Cities and cities

By Shirish Khare

Cities have become alike - unidentifiable from each other. Just like the houses that the 40 thieves found when the came to visit Ali Baba. And policies that draw up such uniform plans also unsettle the lives of millions in these cities.

Large cities have been the center of development in India. They have been the centers of manufacturing, of markets, of consumption and of wealth. But they are also the locus of much inequality. Large sections of the city are home to poverty, hunger and unemployment. The rural poor have migrated to the cities with the expectation of better livelihoods and earnings. Infrastructure of cities have not been able to deal with the needs of rural immigrants. The face of most Indian cities has illness and hunger juxtaposed with glamour and wealth.

There are many cities within each city. The first is a clean, orderly structure humming with capitalists, traders and technocrats. People here are safe and wealthy with access to luxuries. They are deemed the builders of a developed India. Another is of slums. Of filth, of clutter, and crowds. People are unsafe and insecure. Their jobs are insecure, their homes are insecure. They are deemed the hurdles to a developing India.

Cities have developed policies to limit the encroachment of slums in public places through force and by continuing 'development' programs to beautify and develop the cities.  While those who live in the slums provide the labour for development, and for profits, their labour is not valued - financially or socially. As a result, the state of the labourers degenerates - there is increasing poverty in the city. There is increased exploitation. Urban poverty is a result of the absence of exploitation of the poor as well as the incompetence of the city governments.
The urban poor are constantly looking for employment and a place to live. In India today, unorganized sector makes up for 93% of labour. Often used as contract labourers, they have little opportunity to participate constructively or creatively in the economic or political processes of the city. Continued to be exploited, they are unable to plan or build their own lives. With industries able to make do with contract workers where regulations are lax and commitment to the worker minimum, unemployment levels continue to grow. Over 5 crore people in India live in urban slums.

Since these slums are deemed illegal, there are no facilities provided. They have no access to financial, legal or social infrastructure that cities provides it citizens. There are no hygiene or health facilities available to these citizens. Thus, citizens of these slums are even more vulnerable - politically, legally and to illnesses. Thus, a large section of the poor is not able to escape the vicious cycle of poverty. Economic, social and political forces ensure this stays true.

The urban poor lives in the city but is still unable to access the infrastructure that a city provides. They are marginalized to  living on the edges - figuratively (as described above) and literally (living on the footpath and along railway tracks). Thus, the rights of the urban poor are easily bypassed. In fact, their activities are constantly under suspicion. As a result, the poor does not want to make themselves visible, even to ask for their rights. Urban programs that claim beautification or infrastructure development continue to push the urban poor knowing fully well that they can push the poor even further into marginalization.

It is difficult for the poor to organize against such urban programs. Often they are rural immigrants from different regions, speaking different languages and with different religious or caste backgrounds. In addition, they experience different levels of poverty. Their access top infrastructure is also varied.  The basis for organizing is weak.

On the other hand, government bodies are constrained by limited land, money and other infrastructural capabilities. In Mumbai for example, land is unavailable. 50% of the population lives in slums. But this occupies only 8% of the total land in Mumbai.  While the government reckons that every individual needs 5 square meter and a family needs 25 sq.m., that is hardly true. Thus, the absence of housing is one of the biggest problems with the urban poor.

The government's intent and capability to provide for infrastructure is also questionable. While governments are chosen to help arrange for infrastructure for all, by privatizing such services, they have encouraged the provision of those services that have profits over others that are needed for human existence and living. After all, private companies are interested in consumers, not citizens and the urban poor have very little income that can be used for consumable services.

The model of development in these urban centers is not based on participation by citizens but of technocrats and businesses. The processes of governance today has very little connectivity with citizen groups and their needs. While on the one hand there is rhetoric about decentralization of power to increase citizen participation in governance, on the other hand, privatization of infrastructure needs is resulted in a breakdown of such participation. As a result, the role of governance has become limited to supervision of contracts.

With globalization in force these days and with institutions of globalization considered as experts in development policies, the space for conversation with citizens and for their dissent has become marginalized. In fact, dissent is being politically discouraged, even put down. This is counter to the 74th constitutional amendment that recognizes the role citizen participation in policy making and its role in ensuring development of all. While the amendment lay down specific mechanisms to ensure participation, the reality of urban governance has no place for such participation of the urban poor.

The development of a city requires that everyone be a part of the development process. In the absence of such inclusiveness, the chasm between the rich and the poor will not be bridged. The government has come up with innovative ways to reduce urban poverty - by not counting the poor. For example, Mumbai has only 18000 people with the yellow ration card. Only  24000 people are considered below poverty line. Thus, on one hand politicians innovatively engineer reduction in poor and on the other hand ask for votes based on people being poor.

A city should be the residence of all its population. Development for all is possible only if all are involved in development of policies. This is true not only for housing but for policies related to infrastructure development, economic policies, budget and finance, etc.  Development should not be based on the economic progress of a small group at the cost of everyone else. For such progress for a few only happens at the cost of exploitation of the rest.

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