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reasons of party political advantage, all work carried out by the previous government has been chucked in the bin and been replaced by ‘copy and paste’ flyers and websites on subjects like Smart Cities and Urban Renewal and left to a handful of self-styled urban ‘consultants’ and bottom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..?

 

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National Urban Policy – Part I

In a book published in 2000, one had lamented the fact that even after 50 years of independence, India had no National Urban Policy. It was a very naive conclusion: One cannot forget that at the time of Independence, the tragedy of Partition and the havoc of colonial rule required the Indian government to concentrate solely on the famine stalking the Indian countryside, and cities had to be left to fend for themselves.

However, this neglect of urban areas also meant that outdated and retrograde laws inherited from the British colonial masters continue to rule the way Indian cities are governed to this day. For example the Bombay Municipal Corporation Act of 1888 spawned all the municipal legislation not just in India, but also surrounding areas like Pakistan, Sri Lanka and eventually Bangladesh. There was also no effort to update the Land Acquisition Act of 1894, and the new Act proposed in 2013 and drastically amended since, is mired in party politics and yet to become law. Finally, the eminently ‘British’ Town Planning laws and procedures were imported wholesale to India without any modification to make them relevant to the Indian urban scenario.

The problem with retaining these colonial laws is that they were premised on a deep distrust of the ‘natives’ and gave too many powers to the permanent civil servant at the helm of municipal affairs, and this bifurcation of powers between a permanent bureaucracy and representatives elected for 5 years continues to hamstring local governments, and breeds corruption, clientelism and capture in the local economy.

These issues are not exclusive to India and continue to dog former colonies in Asia, Africa and Latin America as well, and this widespread malaise prompted UN-Habitat, the urban organization of the UN, to draw up guidelines for formulation of national urban policies.

The basic premise of the NUP: A Guiding Framework is that given the increasing clout of cities in national economies in a globalized world, federal governments have the opportunity and responsibility to establish the “rules of the game”. The Report emphasizes that in addition to setting a vision for their cities, countries must establish a financing and implementation framework to realize that vision.

The structure of this framework will determine:

  • The responsibility for implementation
  • The powers delegated
  • The resources allocated
  • The monitoring and evaluation process, and
  • The enforcement mechanisms to ensure follow-through

The guide makes it very clear that without strong, effective “rules” within the national urban policy, neither cities nor countries can achieve the goals set out within the foundational vision.

A well-constructed national urban policy can establish a clear, cohesive vision for sustainable urban growth and development. At the same time, it can create systems that empower cities with the freedom to make the right choices on sustainable solutions for their unique contexts — and to ensure the financial resources to invest in them.

Interestingly, while debate on the NUP Framework in the developing countries is focused on greater privatization, liberalization, infrastructure and business; in the advanced economies the focus is clearly on putting people at the centre of national urban policies, emphasizing the environmental aspects of sustainable urban development and highlighting the role of cities in decelerating climate change.

A National Urban Policy should enable national governments to control and direct urbanization and capitalize on the opportunities it offers, for the sustainable and equitable development of the country as a whole, without negatively impacting global well-being. Further, as the Guide rightly points out, working within a national policy framework will promote good practices, innovative management, stakeholder consultation, capacity development and evaluation of country policy processes. Integrating these lessons into future policy practice can promote systems change and institutional learning.

This Guiding Framework outlines five NUP phases: feasibility, diagnosis, formulation, implementation and monitoring, and evaluation. In addition, the Framework considers the inclusion of the three NUP pillars: participation, capacity development, acupuncture projects resulting in iterative policy design. (Incidentally, ‘acupuncture projects’ is a phrase originally coined by Barcelonan architect and urbanist, Manuel de Sola Morales and developed by Finnish architect and social theorist Marco Casagrande, applying the tenets of acupuncture to urban renewal: just as you treat the points of blockage and let relief ripple throughout the body, so also localized initiatives can release pressure at strategic points, and thus release pressure for the whole city.)

These five elements are simultaneous and overlapping in most cases and the Guide represents them in the following diagram:

National Urban Policy Process.png

It is expected that the National Urban Policy, once formulated and accepted by a national government, will manifest itself in transformations in Urban Legislation, Urban Economy and Urban Planning.

How this framework can work for an emerging economy like India, I shall discuss in Part II of this post. Until then….

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…

 

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…

Cities of Asia and the Pacific

UN Habitat and UN-ESCAP together released the report The State of Asian and Pacific Cities 2015, and its key finding is that the speed and scope of urbanisation in the region is unprecedented. Between 1980 and 2010, cities here grew by around one billion people, and another one billion will be added by 2040. The urban population at mid-year per region as defined in World Urbanisation Prospects (2014) illustrates this most dramatically:

Urban Population mid-year Region-wise

All Asia and Pacific sub-regions are experiencing urban growth at higher rates than overall population growth. While the region as a whole does not yet have the high urbanisation levels of North America (81.5%), Latin America and the Caribbean (79.5%) or Europe (73.4%), by 2018 half of the Asia and Pacific population will be living in the region’s towns and cities. By 2050, urban areas will account for nearly two out of three people. By 2050, cities in China and India alone will have grown by an additional 696 million – India by 404 million and China by 292 million.

Paradoxically, while the region is home to 17 megacities (which are starting to give way to huge mega-urban regions that encompass cities, towns, villages and rural areas), they only accommodate a little over 10% of the region’s urban dwellers and 7% of its total population. The bulk of urban dwellers live in small and medium-size cities, “… where much of the region’s urban transition is actually unfolding. Yet, despite their increasing significance, most small cities face their future with limited human, financial, and organisational resources.”

The Report is subtitled Urban Transformations: Shifting from quantity to quality and therein lies the rub.

If cities in Asia and the Pacific are to continue as the engines of growth for their national economies, they have to reinvent urban planning to make cities more sustainable and inclusive – and the fact that the world’s most polluted and disparate cities are all to be found in this region, underlines the urgency for a new planning model.

First of all, there is a need for new paradigms of urban governance, especially in the growing megaregions, which are extremely difficult to manage holistically. Perhaps the experiment in Tamil Nadu under the previous State Government of decentralising urban governance while centralising urban infrastructure may provide both greater efficiency in the delivery of services, and economies of scale in upgrading infrastructure.

Secondly, as advocated on this site time and again, perhaps the small and medium towns of countries like India (where the bulk of the urban population lives) could be reinvented as agricultural hubs, bringing both sustainability and prosperity to the agricultural sector, and creating new avenues of employment in the towns and cities by tertiarising the rural economy.

Finally, the biggest challenge for governments in Asia and the Pacific remains the growing urban poverty and vulnerability, often grossly underestimated, and therefore unaddressed. The Report estimates that a third of the region’s urban residents lack access to adequate shelter, clean energy, safe drinking water and sanitation while the urban informal sector continues to grow rapidly. Unless some attempts are made to formalize the informal sectors in both economic activity and housing, poverty and the omnipresent slum will continue to mar the Asian urban story in the foreseeable future.

Next time round we could perhaps take a look at the emerging challenges for cities around the world.

 

 

Housing Dimension of Urban Poverty

UN Habitat estimates that 1.6 billion people today live in inadequate shelter around the world, and 1 billion of those live in informal settlements or slums. An additional 100 million people worldwide are homeless. It goes on to state that by 2030, an additional 3 billion people or 40% of the world’s population, will need access to housing. This translates into a demand for 96,150 new affordable units every day and 4,000 every hour. By 2050, 70% of the world’s population is projected to be living in urban areas, causing slums and unplanned settlements to swell. About one in four people on this planet, live in conditions that harm their health, safety, prosperity and opportunities. Estimates of homelessness in the richest country on earth, the United States, vary from 1.6 million to 3 million people. Most studies conclude that about one-third of the homeless are children.

In one of the most popular posts on this blog – Dimensions of Urban Poverty – it was pointed out that urban poverty had many dimensions such as income, education, health, housing and security and alleviation of urban poverty can only happen if all these dimensions are addressed synchronously. That has not happened. While globalization may have put more money in the pockets of the urban poor  (especially in the burgeoning and untaxed informal sector), the access of the urban poor to education and health remains questionable in both developed and developing economies, and of course, housing remains a major problem from Santiago to Shanghai.

It is now acknowledged by all development agencies, that housing poverty (especially in the world’s metros) has little to do with a lack of income, and everything to do with lack of access to land. In former colonies like India, urban land remains inaccessible to the poor for a variety of reasons:

  1. Retrograde laws and practices inherited from the former colonial rulers
  2. A preference for low form urbanization (again, an inherited western bourgeois aesthetic)
  3. Extremely stringent and outdated development control rules which militate against traditional forms of construction
  4. Absence of a reliable land record system rooted in the local ethos
  5. An inherent disconnect between western educated urban planners and ground realities
  6. Failure to reign in the avarice of private developers
  7. Rampant corruption in the housing sector, from the grant of building permissions, to undervaluation, to issuance of completion certificates, to housing loans and subsidies, to transactions under the table to avoid high registration fees and stamp duty.

And this denial of access to urban land continues to divide Indian cities into the haves and have-nots, even when the differences in income, services and assets between the ‘slum-dweller’ and the average urbanite are dwindling away, as these statistics from Census India 2011 clearly indicate:

Slum assets Census India 2011

Clearly, inadequate housing is the problem. Not inadequate income.


Activists across the world have taken a ‘rights’ approach to housing, but unfortunately, such ‘leftist claptrap’ doesn’t sit well with the Government in Delhi… Perhaps housing in urban areas will get more attention from the present government if its economic benefits are pointed out, as UN-Habitat does:

  • Adequate shelter is a critical foundation for breaking the cycle of poverty
  • Adequate housing is vitally important to the health of the world’s economies, communities and populations.
  • Home ownership is a form of wealth accumulation through equity and forced savings from mortgage repayment.
  • Good housing attracts economic investment and development.

Not to mention that in an India increasingly riven by social unrest, insecurity and increasing violence against women, decent shelter makes for safe homes and neighborhoods that help to build social stability and security.

 

Social Security Nets as guarantors of Human Development

Whenever one talks of sustainable livelihoods, we look not only at the 5 types of assets of a community or individual, but also at their coping strategies. Thus vocational diversity in a farming family will cushion it against a bad crop or a natural disaster, or the sudden death of the principal breadwinner. At the national level, the coping mechanism is provided by the state in the form of social security nets like unemployment benefits, health care, free education, pensions or child benefits.

The second edition of The State of Social Nets which attempts to compile, analyze, and disseminate data and developments as part of the World Bank’s 2012–22 Social Protection and Labor Strategy, makes for interesting reading, and its key findings are summarized below:

  • The portfolio of social safety net programmes is large and diverse. A developing country runs about 20 different safety net programmes, on average.
  • Cash transfers and school feeding programmes are present in almost all countries. Cash transfers are becoming more popular and increasingly complex. Conditional cash transfer programmes are now present in 64 countries, a dramatic increase from 2 countries in 1997 and 27 countries in 2008.
  • Worldwide, 1.9 billion people are enrolled in social safety net programmes.
  • The world’s five largest social safety net programmes are all in middle-income countries and reach over 526 million people.

It was also noted that the social security programmes and composition of social spending varied greatly across regions, as seen below:

Social Security Nets

However, the Report  found that despite remarkable progress over the past 5 years, most of the poor remain outside the social safety net system, especially in low- and lower-middle-income countries, which have the lowest coverage levels of poor people in their societies, and the least ability to direct resources to those most in need. The coverage gap is particularly acute in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where most of the global poor live. In these regions, only one-tenth and one-fifth of the poorest 20 percent have access to social safety nets, respectively. Urban areas have serious gaps in coverage, at all income levels. While 285 million poor people live in cities in developing countries, reaching them presents special challenges, including identifying, targeting, communicating with, and enrolling perspective beneficiaries.

In this writer’s own experience, the National Social Assistance Programme (which consisted of a nominal pension to the poor above the age of 65) showed very good results in rural areas, but was absent from the big metros, chiefly because the pension was disbursed through money orders, and the urban poor being homeless, simply did not have a postal address! Such procedural lapses are the chief cause that the social security coverage of the poorest in developing countries remains inadequate. Take the latest case of cheap loans for farmers, which have been cleverly diverted to non-farming uses. Firstly, as these loans use land as collateral, the poorest landless tenant farmers are not covered; and as the scrutiny before granting loans is cursory at best, a lot of these loans end up in Fixed Deposits earning the borrower anything from 8-9% interest, while he pays no more that 4% on his loan.

To plug such loopholes, many countries are increasingly looking to Unconditional Cash Transfers (UCT) and Conditional Cash Transfers (CCT). This strategy has several additional benefits, as the Report points out: “Newer studies confirm the positive and significant impacts of cash transfers on school enrollment and attendance; increased live births in safer facilities; improved prenatal and postnatal care; regular growth monitoring of children during critically important early ages; and enhanced food security.”

The studies also delve deeper into the productive impacts of cash transfers, demonstrating how predictable cash transfers enhance households’ investment in activities to generate agricultural and nonagricultural income. In the urban context, a secure and predictable monthly income can mean the difference between shelter and homelessness, between education and illiteracy, between health and illness. Cash transfers also have major positive spillover effects on the local economy of target communities, especially in urban areas.


Sadly, India is now ignoring all these benefits and the new government has ruthlessly slashed social expenditure in its last budget. What is frightening is that the eternal chase for higher growth rates (with a matching aversion to any form of subsidies and direct cash transfers, which are now being replaced by contributory insurance schemes), may rapidly undo all the gains in the areas of social security, social welfare and food security made by India as part of its commitment to the global social agenda, and the Millennium Development Goals.