Cities of chaos

Published : Sep 11, 2009 00:00 IST

A homeless man sleeping on the pavement in New Delhi. A file photograph. There are over 100,000 homeless people in Delhi for whom the government runs 14 night shelters, with a total capacity of 2,937.-SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

A homeless man sleeping on the pavement in New Delhi. A file photograph. There are over 100,000 homeless people in Delhi for whom the government runs 14 night shelters, with a total capacity of 2,937.-SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

LET us begin by putting down some facts that all of us know. There is no city or town in India that does not get flooded or terribly damaged in one way or the other by the annual monsoon, or often by just a spell of heavy rain. There is no city or town in India that does not have power shortages, often for hours on end. There is no city or town in India that is clean; all of them are dirty, some of them impossibly so. There is no city or town in India that does not have a water supply problem. In no city or town in India can one drink water straight from the tap, when the tap does have water flowing from it. No city or town in India disposes of its sewage in a sanitary, hygienic manner.

There may be just one exception to all these propositions or there was, until not so long ago Jamshedpur. One hears, though, that things are not quite as ideal as they were, and the city is beginning to slip from the high standards of civic qualities it once had. But I have no means of verifying this. In any event, one swallow does not make a summer.

But the facts I have put down in the first paragraph are a pathetic commentary on the way our cities and towns are run. The primary cause is systemic. The municipalities and municipal corporations are, for the most part, impoverished to the point that many of them cannot pay their monthly wage bill.

What is more astonishing is that although the Constitution puts all the powers to maintain and develop urban facilities in the State List and makes provision to give most of the powers to municipalities and local bodies, not one State has actually enacted a law passing these powers on to municipal or other bodies.

Instead, almost all of them have done one thing: for the larger cities, usually the State capitals and others, they have set up urban development authorities, such as the Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA) in Haryana and the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) in Chennai. These bodies have been given powers and some funds to do some development work. In practically every State, this has resulted in a most unsatisfactory state of affairs, with even more authorities being set up, no one clear as to who does what and none of them getting the funds they ask for; and the situation described in the first paragraph continues, even 62 years after Independence. In this respect, very little has changed in urban India; if anything, it has become worse.

To compound this situation, there is what has been reported in India-Urban Poverty Report 2009, a report brought out by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which has inputs from researchers, eminent academics and representatives of civil society. This is the first report of its kind, and some of its findings are of considerable interest.

For one, it estimates that, by 2030, the population in the urban areas of the country will be around 575 million, roughly 41 per cent of the total population of the country. The United States census estimates the population of that country to be 400 million by 2039, so the urban population of India alone will exceed the entire population of the U.S.

The report says that urban poverty in India is, even today, pretty high: 25 per cent of the people in urban areas live in poverty, that is, over 80 million people approximately, as the report points out, the population of Egypt. Moreover, most States have reported poverty figures in urban areas as being much higher than those in rural areas, though at the national level rural poverty is higher. But what the report has also brought out is that the incidence of decline of urban poverty has not accelerated with GDP [gross domestic product] growth. As the urban population of the country is growing, so is urban poverty.

Given this, one needs to step back and take a look at the whole picture: the much touted growth in the GDP has not affected urban poverty at all. In the context of the manner in which State governments have made scrambled eggs out of the system of urban governance, this is not a very encouraging prospect.

The report has come up with one other very interesting, if not unsurprising, finding: A substantial portion of the benefits provided by public agencies are cornered by middle and upper income households. 54.71 per cent of urban slums have no toilet facility. Most free community toilets built by state government [sic] or local bodies are rendered unusable because of lack of maintenance.

The report itself cites an example of the benefits given to the poor. It says that in Delhi there are over 100,000 homeless people for whom the government runs 14 night shelters, with a total capacity of 2,937. What happens to the others? The report provides one answer. Outside the walled city of Delhi, private contractors called thijawalahs rent out quilts in winter and plastic sheets during the monsoon for five rupees a night. Iron cots are rented for 15 rupees a night.

The Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation deserves to be congratulated for having brought out such a frank and realistic report. At least we now know where we are in the effort to lessen, if not eliminate, urban poverty. The effort is more complicated than one thinks.

Many feel that little will be achieved by making physical improvements in cities and towns as they will only attract more migrants from rural areas, making the situation even worse. The answer, they say, is to improve rural development projects in the catchment areas of each city and town, so that fewer people come to the urban areas for a better life. A key factor in this may well be the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). If it is intensively and effectively implemented in the catchment areas, it may have a marked effect on the number of people leaving their villages to look for work in towns and cities.

But this is seen by others as a utopian concept. What happens, they demand, to the intolerable conditions in which the urban poor now stay? They advocate a massive effort to provide decent housing, employment (the much debated urban employment guarantee scheme), sanitation, water supply and a steady power supply first to poor areas and similar measures.

It is here that the otherwise commendable Urban Poverty Report falters. Making recommendations to improve the present terrible conditions is one thing; devising a workable financial model that makes this possible is more difficult and is key to any development effort that one may take up. The report makes no mention of how the development effort can be financed. It does not even suggest that the scrambled eggs be unscrambled, and how this can be done.

Perhaps, even before the report is considered by the authorities at the Centre and in the States, this is what needs to be looked at first. Systems need to change. Municipalities need to be restructured. The antique colonial laws that govern their working should be repealed and new, more relevant laws enacted, providing for a single urban authority, which needs to have sources of funding that are adequate for the tasks in hand. Government cannot be the source of funds. Other sources need to be identified. Perhaps, the urban bodies could be given powers to raise money through cesses and taxes of some kind.

Whatever the method, it must be understood that the structures of urban governance must be set right first, and fresh professional human resources inducted. That and only that will pave the way to lasting urban development and the removal of urban poverty.

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