Shaktichakra, the wheel of energies

Culture and systems of knowledge, cultivation and food, population and consumption

The discordant anthem of urban missions

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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 has 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 partspart one may be read here and this is part two:

RG_urban_empowerment_201501_sec2The ‘help’ of that period, envisioned as a light leg-up accompanied by informal encouragement, has become instead an industry of empowerment. There are “bank linkages for neutral loans to meet the credit needs of the urban poor”, the formation of corps of “resource organisations to be engaged to facilitate the formation of self-help groups and their development”, there are technical parameters to set so that “quality of services is not compromised”.

Financial literacy – of the unhoused, the misnourished, the chronically underemployed, the single-female-headed families, the uninsurable parents and dependents, the uncounted – is essential so that ‘no frills’ savings accounts can be opened (the gateway to a noxious web of intrusive micro-payment schemata: life, health, pension, consumer goods). Such a brand of functional literacy is to be dispensed by city livelihoods centres which will “bridge the gap between demand and supply of the goods and services produced by the urban poor” and who will then, thus armed, “access information and business support services which would otherwise not be affordable or accessible by them”. So runs the anthem of the National Urban Livelihoods Mission, the able assistant of the national urban mission and its successor-in-the-wings, the Rajiv Awas Yojana.

The existence of the ‘urban poor’ is what provides the legitimacy (howsoever constructed) that the central government, state governments, public and joint sector housing and infrastructure corporations, and a colourful constellation of ancillaries need to execute the urbanisation of India project. Lost in the debate over methodologies to find in the old and new bastis the deserving chronically poor and the merely ‘service deprived’ are the many aspects of poverty in cities, a number of which afflict the upper strata of the middle classes (well housed, overprovided for by a plethora of services, banked to a surfeit) just as much as they do the daily wage earners who commute from their slums in search of at least the six rupees they must pay out of every 10 so that their families have enough to eat for that day.

RG_urban_empowerment_201501_sec1These deprivations are not accounted for nor even discussed as potential dimensions along which to measure the lives of urban citizens, poor or not, by the agencies that give us our only authoritative references for our citizens and the manner in which they live, or are forced to live: the Census of India, the National Sample Survey Office (of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation), the municipal corporations of larger cities, the ministries of health, of environment, and the ministry most directly concerned with urban populations, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation.

Exposure to pollution in concentrations that alarms the World Health Organisation, the absence of green spaces in wards, a level of ambient noise high enough to induce stress by itself, the weekly or monthly reconciling of irregular income (at any scale) versus the inflation that determines all costs of urban living – these are but a few of the many aspects under which a household or an individual can be ‘poor’. Income and food calorie poverty – which have been the measures to judge a household’s position in relation to a line of minimum adequacy – are but two of many interlinked aspects that govern a standard of living which every government promises to raise.

This catechism was repeated when the Sixteenth Lok Sabha began its work, and President Pranab Mukherjee mentioned in his address to the body a common habitat minimum for the 75th year of Indian Independence, which will come in 2022 (at a time when the many vacuous ‘2020 vision documents’ produced during the last decade by every ministry will have neither currency nor remit). Housing for all, Mukherjee assured the Lok Sabha, delivered through the agency of city-building – “100 cities focused on specialised domains and equipped with world-class amenities”; and “every family will have a pucca house with water connection, toilet facilities, 24×7 electricity supply and access”.

RG_urban_empowerment_201501_sec3That is why, although concerned academicians and veteran NGO karyakartas will exchange prickly criticisms concerning the use in urban study of NSSO first stage units or the use of Census of India enumeration blocks, it is self-determination in the urban context that matters to a degree somewhat greater than the means we choose to use to describe that context. From the time of the ‘approach’ discussions to the Tenth Five-Year Plan (2002-07) – which is when the notion, till that time regarded as experimental, that the government can step away without guilt from its old role of providing for the poor in favour of the private sector – the dogma of growth of GDP has included rapid urbanisation.

That such GDP growth – setting aside the crippling ecological and social costs which our administrative technorati, for all their ‘progressive’ credentials, do not bring themselves to publicly recognise – is deeply polarising and is especially so in cities is not a matter discussed in any of the 948 city development plans (1,515 infrastructure and housing projects) of the JNNURM. From then on, the seeking and finding of distinctions as they exist within the residential wards of towns and cities has been treated as heretical.

[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.]

6 Responses

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  1. Really liked this piece. I agree that we need a far more nuanced understanding of poverty, and especially of urban poverty. The continues existence of poverty and deprivations despite the so-called economic benefits of urbanisation are shocking. Since I’m interested in housing, much of my research has focused on living conditions of the urban poor in cities. The cumulative costs that the urban poor (read slum dweller) pay are so much higher than those who can afford to live in formal housing in cities. And yet, as you point out, the poor and rich share many of the deprivations of urban life! An interesting social conundrum indeed, but one governments would rather ignore. It’s so much easier to opt for the panacea of infrastructure investment!


    January 3, 2015 at 21:51

    • Thank you very much. The poverty (or affluence, which is as startling a story) in urban centres is one aspect. It is food and consumption that worry me. Few of our research and study organisations, especially including the top-heavy think-tanks that litter New Delhi, bother about these aspects. A town of 50,000 can expand to double its population, but a food-producing district cannot afford to lose half its population to that town. These are the problems, in plain sight but oddly unremarkable.


      January 4, 2015 at 11:50

      • True. The transitions in large villages are especially fascinating. My research in Tehri Garhwal found youth from villages want non farm occupations near their homes so they can continue to help out at home. But agriculture is no longer something they consider viable or desirable. Somethings gotta give here!


        January 4, 2015 at 16:16

  2. […] 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. […] 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 […]

  4. […] cities’ are under the Urban Infrastructure and Governance (UIG) programme. But, as I have written about here earlier, there are many towns in India whose populations are growing quickly, because of which […]

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