Tikender Singh Panwar

Will the year 2021 be a secure future for people living in Indian cities? This question haunts many of us who have been working in the cities for a long time. The year 2020 has thoroughly exposed the ways in which we are developing and imagining Indian cities. The COVID-19 pandemic has rattled our economic structures and turned the situation extremely bleak. It has exposed the hollowness of cities’ building framework, providing a glimpse of unsustainable cities in a very vivid manner.

This system is extremely fragile, and there is a need to reimagine how we are building urban centers. The arbitrary, irrational, and sudden announcement of lockdown accompanied by the reverse migration of the urban workers, mostly in the unorganized sector, will go down in the annals of history as one of the biggest human tragedies.

But why could cities that boasted of creating indices for ranking livelihood, sanitation, resilience, and many more not hold their poor, informal workers and other marginalized sections for even a few days? There are no easy answers to this question. However, it is quite intrinsic that cities’ development is delinked from the people’s demands.

The transformation of cities began long ago and titles like ‘engines of growth’ were attributed to them by various experts. ‘Entrepreneurs’ were linked to the needs and vagaries of global finance capital. Globally, this process of merging economies and capital started in the early 1970s. However, India welcomed such a transformation only in the 1990s. A policy paradigm was suggested to ensure that cities become competitive and become investment-friendly.

This meant that the cities, to sustain their infrastructure needs, would have had to ease out their laws. Most of the laws were concerning land, which is pivotal for development, were either the jurisdiction of the state or the central government. Hence, central and state legislations were brought in to intervene. But a naïve question could have been asked – why should cities become competitive, and why should the state and central government not invest in the cities?

It was believed that opening up the economy would help the Indian economy integrate with world capitalism and fetch capital in the cities for easy access. However, this did not happen.

The large capital, which was supposed to alleviate the cities’ problems, did not serve the purpose. Instead, it created a nexus at the center and at the state level, forcing cities to accept the reforms’ provisions and allow a paradigm shift in urban governance.

How did this happen? Large consultancy firms integrated with the Ministry of Urban Development at the center and spread their fangs to the cities. They created plans stating the limited capacities of cities for developing plans and highlighted the potential of such firms in devising such development plans. These plans constituted city development plans, mobility plans, city sanitation plans, solar city plans, disaster risk reduction plans, solid waste management plans, etc.

If a genuine review of these plans can be done, one would find that most of these plans pushed for capital-intensive technologies to enter the cities. Instead of cheaper, modest, and decentralized solutions, the plans suggested more centralized and expensive solutions. But the question of the source of capital persisted.

Former urban development minister Vekaiah Naidu, in a conference on cities, said, “the cities do not have money, they come to the states. The states also do not have money, they come to the center. The center also does not have the required money, they look at the multilateral agencies.”

Through their interventions were not just in projects but also through policies, these agencies roll out the development model, which is eulogized by states and the cities. The states and cities are forced to implement these reforms because if they do not, then many grants get blocked, which are linked to these reforms.

According to the JNNURM, a total of $630 billion is required to meet urban India’s infrastructure needs in two decades. However, in a 10 year period, only a mere 2.2 percent of this demand is being delivered. Merely $14 billion was planned to be injected into the cities through the JNNURM process; most of which were project-oriented grants. This figure demonstrates the gap that exists between demand and supply, in terms of infrastructural needs. There has been a very limited critical appraisal of the JNNURM. The irony is that those who advocated for these reforms do not claim any legitimacy to work done.

2014 onwards situation worsens

With the Modi government in 2014, the cities, instead of witnessing a paradigm shift in urban policies, experienced the worst form of accentuation of the policies that further widened the inequity gap. Smart Cities Mission (SCM), AMRUT, Swachh Bharat Mission were linked to the old model with stringent conditions. It propounded hedgehog privatization of cities without realizing that a similar model was a failure in the past. Additionally, efforts are being made for the privatization of the governance model.

The new governance model in the cities through the smart cities concept brought in an adjunct of Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs), which usurped the elected council’s powers. The decision-makers – council got paralyzed with the SPV model since the significant developmental projects were designed and decided by SPVs. None of the elected members were decision-makers in the SPV; it was more of a bureaucratic or financial expert-run institution with no answerability to the people and the elected council. In such a backdrop, the cities have become centers of grinding the poor and extracting massive surplus, concentrated into a few hands.

Samuel Stien, in one of his pioneering works, The Capital City, writes that in a few American cities, the city development process has become the primary mode of capital accumulation. We are unsure if it is also true for Indian cities. A cursory look at how the privatization of utilities and services affects people’s livelihoods shows that it is not wrong to assume that city development is becoming the primary mode of capital accumulation here as well!

This has led to a situation where the marginalized and poor asset holding capacity has dwarfed phenomenally. In the Oxfam report, the top 10 percent and bottom 10 percent in rural India has a gap of nearly 500 times, whereas, in urban India, the gap is mind-boggling, standing at 50,000 times. The poor do not have any assets to hold onto in the cities. How can they sustain, or how can such cities sustain without them?

What needs to be done?

The second UN-Habitat executive director repeatedly mentioned the necessity of a revolution in the urban setting to ensure its sustainability. Of course, ‘revolution’ in the UN terminology has its connotations. But at least a word missing from the vocabulary of many of the liberal urban theorists started to resonate.

John Closs, the ED of Habitat III, vociferously raised his voice that “things, as usual, will not work”, he remarked that “the previous decades of laissez-faire i.e., the free-market economy has proven disastrous and that we have to go back to the basics of planning.”

These statements have specific connotations, but the crux is that change is inevitable and should be in the people’s interest.

The first Urban Commission had interesting guidelines for the then government. The driving force or the preamble of this commission was driven by the fact that the cities were looked upon as centers of manufacturing. This commission’s objective was to address this challenge in the cities.

Role of first urban commission:

  • To examine urbanization-demographic, economic, infrastructural, environmental, physical, energy, land, poverty, aesthetics, and cultural aspects.
  • To prepare basic guidelines for a specific action plan in priority areas, evolve policy frames, and suggest approaches to building interactions among government, academic, research, and citizen groups.
  • To suggest an institutional framework for monitoring effective implementation of the commission recommendations.

The commission made some recommendations that are worth sharing:

  • To promote 329 growth centers and emphasized upon strengthening of the existing larger metropolis. This was to be done through creating employment, the opening of hinterlands, generating wealth with equity, cities to become catalysts of social transformation and modernization of economy and society, etc.
  • The cities must be brought in a vertical division from the center, state to districts.
  • They recommended General Spatial Plan for 10-15 years and an Integrated Spatial Plan for five years.
  • They suggested plans on mobility, land use pattern, and finances.

However, 35 years down the line, these are not even discussed. Rather successive governments have followed a path of project-oriented development with abject surrender to private capital. This has been an utter failure.

In the given circumstances, we require the second National Commission on Urbanization. When the first commission was formed, migration was not a pressing issue. Instead, the formal sector of employment was the main concern. The sheer number of informal sector laborers in the cities has grown phenomenally high. In the 1980s, nearly 23 percent of the population stayed in urban centers; today, it is more than 34 percent (2001-31.8 percent).

Since the 1980s, nearly 218 million more people were added to the country’s urban centers (India’s urban population: 1981 -159 million, 2011-377 million). By the 2021 census, the numbers are likely to further swell.

The piecemeal approach to urban problems, which is an umbrella to employment, city development, governance, utilities, the vitality of the town, etc., cannot serve the purpose.

Form Second National Commission on Urbanization

A second National Commission should be entrusted with a task to formulate a holistic picture of the urban and the challenges. Small doses of “ease of doing business”, “smart cities”, AMRUT, etc., cannot bring in either quantitative or qualitative changes. But the point is who is going to do it?

The present government has a limited interest in formulating such a commission as is evident with the half-heartedly designed NUPF(National Urban Policy Framework) and unpreparedness of a document for the same. Thus, citizens belonging to different sections will have to come and reclaim their spaces in urban areas. Just like the kisans are reclaiming their rights, the other sections have to reclaim their right to plan their future by themselves and not leave it to large tech giants.

Meanwhile, some states can formulate their state-level commissions to analyze urban challenges and develop action plans accordingly.

2021 can be the year of optimism after the painful departure of 2020, which brought miseries pathologically and economically. This optimism for 2021 of fulfilling cherished dreams will not and cannot fall like a fairy tale but will have to be achieved through our collective efforts for a better and secure future. And urban is part of that!

About the Author

Tikender Panwar
Mr Tikender Singh Panwar is the Former Deputy Mayor of Shimla.

Picture Courtesy: United Nation