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.

 

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Will the New Urban Agenda work?

“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?

 

Rethinking India’s Urban Agenda

Very early on in my career, from the vantage point of an apex training Academy, I formulated Nasrin’s First Law: A cliché is the shortest distance between two bureaucrats. And the clichés abound in every government policy paper, programme, and proposal.

The latest example is from a newspaper report on “India’s concerns about HABITAT III” where the country paper on India is rife with the usual platitudes: inclusive, sustainable, decentralized urban governance with an appropriate devolution of powers and resources to the local level. Never mind that the informal-formal divide in Indian metros grows day by day; India has some of the world’s most polluted cities; and the 74th Amendment on decentralization and devolution has remained on paper since 1992. So much for inclusion, sustainability and decentralization…

One of the reasons for this myopia about India’s urban future, is the absolute monopoly of the urban discourse held by an inbred group of academics, retired bureaucrats, planners and NGOs. They never tire of hearing each other mouth the same clichés at seminars held in sylvan 5-star surroundings, away from the smell and noise of the urban reality, and are forever jetting around the world to ‘study’ innovations like Participatory Budgeting in Brazil, only to return and declare: this would never work in India…

The present Indian Government, like the last one, apparently believes in investing only in infrastructure in the metros, with scant regard for education, health, or the environment of Indian cities, hoping that they will one day become that beloved cliché the ‘generators of economic momentum’  – at last allowing the long emerging Indian economy, to well, emerge… But a couple of reality checks:

By 2030, it is estimated that there will be 1,350 cities > 5,00,000 population; with the world’s 7 largest cities in Asia and no European city among the 30 largest:

Urban Didtribution 2030

However, the Indian megacities highlighted above, will be nowhere on the global economic landscape, as estimated by the World Economic Forum:

Cities contributing most to global GDP

The HABITAT III to be held next year in Ecuador, will set the agenda for the world’s urban settlements for the next 20 years, and there is great excitement in development circles at the prospect of combining climate, sustainable development and urbanization in a unified time frame, with a lucky concatenation of the Kyoto Protocol, SDGs, and Habitat III.

Unlike its two predecessors, Habitat III is expected to project intermediary and small towns as the world’s urban future, as never before; and India  with almost 58% of its urban population living in such towns is well suited to make a paradigm shift in its approach to urbanization.

All that is needed is to get (wannabe-Chinese) Indians away from their obsession with infrastructure, metropolitanization, and crass industrialization, rescue the urban discourse from the Delhi ‘urban mafia’, and put our faith back in developing small towns as agriculture hubs to tertiarize the rural economy, reduce endemic poverty, stem migration to cities, and address the root causes of India’s growing agrarian crisis.

We need to rethink Indian urbanization from a purely Indian perspective, and leave the clichés to the bureaucrats…