Happy Republic Day: Can India ever become truly Inclusive?

Clearly inspired by the French Revolution, the Preamble to the Constitution of India reads:

WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and to secure to all its citizens:

JUSTICE, social, economic and political;

LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;

EQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all

FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation;

IN OUR CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY this twenty-sixth day of November, 1949, do

HEREBY ADOPT, ENACT AND GIVE TO OURSELVES THIS CONSTITUTION.

As it took 2 more months for India to formally become a Sovereign Republic, we celebrate Republic Day on the 26th of January every year, with a grand parade in New Delhi, usually with a foreign Head of State as Chief Guest. The entire parade, works the theme of Unity in Diversity to death, and brushes under the carpet the great dissensions, differences, divisions and disparities which plague us even 68 years later.

This year however, the Government of India scored several own goals in the week leading up to the Republic Day. Firstly, the PM a la Marie Antoinette said in an interview, ‘They have no jobs? Then let them sell street food to survive…’. Then, in the face of gross government inaction, protesters against a movie actually stoned a school bus full of terrified children; and finally, Oxfam published its Commitment to Reducing Inequality (CRI) Index Report, which ranks not India but the INDIAN GOVERNMENT at a pathetically low 132 – all this, while the PM was exploring in Davos, ways to make India’s rich richer.

Indian voters are said to exercise great freedom of choice each time they throw out the incumbent and bring in a new regime, which spends the first 2 years blaming the ‘legacy’ issues for its non-performance, and the last 18 months preparing to overcome its own incumbency factor before the next election. So the best time to judge a Government’s performance is in its third year – and that is why the present Government is facing severe scrutiny on every front: economic, governance and development.

This dear reader, is why Oxfam’s CRI Index is so damning – because it measures the commitment of current governments, and this cannot be fobbed off by stories of ‘inherited’ problems, historical inequality, the caste system, the British colonial rule or whatever. This is the here and now and the present government is answerable – not its predecessors of any shape or colour.

Interestingly, this Republic Day, the parade in Delhi had not one, but a clutch of Chief Guests – the Heads of State of ASEAN – who are in Delhi for a meeting. So how does India compare to the 5 founding members of ASEAN on the CRI Index? Let’s see…

Country Spending on Health, Education, Social Protection Rank Progressive structure and incidence tax Rank Labour market policies to address inequality Rank Total CRI Rank
Thailand 61 22 136 70
Singapore 65 105 96 86
Indonesia 121 34 114 101
Philippines 101 80 122 104
Malaysia 96 30 135 106
INDIA 149 91 86 132

Oxfam India offers blunt advice to the Government of India on how to improve its CRI ranking:

Create an economy for all: Promote inclusive growth by ensuring that the income of the bottom 40% of the population grows faster than of the top 10% so that the gap between the two begins to close. This can be done by:

  • Promoting labour-intensive sectors that will create more jobs
  • Investing more in agriculture
  • Implementing fully the social protection schemes that exist

Seal the leaking wealth bucket: Reduce extreme wealth and create a more equal opportunity country.

  • Tax the super-rich by re-introducing inheritance tax and increasing the wealth tax
  • Reduce and eventually do away with corporate tax breaks
  • Take stringent measures against tax evasion and tax avoidance
  • Increase public expenditures on health and education

Bring data transparency: Produce and make available high quality data on income and wealth, and regularly monitor the measures the government takes to tackle the issue of rising inequality.

In other words, go for INCLUSION. But does a government whose basic ethos is exclusivist and divisive, even begin to understand what inclusion means in modern development jargon, let alone devise and implement policies to bring it about in this most unequal of societies? (Who can forget Dumont’s classic definition of the species of humans in this society as Homo Hierarchicus?)

It is time indeed to truly understand this concept in all its dimensions because it is the development phrase du jour and crops up in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, in the Smart Cities projects, and so on…

The best explanation I have come across recently is in a World Bank Report East Asia and Pacific Cities – Expanding Opportunities for the Urban Poor. Incidentally, the Report covers the ASEAN countries mentioned above, besides China and Japan – home to the largest single city and urban agglomeration respectively. It begins with giving due credit to the East Asian countries in drastically reducing urban poverty, and any traveler there  will indeed vouch for the much better living conditions of the urban poor in East Asia, than in South Asian cities in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The writers of the report explain the expanding opportunities for the urban poor by consciously inclusive policies introduced by their governments.

They identify three dimensions of inclusion:

Economic Inclusion: refers to equitable access to jobs and income-generating activities, mechanisms of resilience to withstand shocks and removal of barriers to formal employment

Spatial Inclusion: links equitable access to land, housing, infrastructure, and basic public services. Mobility is particularly important, given its role in connecting low-income residents to jobs, services, and amenities. Housing must be accessible, affordable and ensure good quality and safety

Social Inclusion: relates to individual and group rights, dignity, equity, and security

This Multidimensional Framework of Inclusion is graphically depicted in the report as under:

Multidimensional Model of Inclusion

What is noteworthy is that the three dimensions overlap, and government interventions cannot be designed and implemented piecemeal. We have seen the havoc caused to the environment in Gujarat in the name of ‘development’ during the last two decades, and a similar short-sighted approach to inclusion may end up as nothing more than ‘including’ India’s entire billion-plus population in an electronic, biometric database which is being regularly hacked, misused and abused.

If the Government of India doesn’t show a greater commitment to long term investments in Education, Health and Social Protection, doesn’t introduce a more just taxation system, and doesn’t formalise the rapidly growing informal sectors of the economy and society, well then organisations like Oxfam will not keep quiet and India’s international credibility will take a further beating…

 

 

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Development? Governance?

After 75 posts on this blog, one may be forgiven for sitting back and letting readers explore whatever was said over the last three years. I am gratified that various search engines have serendipitously landed people from over 132 countries on this site, and many have bookmarked it and returned to browse from time to time. Thank you.

However, a WordPress notification wished me a happy anniversary, and I revisited the ABOUT page to check out my original motives for starting this blog: to explain the much misused terms of governance, corruption and development being arbitrarily thrown about in India’s political discourse at the time of the 2014 election, which brought to power a conservative, right-wing, market friendly party (the BJP) and routed the old establishment party – the INC, or Congress (please note this is not the legislative body it is in the US, but a political party in India.)

So let us indeed look at how these concepts have evolved and are understood, 42 months down the line:

Governance: I had covered the theory of Good Governance in one of my earliest posts, where I explain the relation between governance and government, and explain the globally accepted criteria for good governance: Good Governance

However, it has totally escaped this regime that government is subsumed within governance which has the empowered citizen at its heart. There is a similar ignorance of concepts like rule of law, consensus orientation, probity, code of ethics, freedom of information, conflict of interest, protocol, chain of command etc. As a result, the present government doesn’t score too well on providing either efficient and effective government, or participatory, accountable, responsive, transparent, inclusive or equitable governance.

The shortcomings of the ruling cabinet in terms of education, experience and exposure are very evident in the fact that almost ALL of the schemes and programmes of the previous government have been continued with NO substantive change except in their names. Never mind that most of these programmes had huge flaws which this cabinet of innocents continues to propagate. But if you throw out the baby (research, monitoring and evaluation wing) with the bath water (Planning Commission) who will point out these flaws and suggest ways to correct them? Instead, by farming out evaluation of important and costly schemes to private consultants, Indian data has lost a lot of its credibility among multilateral research organizations, and gained no real insights for future policy formulation.

Other institutions are also being undermined – whether the Reserve Bank of India, the Election Commission, or various federal and state investigative agencies. Further, the federal structure is itself under threat as decision making has become non-consultative and centralized (e.g. demonetization), and financial allocations to State Governments are becoming increasingly politicized – being used in election campaigns as threats or promises.

Corruption: The entire corruption narrative in India is limited to favours granted in return for bribes/cash. This is rather simplistic, and if it affects the common man then this type of corruption continues unabated among the petty bureaucracy no matter which party is in power. That is a fact of life in India. I had tried to broaden this debate by showing how capture and clientelism are equally detrimental to national interest (The 3 Cs- Corruption, Clientelism, Capture). Three years on, the great Indian people are at last getting to understand what is meant by ‘capture’ or crony capitalism as our social media prefer.

But clientelism remains more elusive – the best example of that is seen during elections in largely rural States like UP, where a village chief or mukhia can deliver an entire village’s vote for a promise of future personal benefit – like a share in a Central Government infrastructure project, or a ticket in the next State election. As this pattern of bottom up electoral victories is repeated, we will all get a better understanding of clientelism. It is noteworthy that virtually nobody has been brought to book, or even formally charged, in the various ‘scams’ the previous government and its coalition partners were allegedly guilty of – again clientelism in action: support us today and go scot free tomorrow. Simple.

Development: I had sarcastically hinted that development would be reduced to acquiring bullet trains, never dreaming how true this would be – literally! Never mind that the rest of the country’s infrastructure is among the poorest globally. Of course, this reduction of all ‘development’ to physical infrastructure, ignoring concepts of ‘human development’, will remain the most damaging legacy of the present government, as it will become the key deciding factor in 2019, as it was in 2014.

This tunnel vision is coupled with attitudes of climate change denial and loosening of ecological regulations in the sanctioning of megaprojects and it augurs ill for India’s achievement of the UNDP’s Sustainable Development Goals – which would be a tragedy, because India had done better than expected in the previous Millennium Development Goals. Interestingly, attempts to achieve the MDGs and thus governance in favour of the poor and disadvantaged, necessarily pushed the UPA Government and the Congress Party to the ideological Left and away from their 1991 image of pro-free market globalists. And in my humble opinion, this was the real cause for the Congress Government’s defeat in 2014.

The Indian electorate was not tuned to fashionable ideas like the Rights Approach to development…

You see, the disgruntled middle level ‘dominant castes’ in India have such a sense of entitlement that they see any action in favour of the poor, the disadvantaged and minorities as appeasement and will not allow rights-based programmes to succeed. Sadly, even in 21st Century India, your politics and opportunities continue to be decided by an accident of birth.

I had clarified in an earlier post (India an Aspirational Society? Not yet… ) that India would never be a truly ‘aspirational society’ without greater equality, better distribution of wealth, unity of purpose and civility. Sadly, all these ideals are in tatters just three and a half years down the line, and Indian society and polity have never been as divided, discriminatory and raucous as they are today.

One consequence of these attitudes has been the conscious marginalization of India’s poor, which now manifests itself in greater hunger, deprivation, malnutrition, higher school dropout rates, poorly educated human resources, increase in child and forced labour, distress migration, farmer suicides and ever greater informalisation of the economy, livelihoods, and urban housing. And frankly, nobody in power gives a damn. The Opposition too is patently moving from the Left to the Right of Centre, with the entire electoral focus shifting to businesses and the ‘entitled’ middle castes (as in Gujarat), with no mention at all of the poor…


Sadly, it is this disempowered but enfranchised section of the population who can even now deliver the votes needed (a mere 31%) to elect the next government. All that the incumbents have to do is use the standard right wing tools of diversion, emotion, commotion, coercion and subversion to ensure another term. These are the means which bring and retain the neocons in power from North to South America, to Israel to South East Asia…

But is this democracy, you may wonder… Of course it is. Because what else will give us the ‘moral’ high ground vis-à-vis autocratic China and Russia ? (I am sure this resonates a bit with my American readers too…)

 

National Urban Policy – Part II

Today is Guru Poornima in India – a day to honour and respect our teachers, and to be fondly remembered by one’s students. Also an occasion to lament the disappearance of teachers who believed every subject should convey to its learners a sense of history, a continuity with the past, an understanding of the context for the present, and an envisioning of alternatives for the future.

Instead we have economists lamenting the lack of an institutional memory in the institutions of governance in India; a POTUS who has so muddied the waters that it is well-nigh impossible to tell real news from fake news; surveys of American law-makers who have no clue about the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam… and the dumbing down of generation after generation across the world, fed as they are on sound bites, instant images and 140 characters of wisdom. These phenomena are a direct consequence of the waves of globalization, privatization and liberalization which hit the world c.1990, and were reinforced by the simultaneous growth of Information Technology and the Internet.

It is against this background that we realize how difficult it is to formulate and articulate any national policy – let alone something as complex as a National Urban Policy for a very diverse, highly rural and conservative society like India.

Time was, India was ruled by learned scholars, philosophers and historians who produced volume after volume of crystalized wisdom, even if it was replete with the Fabian idealism learnt in the groves of academe in England – Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru, Dr Ambedkar, and so many more. Even as recently as 1988, the National Commission on Urbanization, chaired by an eminent architect, produced a report fit to be turned into perhaps the only important urban law passed in independent India – the 74 CAA. There have been other excellent pieces of conceptualization like the Rakesh Sharma Report on Infrastructure, or the Ishar Judge Ahluwalia report on urban governance and infrastructure. However, however, however… for reasons of party political advantage, all work carried out by the previous government has been chucked in the bin and been replaced by ‘copy and paste’ flyers and websites on subjects like Smart Cities and Urban Renewal and left to a handful of self-styled urban ‘consultants’ and bottom feeders with virtually NO concept of the evolution of orthogenetic (pre-colonial) and heterogenetic (post-colonial) cities across the Indian sub-continent; its largely agrarian society and values; its distress and economic migrations; its dwindling manufacturing sector and growing services sector; and, most of all, the worsening situation in urban housing and land management.

Therefore, given these immense challenges, India (and other developing countries) need to develop a National Urban Policy out of necessity, as a means of retrofitting, to direct and control the inevitable urbanization of their countries, before the urban situation is beyond redemption and the lives and livelihoods of millions of their citizens are put at high risk.

As I had mentioned in my last post, the UN-Habitat’s Guiding Framework on National Urban Policy had mentioned the 5 step process of:

Feasibility: Understanding…
– What a NUP can and cannot achieve
– What constitutes urbanization in a particular country
– Role of national, regional and local governments and consensus building about these roles
– History, facts and figures

Diagnosis: Identifying …
– The key actors and stakeholders
– The problems that the policy is expected to address
– The opportunities provided by the NUP
– The goals and objectives of the Policy

Formulation: Assess…
– The various policy options available
– The capacity of the institutions and mechanisms of urban governance
– The efficacy of the means for constant monitoring and evaluation

Implementation: putting in place…
– An implementation plan
– A timeline
– An institutional and legislative framework
– Structure for proper delegation, decentralization and devolution

Monitoring and Evaluation: continuous process to…
– Assess the efficiency, effectiveness and dynamics of policy implementation
– Loop back evaluation results as learning and capacity building


All this is fine as theoretical frameworks go, but applying the UN-Habitat framework on a ‘one-size-fits-all’ basis in India and elsewhere will flounder on the very first issue of what constitutes urbanization.

The Census of India in 1961, defined an urban area as:

– Firstly, those settlements that were given urban civic status, like corporation, municipality and cantonment by the State Governments, and were recognised as ‘statutory’ towns.
– Secondly, ‘census town’, applied to areas which met the following criteria: (1) population size of 5000 or more; (2) density of at least 400 persons per square kilometre; (3) at least 75% of the male workers to be engaged outside agriculture.

As urban development is a State subject in the Constitution of India, there is quite a bit of variation in identifying Statutory Towns across States, making comparisons difficult. State Governments have been declaring overgrown villages as municipalities with great alacrity, often in the neighbourhood of existing metros. As these metros expand, land-owners on the periphery acquire overnight wealth and in order to match their new economic clout with political power, displace the traditional landed elite by the simple expedient of having their home village declared an urban area.

According to the Government of India Census 2011 there are 7,935 urban centres or townships that house the 377 million urban citizens of the country. Of these, the 53 million-plus urban agglomerations account for 160.7 million persons (or 42.6%), and the remaining 217 million – or more than half of the total urban population of India – live in small and medium sized towns.

So the question arises: should there be two parts to India’s National Urban Policy

  • One for the million-plus cities with emphasis on telecommunication, connectivity, quality public utilities, tertiary education and health care and infrastructure – to encourage the growing services sector and consolidate and centralize manufacturing
  • Another for the small and medium towns acting as the traditional agricultural hubs for their immediate hinterland, with good roads, telecommunication, infrastructure, primary and secondary health care and education to develop agro-industries which will be the acupressure points to relieve rural distress

Worth a thought, wouldn’t you say..?

 

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!

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.