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Urban Poor Have Set Agenda for 2019 Elections

It remains to be seen how many political parties pledge to protect the urban poor from eviction and homelessness and work for inclusive ‘Smart Cities’.
The Urban Poor Has Set an Agenda for 2019

Image for representational use only.Image Courtesy : The Indian Express

Over 30 civil society groups consisting of slum dwellers, civil society organisations, women groups, other groups working amongst the urban poor, disabled women groups, street vendors, housing rights activists and so on assembled in Delhi on February 28 to set a new discourse for 2019. This new discourse, called the ‘Voices of the Unheard’ in the cities intends to influence the 2019 general elections by advocating their demands to be (a) incorporated in the election manifestoes of the political parties and (b) during the elections getting their demand charter endorsed and signed by respective candidates when they visit their (poor people) habitations.

Enthused by the election campaign in the recently held Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections, where the candidates were asked to endorse ‘zero eviction’ policy and sign it in front of the community people; there is some hope for the poor in the urban realm with the designed campaign.  

The way urbanisation is unfolding in the country is a big challenge. Urbanisation is projected as a panacea of the development challenges that we face as a nation. Cities are evolving at a rapid pace, especially Tier 2, 3 and Tier 4 cities. However, there has been less action at the inequality perpetuated, unjustness in design and unsustainable growth of the urban in India. Cities and their fast-changing characteristics, while beneficial for a minority privileged groups, are becoming increasingly detrimental to the majority marginalised sections that live, work and shape our Indian cities.

The February 28, convention chalked out the following demands which will become focus of actions at the local level to influence the elections in the cities. It may be emphasised that over 150 members of Parliament in the Lok Sabha are either directly or predominantly elected from the cities.

Right to Housing and Land Title for Slums

More than 30% of India’s population in cities lives in slums that are unprotected and are bereft of basic services. In contrast with the popular perception, slums occupy only around 5% of urban land in most cities. Housing policies that aim to monetise land under slums like ‘Housing for All’ have exploited this little land and lead to numerous evictions and displacements of urban poor. It is, therefore, demanded that land titles be conferred to slum dwellers in Indian cities and ensure their protection first. Later, there can be inclusive development of the community’s choice. This will benefit more than 15 crore urban poor population.

No Cut-off Dates and Zero Eviction Policy

Numerous basti pockets remain ‘illegal’ without access to services and amenities due to the regressive policies of the Centre and state governments, like cut-off dates that determine the legal status of people’s settlements. This is leading to evictions, homelessness and further marginalisation of urban poor. Moreover, these policies are also contradicting the larger urbanisation policy of the country that is inviting more people to urban areas. It is demanded that such cut-off dates be removed, or cut-off date be the date of survey. Also, there should be zero eviction policy at the national level.

Slum Upgradation Scheme with the Provision of Basic

People’s settlements or ‘bastis’ – called slums -- have been always considered filthy. This approach to solving people’s housing needs has only resulted in evictions and removal of slums in the name of ‘beautification of cities’. There are numerous successful examples the world over where it is amply clear that the problem with people’s settlements is not ‘houses’ but the provision of services. There is a demand of a national scheme that only focuses on the improvement of the settlements on – ‘as is, where is’ basis and ensures that there is no diversion of the housing debate into the number of houses, but protecting and improving existing people’s housing, wherever possible.

A National Housing, Habitat and Urban Policy in 2019

The National Urban Housing and Habitat Policy of 2007 has mostly remained on paper, with many loopholes in its formulation and gaps in its implementation at the state level. There is a need to conceive a new holistic habitat and urban policy that will pave way for legislative reforms for inclusive and sustainable urban development. This policy should also keep the needs and protection to informal settlements and livelihoods in Indian cities as a core focus of its agenda. It should bring together diverse policies on housing, transport and sanitation with other emerging issues of quickly urbanising India, focusing on marginalised sections and groups (caste, class, gender, disability). The policy also needs to address the needs of peripheral urbanisation and include the transient population migrating to cities because of rural distress.

Smart’ Cities to be Redrawn as ‘Liveable & Just Cities for All’

The Smart Cities Mission has been a disaster. The unrealistic plans, focusing on technology-centric solutions, prepared by foreign companies and implemented through Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) against the democratic participatory planning principles, has resulted in chaos and bypassing of local elected governments. And without any benchmarks and standard definitions, the Smart Cities Mission has led to an exclusionary development model. This needs to be replaced by the concept of “Liveable & Just Cities for All” – that begins with the premise of inclusion and sustainability, with clear benchmarks and standards for all the urban poor and worker communities in their cities and protect the existing people settlements and livelihoods.

Indian cities witness daily occurrences of deaths - the best examples being of urban homeless and manual scavengers. Ten lakh urban homeless, who without adequate shelter as prescribed in National Urban Livelihood Mission – Shelter for Urban Homeless (NULM-SUH) scheme are leading daily lives of humiliation. In spite of The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 – the inhuman prevalence of manual scavenging continues in Indian cities, leading to the daily occurrence of deaths.

Strict implementation of the Acts, with appropriate technological and financial support is required to ensure that no more urban poor lives are lost. The whole mission should be channelled through capacitated local elected governments following public consultations and discussions to develop an indigenous model of ‘Liveable & Just cities’.

Particular attention should be paid on promoting e-governance with support from Indian institutions, such as Indian Institutes of Technology and NIC (National Informatics Centre), to monitor and support the improvement in service delivery and implementation of projects.

National Action Plan’ to Address ‘Climate Change Adaptation and Pollution’

Indian cities are the most polluted in the world and are increasingly becoming unliveable. In the coming years our 10,000 plus cities are going to be great contributors to global warming and climate change. Alongside the threat of pollution, climate change induced disasters are also in the increase in urban areas leading to further marginalisation of urban poor groups who are more vulnerable. There is need to target the 100 most polluted/vulnerable cities and take strong measures to control rising pollution and climate change threats through integrated relevant policy interventions, one of them being urban planning and development. Promoting mixed land use, live & work urban form, public transport and non-motorised transport, and sustainable handling of solid waste management are the first steps in the urban adaptive and resilience building of Indian cities.

Rights for All Informal Sector Workers

A huge majority of urban informal sector workers – around 20 crore in population, though recognised and protected through numerous existing laws -- are not able to avail any benefits of schemes as they lack ‘identity’ of being workers. There is a need for willingness to ensure that all workers are registered as workers through various provisions available in the acts/policies.

Also there is a need to reactivate The Unorganised Workers' Social Security Act, 2008 (UWSSA)with enough financial provisions in budget to ensure universal minimum social security - like health care, maternity, insurance and pension. Also, to address the needs of vast number of migrant workers, portability of these schemes should be ensured to provide seamless benefits across jurisdictions to workers. The centre should also fix universal minimum wages and (or) launch a ‘National Urban Employment Scheme’ to provide livelihoods to the informal sector workers to lead a life with ‘dignity’. Women domestic workers - who are around 2 crore in cities and whose work is still not considered work and who are exploited in a patriarchal society - need to be accorded policy protection with a specific act on ‘domestic workers’.

As women work in the informal sector as domestic workers, street vendors, sex workers, home based workers, waste collectors, construction workers, etc., they should be provided with safe access to public spaces and services. With respect to the on-going demand for amalgamation of labour codes, it is demanded that in the name of universalisation of benefits, the dilution of different acts/ boards that exist for different workers be stopped and be maintained separately so as to contribute to the specific needs of workers.

Protect Street Vending in Indian cities

The Street Vendors (SV) Act ratified in 2014 has not been implemented and street vendors - including chaiwalas and pakodewalas– who number more than two crore are being harassed by local authorities and state agencies on a daily basis. It is demanded that street vendors and their positive contribution be recognised, and their survey and registration is carried out in a mission mode as is in the SV Act 2014.

Thereafter, Town Vending Committees (TVCs) be constituted through elections and space for street vending designated in urban planning processes and schemes. Also access to social security schemes is ensured like other informal sector workers.

Implementation of 74th Constitutional Amendment Act and Devolution of Powers and Finances

After 25 years of 74th CAA, there is a need for more autonomy and power to the City Governments (ULBs). Increasingly, there is a trend of re-centralisation of urban governance; SPVs being the best case of the numerous examples. It is expected that the finances and powers of city planning and provision of services controlled at present by the Centre and state governments should be handed over to capacitate ULBs, which through democratic participatory processes like ward committees ensure that urban planning is localised in scale, and thereby make it inclusionary for urban poor groups.

Required resources and capacities to ULBs have to be imparted by the central and state governments and ensuring that real time ward expenditure data should be put in public domain which is accessible to all leading towards transparency of functions and functionaries of the ULB’s. Increase gender budget allocation in addressing the issue of lack of Dalit women representation. And thereby, get rid of ‘SPV model’ of governance mechanisms granted through Article 243Q proviso that dilute the fundamental principles of constitution.

Adequate Provision and Formalisation of Human Resources in ULBs

There is a need to address the huge shortage of human resources in the cities due to which the lack of services gets exacerbated. ‘Outsourcing’ on contract basis as the main mode of employment and service provision has led to a decline of quality of city functions like – water provision, sanitation, solid waste and sewage management etc. There is an urgent need to have a policy that incentivises regularisation of municipal workers, who are at the moment being exploited in sub-human working conditions and bereft of social security. Also, all City Governments should have greater control over staffing, with powers to recruit staff to match their requirements directly and from specialised cadres available to them.

Cities to get 5% of the GDP

Indian cities contribute 70% of GDP and 90% of government revenues, but are in a dire need of resources being ploughed back into the development of the urban. Now only about 1% of the GDP is being invested in our cities and their development through major schemes and programs from the Centre, which is less than some of the subsides for the well-off like LPG and petroleum.

There is a need to at least assign 5% of GDP to the various developmental programs in cities from centre to the states and ULBs consequently, ensuring devolution and decentralisation of powers as envisaged in 74th CAA. This will benefit more than 10,000 small and big cities in India, which is going to account for 50 percent of India’s population by 2030.

Women-Friendly Cities that are Accessible to All

Safety for women in Indian cities has become the most talked about agenda in the urban space. The accessibility and safety of women in Indian cities have been reduced to CCTVs and more vigilant policing. We wish to demand a departure from the same using urban planning to envisage engendered & women-friendly cities. This may be achieved through – first, alerting urban development keeping women and children in the centre. Like housing, where housing design is gender responsive, and the housing projects should be located in places where an ecosystem of services (public transport, water, sanitation, etc.) is assured.

Second, the only way cities will be safe for women is through a more visible presence of women on the streets. This can be achieved by ensuring more pavements that promote walkability and access to public transport. The focus should be to encourage mix-use developments so that live-work characteristic favoured by women informal sectors workers like home-based, waste-pickers and domestic workers is supported.

Third, as a means to encourage more women migrant working population in Indian cities – working women hostels for every five lakh population in the city, day care centres and livelihood centres be set up in every ward.Fourth, to ensure that all our cities have free and accessible toilets in prominent public spaces for women and transgender. Lastly there should be regularisation of local sensitisation of government departments, social media, corporate etc.

The writer is Former Deputy Mayor, Shimla.

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