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Is India Committed to Empowering Its Cities and Their Inhabitants?

The New Urban Agenda (NUA) that was adopted in 2016, seems to be more of a rhetoric rather than a tool to carry on the urban agenda in India.
New Urban Agenda

Image Courtesy: Un Habitat

The New Urban Agenda (NUA) was adopted in Quito, the capital of Ecuador in October 2016. Over 193 countries discussed and adopted the future agenda on ‘sustainable’ urbanisation. Since then, over 18 months have passed and it is apt to comment on where we have reached to achieve the goals of Habitat III conference, which adopted the NUA.

Although it is not a legally binding document, it surely provides a future roadmap on urbanisation in the world. For India which is fast urbanising, it is all the more important to address issues like housing, transport, energy, social equity, employment -- all of which are part of the agenda. This is important to secure a sustainable habitat and a sustainable environment. There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in the conference to ensure a secure and better future for the mankind.

The statistics, however, are not very encouraging as far as the interventions are concerned. The cities which generate more than 80 percent of the World’s GDP also contribute to the 70 percent of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Nearly 20 percent of the urban population continues to live in the slums, where even the basic necessities are far away. The social divide in the cities is increasingly widening as revealed by the data from various sources. It (data) is screaming for pro-active interventions from the national, state and city governments.

The NUA calls for an urban paradigm shift to re-address the way planning is done. The shift, in India, must address issues like finance, governance, housing and above all participatory democracy. The slogan of ‘cities for all’, where all inhabitants are able to inhabit and produce safe, resilient, affordable and sustainable cities is part of the NUA agenda. Radical slogans like ‘right to the city’ also find mention in it. And this ‘right’, is irrespective of their legal status, over the city’s resources and spaces. The cities must be empowered both politically and financially.

Mathew Idiculla, an urban expert, very aptly writes about the Indian commitment at the NUA, which was quite ‘limited’. It is believed that even during the negotiations, “the Indian delegation, unlike the other member states, who made detailed suggestions for revisions, mostly gave short, cryptic comments expressing discontent with certain sections. India wanted provisions supporting refugees and migrants circumscribed by a proviso stating 'where applicable as permitted by laws of the land'”. India also preferred a more generic commitment on the right to housing instead of one that denounced discrimination and forced evictions. India sought restrictions on provisions that increased local government autonomy over taxes. The nature of India’s engagement raises concerns about our seriousness in empowering cities and their inhabitants.

As evident, the urban priority does not give credence to the NUA spirit. Though the urban policy and the projects like the smart city project, the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, etc. speak about inclusivity, sustainability and equity, it does not fulfil the approach that all inhabitants have a ‘right to the city’.

This is becoming all the more evident from the ‘removal of the poor’ from the core of the city to the periphery. Either their habitations are being demolished for one reason or the other, or they are being termed as outsiders. In Delhi, large-scale eviction drives that have been carried out at the behest of the Court's order is another pointer. Since the executive does not commit to the right of individual to the city and hence, does not come forward to intervene through a legislation.

It looks like the NUA is more like a normative agenda for India. Some of the concrete realities in urban spatial planning, urban governance and municipal finance, continue to be decrepit.

A look at the urban planners will further substantiate the point. The number of urban planners is very less. Britain has 38 planners per 100,000 people, whereas, for India, the figure is just 0.23. There are several urban local bodies without a single qualified urban planner.

The common issues and challenges that most of the Indian cities face are poor governance, multiple jurisdictions (despite 74th constitutional amendment), very weak revenue base and understaffed local bodies. The flagship Smart Cities Programme(SCP) of Government of India, which should have become lighthouses for mitigating these challenges, has further accentuated the problems. Instead of strengthening the democratic structure and the authority of elected bodies it has undermined them altogether. Some of the commentators have even termed the SCP as ‘an obituary of the 74th constitutional amendment’.

John Clos, the former Executive Director of UN-Habitat III has strongly criticised the laissez-faire approach to the city buildings by saying that “urban planning has fallen out of fashion. The development strategy of many countries has been relying a lot on the Washington Consensus which had no specifics on the relevant role that urbanisation plays in development”. He has given a call to return to the fundamentals of urbanisation, where the free market economy must be discarded and stress has to be laid on planning. In an interview, he further said, “as urbanisation becomes a huge process affecting billions of people there is a need to come back to the fundamentals that perhaps in the past 30 to 40 years have been a bit forgotten. In fact, when we analyse the kind of urbanisation that is being built now, we see that what is failing are very fundamental issues of urbanisation, such as proper rules and regulations and a lack of adequate urban planning.”

Much of urban planning, Clos notes, was in line with the Washington Consensus — a set of economic reforms that policymakers from the World Bank, IMF and other D.C.-institutions prescribed for developing countries several decades ago -  as a way to boost growth. Their recommendations, broadly, placed a strong emphasis on the free market. By lowering government regulations, opening up to trade and privatising industries, markets would thrive and industries would grow. But economists have argued that those types of open and deregulated policies overly exposed developing economies, and have had destabilising effects when global markets took drastic turns. The Washington Consensus has come to be maligned in some development circles.

While the New Urban Agenda has brought planning back at the centre, it is, however, questionable whether the Indian ruling dispensation- the BJP, that is so obsessed with a neo-liberal paradigm of economics, will lay for a more interventionist strategies. The flagship programmes on urban India brings in a PPP model which has not even taken off. It seems the NUA will be more of a rhetoric rather than a tool to carry on the urban agenda in India.

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