050, when two-thirds of humanity is expected to be urban.
But how realistic are these hopes of sustainable urban growth in a country like India? Along with China and Nigeria, India will account for 37% of the projected growth of the urban population between 2014 and 2050, and contribute the highest number of additional urban dwellers by 2050 – a whopping 404 million!
Let us examine the above UN aspirations in light of Indian reality.
Firstly, one of Gandhiji’s most quoted slogans that ‘India lives in its villages’ has had such a negative impact on India’s psyche and cities, that it still lacks a National Urban Policy – 68 years after Independence. In fact the hero of many a Bollywood epic often begins life as a virtuous villager and through trials and tribulations ends up as a hardened criminal, only because of the ‘evil’ influence of a city. The reality is rather different as the rural communities still reek of superstition, casteism, family feuds, vendetta, summary justice and social oppression; while cities may be the only place an individual can experience freedom. That aside, the fact remains that while only 60% of India’s land is under cultivation, it supports 67% of its population leading to smaller and smaller land-holdings, no alternative employment, declining agricultural production, distress, despair, migration and eventually, farmers’ suicides. So India needs to develop its urban mindset before investing blindly in infrastructure and smart cities.
Secondly, almost all the most crucial laws relevant to cities are a legacy of the British Raj with the Bombay Municipal Corporation Act dating as far back as 1888, which was to spawn offspring as far afield as Aden, Sri Lanka, Pakistan… The Land Acquisition Act too dates back to 1894. Therefore not only do the municipal laws need to be brought in line with the rest of the world, but power to manage cities must pass from a lethargic, permanent bureaucracy, to dynamic people’s representatives, as most successfully demonstrated by South American cities.
Thirdly, streamlining and modernizing land laws is crucial to any urban planning that Indian cities may indulge in. Otherwise they will continue in the present mode, where the people go and settle where they may, and the local body follows years later to charge tax, and perforce provide some basic services. The costs of retrofitting municipal infrastructure can be prohibitive, and entire ‘neighbourhoods’ may be born, live and decay, without even the solace of drinking water in their taps. So much for Indian urban planning…
Lastly, when the very raison d’être of great cities has been manufacturing, how can they survive de-industrialisation? They don’t. While de-industrialization may hollow out a western city, in India, de-industrialization ‘leaves the world to darkness and to me…’ The stalwart of the informal sector, living a life of quiet misery and departing life unmourned and unlamented. How and when will India reinvent its Bombays and Madrases? Perhaps by renaming them yet again?