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The industry of urban empowerment

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The latest issue of the occasional journal Agenda (published by the Centre for Communication and Development Studies) has focused on the subject of urban poverty. A collection of articles brings out the connections between population growth, the governance of cities and urban areas, the sub-populations of the ‘poor’ and how they are identified, the responses of the state to urbanisation and urban residents (links at the end of this post).

My contribution to this issue is titled ‘The industry of ’empowerment’ in which I have described how the urbanisation of India project is being executed in the name of the ‘urban poor’. But the urban poor themselves are lost in the debate over methodologies to identify and classify them and the thicket of entitlements, provisions and agencies to facilitate their ‘inclusion’ and ’empowerment’. I have divided my essay into four parts; here is part one:

RG_Agenda_urban_empowerment_K2015 will be the tenth year of India’s largest urban recalibration programme. That decadal anniversary will, for one section of our society, be used as proof that new infrastructure in cities has lowered poverty, that new housing has raised the standard of living for those who need it most, that urban rebuilding capital is focused better through such measures and, because of these and like reasons, that giant programmes such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) must continue. With or without the name of India’s first prime minister applied to the mission (itself a noun used liberally to impel urgency into a programme), it will continue, enriched with finance and technology.

The JNNURM, a year from now, will be the foremost symbol amongst several that signal to some 415 million Indians (city-dwellers all, for that will be the approximate urban population a year from now) why city life and city lights are what matter.

For another section of society, less inclined because of experience with administrations indifferent or venal, life in India’s (and Bharat’s) 7,935 towns goes on minus the pithy optimism of governments and their supporters in industry and finance. The promise of higher monthly household incomes is somehow expected to compensate for the grinding travails that urban life in India brings, and it is a promise documented inside 50 years of gazettes and government orders, countless circulars and memoranda, hundreds of reports by committees high-powered and technical.

Still the number of villages that are transformed, statistically and temporally into towns (census and statutory) grows from one census to another (and in between), and still the urban agglomerations — some sprawling uncaring from one district into another, consuming agricultural land and watershed — expand, for the instruction of the market is that it is this process of gathering citizens that leads to the growth of gross domestic product (GDP), the prime mechanic in the alleviation of poverty, whose workings in cities are much studied but elude definition.

RG_Agenda_urban_empowerment_RThe density of programmes and schemes that envelop urban-dwellers — those whose households hover above or below a poverty line, those whose informal wage earnings are insufficient to maintain a crumbling housing board tenement — is confusing, inside administrations as much as outside them. The thicket of entitlements and provisions that have been designed, so we are told, to ensure the provision of ‘services’ and ‘amenities’, confounds navigation.

There are economically weaker sections and lower income groups to plan for (provided they remain weaker and lower); there are ‘integrated, reform-driven, fast-track’ sub-missions and components that are aimed at increasing the effectiveness and accountability of urban local bodies, all as part of the ‘Urban Infrastructure and Governance’ standards to be applied under the Urban Infrastructure Development Schemes for Small and Medium Towns (UIDSSMT, which defies any attempt to make acronyms pronounceable) in 65 mission cities.

Prominent within this grand and swelling orchestra of urbanisation are some of the star creations of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty-Alleviation. There is the Basic Services to the Urban Poor (BSUP) and the Integrated Housing and Slum Development Programme (IHSDP) and these round up the gamut of concepts proffered by the urban planning dogma of our times: “integrated development of slums through projects”, “providing for shelter, basic services and other related civic amenities with a view towards providing utilities to the urban poor”, “key pro-poor reforms that include the implementation of the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act”, and “delivery through convergence of other already existing universal services”.

There are public-private partnership templates to guide business (and the odd social entrepreneurship) through this new topology; there are special purpose vehicles formed that mendaciously grey the distinctions between bond and financial markets and the greater public good, but which we are assured will function as the money backstop for public administrations whose clerks peer befuddled at slick online reporting formats (transparency at work, round the clock, accessible through apps on the beneficiaries’ tablet phones).

RG_Agenda_urban_empowerment_GThere is ‘inclusion’ — that most essential salt that flavours the substance of governance today — to be found in every direction. There are plenty of beneficiaries to enlist in this urban social re-engineering that is proceeding on a scale and pace unthinkable a generation ago in our towns (public sector housing colonies and waiting lists for scooters), when ‘income inequality’ was an uncommon topic of discussion and ‘gini coefficient’ had yet to become a society’s alarm bell. The new cadre of GDP engineers is well schooled in the language of human rights and normative justice, and so we have ‘Social Mobilisation and Institution Development’ which attends ‘Employment through Skills Training and Placement’, both of which facilitate ’empowerment, financial self-reliance, and participation and access to government’.

About 30 years ago, The State of India’s Environment 1984-85 (Centre for Science and Environment) noted in a tone of cautious optimism that “planners are beginning to realise that squatters are economically valuable citizens who add to the gross national product by constructing their own shelter, no matter how makeshift, which saves the government a considerable amount of money”. That was a time when governments still sought to save money and the CSE report went on to explain that squatters “are upwardly mobile citizens in search of economic opportunity and have demonstrated high levels of enterprise, tenacity, and ability to suffer acute hardships; that the informal sector in which a majority of the slum-dwellers are economically active contributes significantly to the city’s overall economic growth; and that they should be helped and not hindered”.

[Articles in the Agenda issue, Urban Poverty, are: How to make urban governance pro-poor, Counting the urban poor, The industry of ’empowerment’, Data discrepancies, The feminisation of urban poverty, Making the invisible visible, Minorities at the margins, Housing poverty by social groups, Multidimensional poverty in Pune, Undermining Rajiv Awas Yojana, Resettlement projects as poverty traps, Participatory budgeting, Exclusionary cities.]

3 Responses

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  1. […] their ‘inclusion’ and ‘empowerment’. I have divided my essay into five parts – part one may be read here and this is part […]

  2. […] facilitate their ‘inclusion’ and ‘empowerment’. I have divided my essay into five parts – part one may be read here, part two is found here, and this is part […]

  3. […] facilitate their ‘inclusion’ and ‘empowerment’. I have divided my essay into four parts – part one may be read here, part two is found here, part three is here and this is part […]


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