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To localise and humanise India’s urban project

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Cities and towns have outdated and inadequate master plans that are unable to address the needs of inhabitants. Photo: Rahul Goswami (2013)

Cities and towns have outdated and inadequate master plans that are unable to address the needs of inhabitants. Photo: Rahul Goswami (2013)

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, part two is found here, part three is here and this is part four:

The reason they pursue this objective in so predatory a manner is the potential of GDP being concentrated – their guides, the international management consulting companies (such as McKinsey, PriceWaterhouse Coopers, Deloitte, Ernst and Young, Accenture and so on), have determined India’s unique selling proposition to the world for the first half of the 21st century. It runs like this: “Employment opportunities in urban cities will prove to be a catalyst for economic growth, creating 70% of net new jobs while contributing in excess of 70% to India’s GDP.” Naturally, the steps required to ensure such a concentration of people and wealth-making capacity include building new urban infrastructure (and rebuilding what exists, regardless of whether it serves the ward populations or not).

"Employment opportunities in urban cities will prove to be a catalyst for economic growth" is the usual excuse given for the sort of built superscale seen in this metro suburb. Photo: Rahul Goswami (2013)

“Employment opportunities in urban cities will prove to be a catalyst for economic growth” is the usual excuse given for the sort of built superscale seen in this metro suburb. Photo: Rahul Goswami (2013)

The sums being floated today for achieving this camouflaged subjugation of urban populations defy common sense, for any number between Rs 5 million crore and Rs 7 million crore is being proposed, since an “investment outlay will create a huge demand in various core and ancillary sectors causing a multiplier effect through inter-linkages between 254 industries including those in infrastructure, logistics and modern retail… it will help promote social stability and economic equality through all-round development of urban economic centres and shall improve synergies between urban and rural centres”.

Tiers of overlapping programmes and a maze of controls via agencies shaded in sombre government hues to bright private sector colours are already well assembled and provided governance fiat to realise this ‘transformation’, as every government since the Tenth Plan has called it (the present new government included). For all the academic originality claimed by a host of new urban planning and habitat research institutes in India (many with faculty active in the United Nations circuits that gravely discuss the fate of cities; for we have spawned a new brigade of Indian – though not Bharatiya – urban studies brahmins adept at deconstructing the city but ignorant of such essentials as ward-level food demand), city planning remains a signal failure.

Typically, democratisation and self-determination is permitted only in controlled conditions. Photo: Rahul Goswami (2013)

Typically, democratisation and self-determination is permitted only in controlled conditions. Photo: Rahul Goswami (2013)

Other than the metropolitan cities and a small clutch of others (thanks to the efforts of a few administrative individuals who valued humanism above GDP), cities and towns have outdated and inadequate master plans that are unable to address the needs of city inhabitants in general (and of migrants in particular). These plans, where they exist, are technically prepared and bureaucratically envisioned with little involvement of citizens, and so the instruments of exclusion have been successfully transferred to the new frameworks that determine city-building in India.

Democratisation and self-determination is permitted only in controlled conditions and with ‘deliverables’ and ‘outcomes’ attached – organic ward committees and residents groups that have not influenced the vision and text of a city master plan have even less scope today to do so inside the maze of technocratic and finance-heavy social re-engineering represented by the JNNURM, RAY, UIDSSMT, BSUP, IHSDP and NULM and all their efficiently bristling sub-components. The rights of inhabitants to a comfortable standard of life that does not disturb environmental limits, to adequate and affordable housing, to safe and reliable water and sanitation, to holistic education and healthcare, and most of all the right to alter their habitats and processes of administration according to their needs, all are circumscribed by outside agencies.

Managed socialisation in our cities and towns must give way to organic groups. Photo: Rahul Goswami (2013)

Managed socialisation in our cities and towns must give way to organic groups. Photo: Rahul Goswami (2013)

It is not too late to find remedies and corrections. “As long as the machinery is the same, if we are simply depending on the idealism of the men at the helm, we are running a grave risk. The Indian genius has ever been to create organisations which are impersonal and are self-acting. Mere socialisation of the functions will not solve our problem.” So J C Kumarappa had advised (the Kumarappa Papers, 1939-46) about 80 years ago, advice that is as sensible in the bastis of today as it was to the artisans and craftspeople of his era.

For the managed socialisation of the urbanisation project to give way to organic groups working to build the beginnings of simpler ways in their communities will require recognition of these elements of independence now. It is the localisation of our towns and cities that can provide a base for reconstruction when existing and planned urban systems fail. Today some of these are finding ‘swadeshi’ within a consumer-capitalist society that sees them as EWS, LIG and migrants, and it is their stories that must guide urban India.

[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.]

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No Shri Javadekar, India won’t gamble with carbon

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Coal will account for much of India's energy for another generation. How does the BJP calculate its 'value' at international climate talks? Image: PTI/Deccan Chronicle

Coal will account for much of India’s energy for another generation. How does the BJP calculate its ‘value’ at international climate talks? Image: PTI/Deccan Chronicle

There is a message New Delhi’s top bureaucrats must listen to and understand, for it is they who advise the ministers. The message has to do with climate change and India’s responsibilities, within our country and outside it. This is the substance of the message:

1. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government must stop treating the factors that contribute to climate change as commodities that can be bartered or traded. This has been the attitude of this government since it was formed in May 2014 – an attitude that says, in sum, ‘we will pursue whatever GDP goals we like and never mind the climate cost’, and that if such a pursuit is not to the liking of the Western industrialised world, India must be compensated.

2. Rising GDP is not the measure of a country and it is not the measure of India and Bharat. The consequences of pursuing rising GDP (which does not mean better overall incomes or better standards of living) have been plain to see for the better part of 25 years since the process of liberalisation began. Some of these consequences are visible in the form of a degraded natural environment, cities choked in pollution, the rapid rise of non-communicable diseases, the economic displacement of large rural populations. All these consequences have dimensions that deepen the impacts of climate change within our country.

3. There are no ‘terms of trade’ concerning climate change and its factors. There is no deal to jockey for in climate negotiations between a narrow and outdated idea of GDP-centred ‘development’ and monetary compensation. The government of India is not a broking agency to bet a carbon-intensive future for India against the willingness of Western countries to pay in order to halt such a future. This is not a carbon casino and the NDA-BJP government must immediately stop behaving as if it is.

RG_coal_201503_1The environment minister, Prakash Javadekar, has twice in March 2015 said exactly this: we will go ahead and pollute all we like in the pursuit of our GDP dream – but if you (world) prefer us not to, give us lots of money as compensation. Such an attitude and such statements are to be condemned. That Javadekar has made such a statement is bad enough, but I find it deeply worrying that a statement like this may reflect a view within the NDA-BJP government that all levers of governance are in fact monetary ones that can be bet, like commodities can, against political positions at home and abroad. If so, this is a very serious error being made by the central government and its advisers.

Javadekar has most recently made this stand clear in an interview with a foreign news agency. In this interview (which was published on 26 March 2015), Javadekar is reported to have said: “The world has to decide what they want. Every climate action has a cost.” Worse still, Javadekar said India’s government is considering the presentation of a deal – one set of commitments based on internal funding to control emissions, and a second set, with deeper emissions cuts, funded by foreign money.

Earlier in March, during the Fifteenth Session of the African Ministerial Conference on Environment (in Cairo, Egypt), Javadekar had said: “There has to be equitable sharing of the carbon space. The developed world which has occupied large carbon space today must vacate the space to accommodate developing and emerging economies.” He also said: “The right to development has to be respected while collectively moving towards greener growth trajectory.”

Such statements are by themselves alarming. If they also represent a more widespread view within the Indian government that the consequences of the country following a ‘development’ path can be parleyed into large sums of money, then it indicates a much more serious problem. The UNFCCC-led climate change negotiations are infirm, riddled with contradictions, a hotbed of international politics and are manipulated by finance and technology lobbies.

RG_coal_201503_2It remains on paper an inter-governmental arrangement and it is one that India is a part of and party to. Under such circumstances, our country must do all it can to uphold moral action and thinking that is grounded in social and environmental justice. The so-called Annex 1 countries have all failed to do so, and instead have used the UNFCCC and all its associated mechanisms as tools to further industry and foreign policy interests.

It is not in India’s nature and it is not in India’s character to to the same, but Javadekar’s statement and the government of India’s approach – now made visible by this statement – threatens to place it in the same group of countries. This is a crass misrepresentation of India. According to the available data, India in 2013 emitted 2,407 million tons of CO2 (the third largest emitter behind the USA and China). In our South Asian region, this is 8.9 times the combined emissions of our eight neighbours (Pakistan, 165; Bangladesh, 65; Sri Lanka, 15; Myanmar, 10; Afghanistan, 9.4; Nepal, 4.3; Maldives, 1.3; Bhutan, 0.7).

When we speak internationally of being responsible we must first be responsible at home and to our neighbours. Javadekar’s is an irresponsible statement, and is grossly so. Future emissions are not and must never be treated as or suggested as being a futures commodity that can attract a money premium. Nor is it a bargaining chip in a carbon casino world. The government of India must clearly and plainly retract these statements immediately.

Note – according to the UNFCCC documentation, “India communicated that it will endeavour to reduce the emissions intensity of its GDP by 20-25 per cent by 2020 compared with the 2005 level. It added that emissions from the agriculture sector would not form part of the assessment of its emissions intensity.”

“India stated that the proposed domestic actions are voluntary in nature and will not have a legally binding character. It added that these actions will be implemented in accordance with the provisions of relevant national legislation and policies, as well as the principles and provisions of the Convention.”

The slowing motion of India’s quick mobility

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This is a chart whose lines drift downwards as time goes by, quite the opposite of all the usual depictions of India’s rising GDP, rising income, rising purchasing power, and so on. But in the two dropping lines is the proof that India’s households are tying themselves up in stifling vehicular knots.

This chart shows what we call two-wheelers (scooters and motor-cycles) and cars (four-wheeled passenger vehicles, formally). It also shows number of households and a span of 20 years. The two lines show the number of households to a car (the orange line) and the number of households to a two-wheeler (the blue line). As there are many more two-wheelers than there are cars, they are on different scales, so the left axis is for the two-wheelers and the right for cars.

vehicles_2012I have taken the data from two sources. One is the Census of India, for the census years 2011, 2001 and 1991. The other is the Road Transport Yearbook (2011-12) issued by the Transport Research Wing, Ministry Of Road Transport and Highways, Government Of India. The yearbook includes a table with the total number of registered vehicles (in different categories of vehicle – two-wheelers, cars, buses, goods vehicles, others) for every year. The number of households is from the census years, with simple decadal growth applied annually between census years. I have not yet found the detailed data that will let me refine this finding between urban and rural populations.

This is what the chart says: in 1992, there were 10 households to a two-wheeler and 48.7 households to a car. Ten years later in 2002 there were 4.8 households to a two-wheeler and 26.2 households to a car. Another ten years later in 2012 there were 2.2 households to a two-wheeler and 11.8 households to a car.

vehicles_2005The implications are several and almost all of them are an alarm signal. Especially for urban areas – where most of the buying of vehicles for households has taken place – the physical space available for the movement of people and goods has increased only marginally, but the number of motorised contrivances (cars, motor-cycles, scooters and more recently stupidly large SUVs and stupidly large and expensive luxury cars) has increased quickly. Naturally this ‘growth’ of wheeled metal has choked our city wards.

But there are other implications. One is the very idea of individual mobility in and through a town or city. The connection – foolishly maintained by one government after another, and foolishly defended by macro-economists and industrial planners – between the automobile industry and gross domestic product (GDP) has crippled common sense.

vehicles_1995More motorised conveyance per household also means more fuel demanded per household, and more fuel (and money) wasted because households are taught (by the auto industry with the encouragement of the foolish cohorts I mentioned earlier) that they are entitled to wasteful personal mobility. Over 20 years, the number of cars per household has increased 4.1 times but the number of buses per household has increased only 2.8 times. That is embarrassing proof of our un-ecological and climate unfriendly new habits.

In 2012, there were 1.67 million buses (of all kinds and configurations), there were 7.65 million goods vehicles (to move all those appliances demanded by households, food crops, fertiliser, retail food, etc), 13.16 million other vehicles (which as the ministry says “include tractors trailers, three-wheelers (passenger vehicles)/LMV and other miscellaneous vehicles which are not classified separately”), 21.56 million cars (including jeeps and taxis), and 115.41 million two-wheelers. There are far too many of some kinds and not enough of others. More than 20 years after ‘liberalisation’ began, India’s household mobility is crawling along in first gear for having made too many wrong choices.

India’s writing of the urbanised middle-class symphony

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The maintaining of and adding to the numbers of the middle class is what the growth of India’s GDP relies upon. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

The maintaining of and adding to the numbers of the middle class is what the growth of India’s GDP relies upon. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

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 parts – part one may be read here, part two is found here, and this is part three:

A small matrix of classifications is the reason for such obtuseness, which any kirana shop owner and his speedy delivery boys could quickly debunk. As with the viewing of ‘poverty’ so too the consideration of an income level as the passport between economic strata (or classes) in a city: the Ministry of Housing follows the classification that a household whose income is up to Rs 5,000 a month is pigeon-holed as belonging to the economically weaker section while another whose income is Rs 5,001 and above up to Rs 10,000 is similarly treated as lower income group.

Committees and panels studying our urban condition are enjoined not to stray outside these markers if they want their reports to find official audiences, and so they do, as did the work (in 2012) of the Technical Group on Urban Housing Shortage over the Twelfth Plan period (which is 2012-17). Central trade unions were already at the time stridently demanding that Rs 10,000 be the national minimum wage, and stating that their calculation was already conservative (so it was, for the rise in the prices of food staples had begun two years earlier).

The contributions of those in the lower economic strata (not the ‘poor’ alone, however they are measured or miscounted) to the cities of India and the towns of Bharat, to the urban agglomerations and outgrowths (terms that conceal the entombment of hundreds of hectares of growing soil in cement and rubble so that more bastis may be accommodated), are only erratically recorded. When this is done, more often than not by an NGO, or a research institute (not necessarily on urban studies) or a more enlightened university programme, seldom do the findings make their way through the grimy corridors of the municipal councils and into recognition of the success or failure of urban policy.

Until 10 years ago, it was still being said in government circles that India's pace of urbanisation was only 'modest' by world standards. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

Until 10 years ago, it was still being said in government circles that India’s pace of urbanisation was only ‘modest’ by world standards. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

And so it is that the tide of migrants – India’s urban population grew at 31.8% in the 10 years between 2001 and 2011, both census years, while the rural population grew at 12.18% and the overall national population growth rate was 17.64% with the difference between all three figures illustrating in one short equation the strength of the urbanisation project – is essential for the provision of cheap labour to the services sector for that higher economic strata upon whom the larger share of the GDP growth burden rests, the middle class.

And so the picture clears, for it is in maintaining and adding to the numbers of the middle class – no troublesome poverty lines here whose interpretations may arrest the impulse to consume – that the growth of India’s GDP relies. By the end of the first confused decade following the liberalisation of India’s economy, in the late-1990s, the arrant new ideology that posited the need for a demographic shift from panchayat to urban ward found supporters at home and outside (in the circles of the multi-lateral development lending institutions particularly, which our senior administrators and functionaries were lured into through fellowships and secondments). Until 10 years ago, it was still being said in government circles that India’s pace of urbanisation was only modest by world standards (said in the same off-the-cuff manner that explains our per capita carbon dioxide emissions as being well under the global average).

In 2005, India had 41 urban areas with populations of a million and more while China had 95 – in 2015 the number of our cities which will have at least a million will be more than 60. Hence the need to turn a comfortable question into a profoundly irritating one: instead of ‘let us mark the slums as being those areas of a city or town in which the poor live’ we choose ‘let us mark the poor along as many axes as we citizens can think of and find the households – in slum or cooperative housing society or condominium – that are deprived by our own measures’. The result of making such a choice would be to halt the patronymic practiced by the state (and its private sector assistants) under many different guises.

Whether urban residents in our towns and cities will bestir themselves to organise and claim such self-determination is a forecast difficult to attempt for a complex system such as a ward, in which issues of class and economic status have as much to do with group choices as the level of political control of ward committees and the participation of urban councillors, the grip of land and water mafias, the degree to which state programmes have actually bettered household lives or sharpened divisions.

It is probably still not a dilemma, provided there is re-education enough and awareness enough of the perils of continuing to inject ‘services’ and ‘infrastructure’ into communities which for over a generation have experienced rising levels of economic stress. At a more base level – for sociological concerns trouble industry even less, in general, than environmental concerns do – India’s business associations are doing their best to ensure that the urbanisation project continues. The three large associations – Assocham, CII and FICCI (and their partners in states) – agree that India’s urban population will grow, occupying 40% of the total population 15 years from now.

[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.]

In the land of air-conditioned cup noodle eaters

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Ever more varieties of snacks from fewer crop staples. The conversion of primary crops into processed food, and the retail chain that drops it into the consumer's basket, all this requires energy. Image: Rahul Goswami 2013

Ever more varieties of snacks from fewer crop staples. The conversion of primary crops into processed food, and the retail chain that drops it into the consumer’s basket, all this requires energy. Image: Rahul Goswami 2013

We are being misinformed and poorly entertained. There is a great big complex apparatus that tells us, as it has done for most of the last 20 years, that climate change is about science and observation, about technology and finance. This is the international apparatus. Then there is the national bedlam, comprising government, NGOs, think-tanks, research institutes and academia, industry and business, capital markets and finance. The national bedlam on climate change contains many views, some of which are directly related to the international apparatus. Our government, usually in the form of utterances by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, attempts to connect economics to everything else it thinks is important, and present the resulting mess as our climate change policy, which only provokes more bedlam.

Such is the state of affairs in India concerning climate change. Industry and finance, whatever their motivations (profit, market, subsidies, friendly politicians, and so on), are fairly consistent in what they say they want. NGOs and think-tanks – most of which function as localised versions of the international apparatus – are responsible for an outsized share of the bedlam, for they must not only protect the interests of their principals (usually in the West) but at the same time be seen to be informed, authoritative and influential at home. Ordinarily, this renders them schizophrenic, but the hullabaloo surrounding climate change in India is so loud, no-one notices the schizophrenia of the NGOs and think-tanks. Media – that is to say, vapid but noisy television and dull but verbose print commentators – sides with one group or another depending on who’s paying for the junkets.

Property, assembly-line homes and the trope of quick ownership to attract young earners. One more energy sink. Image: Rahul Goswami 2013

Property, assembly-line homes and the trope of quick ownership to attract young earners. One more energy sink. Image: Rahul Goswami 2013

The punctuations in this long-running and episodic climate change opera that we witness in India are the annual international gatherings, and the erratic policy pronouncements by the central government. For most people, struggling with food price inflation, with urban living environments choked by particulate matter, hounded by creditors and surrounded by useless gadgetry, climate change is a non-subject. And so the middle class stays out of the bedlam, for it is too busy negotiating the storied ‘growth’ of India or breathlessly seeking to profit from it in as many ways as there are flavours of potato chips. Who is left from the 1.275 billion Bharat-vaasis who can cast an appraising eye on the bit players and techno-buskers, and who can judge for themselves the consequences of their actions? We don’t know. And it is such not knowing that balances, with a taut silence, the bedlam of the posturing think-tanks, the technology fetishists, the grasping NGOs, the carbon merchants and their political cronies.

It has helped us not at all to be served, every other week or so, the bland intellectual regurgitations of India’s talking climate heads. It has helped us not at all to be preached at (faithfully reported, accompanied by appropriate editorial cant) by the United Nations whose agency, the UNFCCC, has fostered 20 years of expensive gatherings designed to deceive thinking folk. It has helped us not at all to have to correct, time and again, a government that does nothing about capitalism’s operatives who consistently attack and dismantle efforts to protect our people from environmentally destructive activities. It has helped us not at all to have dealt out to us, from one ruling coalition to the next, from a fattened ’empowered group of ministers’ to a PM’s Council that prefers fiat, missions and programmes that speak ‘renewable’ but which refuse stubbornly to talk consumption.

The balance between settlement and land. Absent entirely in our cities and towns, threatened in our villages. Image: Rahul Goswami 2013

The balance between settlement and land. Absent entirely in our cities and towns, threatened in our villages. Image: Rahul Goswami 2013

Climate change and Bharat is about none of this and it is about all of this in relation to our behaviour. Ours is the land of air-conditioned youth devouring cup noodles while gesturing with greasy fingers across smartphone screens. It is not the land where their grand-parents tilled fields, tended orchards, walked on pilgrimages and lit lanterns in simple dwellings. But this is now, and here, in urban Coimbatore and Cuttack as much as in rural Darbhanga and Dharwad, the reckoning of the effect of our 1.275 on climate has to do with the buying of cars (bigger and two per family) and the widening of roads.

It has to do with the building of housing ‘complexes’ (modern amenities and 24×7 power, but naturally), the contrived convenience factor of retail food markets whose demands deepen the monoculturing of our land mosaics, once so very diverse with coarse cereals, the myth-making of jobs and employment by cramming vast buildings with directionless migrant youth, and attaching to them (costs calculated by the second) the electronic machinery that makes online retail possible, the imagery of the flick of the switch or click of a button delivering goods and services as though from the horn of plenty, the vacuous promises of imminent superpowerdom and a techno-utopia set to the beat of Bollywood lyrics. We have indeed been misinformed.

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.]

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.]

An epidemic of misreading rain

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Who can you turn to? It’s easier to list those whom you shouldn’t turn to, the top rankers being the country’s press and television wallahs, followed at a not respectable distance by academic commentators, then come the government blokes and bureaucrats (some of whom do know the difference between isobars and salad bars, I’ll give them that). Lurking behind this cacophonous mob are the boffins of the IMD and its associated scientific chapters, a number of whom have got their sums right, but who aren’t given the space and encouragement to tell the great Bharatiya public what said public is yearning to hear simply because regulations forbid, just like it was in 1982, 1957, whenever.

As I may have mentioned before, this is Not A Good Thing. It has taken about a decade of mission mode tutoring (how the UPA bureaucrats loved that phrase, mission mode) to get the media wallahs to see the difference between weather and climate. A few may even have learned to read a wet bulb thermometer and puzzle their way through precipitation charts.

RG_rain_misreadings_2But overall, the profusion of android apps that profess to show cool graphics of clouds with lightning bolts erupting topside so that our humble ‘kisans’ know when it’s going to rain (i.e., by looking down at their screens instead of up at the sky) has not helped the Bharatiya public make more sense of less rain. We have squadrons of Insats and Kalpanas buzzing around the globe beaming pictures from the infra-red to the infra dig back home, every 60 or 90 minutes, busy enough to crash a flickr photo server, but the knowledge that said public can sift from it is sparse, rather like the rainfall over Barmer, Bikaner and Ajmer.

And so it goes, with the waiting for rain replacing with an equal banality waiting for Godot but with a far larger cast of characters, most of them insensible to the greater climatic drama being played out, 30,000 feet overhead, and at the poles, in the vast turquoise swells of the eastern Pacific where a malignant El Nino is brooding, in the Himalayan valleys where crystal zephyrs have been shoved aside by an airborne mat of PM2.5, or to the desiccation that creeps outwards from our towns and cities (7,935 of them, India’s triumphant ‘growth story’) that have enclosed sweeping hectares with cement, asphalt, and the hot foetid belches of factories and air-conditioners. GDP, they have been told, is the great liberator.

And that is why we have in place of the quiet concern of our forefathers in their dhotis, an electronic jumble of shrill alarm. “Weak monsoon intensifies drought like conditions in India” was one such headline, the text beneath finding the most ludicrous connections: “… threat of food inflation and weak rural demand in the first year of the Narendra Modi government”. Naturally, the cheerleaders of a demand-centric world cannot do otherwise.

RG_rain_misreadings_1And likewise with “Weak rains deliver India’s new Modi government its first economic challenge” that desultorily spies impending delays in the “sowing of main crops such as paddy, corn and sugarcane” and which notes mournfully that “about half of all farms lack irrigation systems” and, even worse, that “reservoir levels are only a fourth of last year’s levels”, this last despite the best efforts, ham-handed though they are, by the Central Water Commission to show India (for Bharat knows) that the reservoir levels in the 85 major reservoirs are low, but not much lower at this point in 2014 than they were in 2013. The GDP bullies dislike contrary numbers, and would go cross-eyed were someone to mischievously mention the existence of 4,845 large dams in India (the blue-ribboned 85 included) whose many water levels we don’t in fact know at all.

And similar vapidity from another quarter, which like its peers cloaks ineptitude with what it takes to be appropriate jargon, “The cumulative rainfall across the country has so far been 45 per cent below the Long Period Average (LPA) for 1951-2000” and brandishes even more frightful credentials with “a further breakdown of rain data recorded in different meteorological subdivisions shows that normal rainfall has been recorded in only seven of the 36 regions”. But which sere farmer and her wise daughters consider in their universe such things as meteorological subdivisions, when their world is what Balraj Sahni and Nirupa Roy in 1953 showed us so lambently, is no more than ‘do bigha zamin’?

But still the misreading gathers pace, as vexed fixations upon an existence merely economic chase away plain common-sense. For rains may come or rains may go, but in tractors – for so we are instructed by the agents of hardened merchants – we trust. To wit: “… tractor sales have typically expanded at a double-digit pace in the years when rains have disappointed… In the 11 years between fiscal 2003 and fiscal 2013, rains fell short by 5% or more on six occasions… In four of those six years, tractor sales grew at a double-digit pace”. Let us then leave behind our cares and go rollicking over the dusty, still dustier now, plains of the Deccan in tractors tooting red.

But a shadow of monsoon yet for Bharat, and at June’s end. It is past time that the prattling ceased and the learning began.

Holding our breath in India’s cities

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India's cities and PM2.5 - the official response has been to reject the WHO findings

India’s cities and PM2.5 – the official response has been to reject the WHO findings

The findings by the World Health Organisation on the quality of air in India’s cities are the strongest signal yet to our government (old and new, for the results of the 2014 general election will become known on 16 May) that economic ‘growth’ is a weapon that kills citizens through respiratory tract diseases and infections.

Amongst the 124 Indian cities in the new WHO database on urban air quality worldwide, one city only is at the WHO guideline for PM2.5 and one city only is just above the guidelines for PM10. As a bloc, the quality of air in India’s cities are at alarmingly high levels above the guidelines, above Asian averages (poor as they are, and even considering China’s recklessly poor record) and above world averages.

This is not a singular matter. Already, the WHO has warned that India has a high environmental disease burden, with a significant number of deaths annually associated with environmental risk factors. The Global Burden of Disease for 2010 ranked ambient air pollution as the fifth largest killer in India, three places behind household air pollution. Taken cumulatively, household and ambient air pollution constitute the single greatest risk factor that cause ill health -leading to preventable deaths – in India.

The WHO database contains results of ambient (outdoor) air pollution monitoring. Air quality is represented by ‘annual mean concentration’ (a yearly average) of fine particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5, which means particles smaller than 10 or 2.5 microns). The WHO guideline values are: for PM2.5 – 10 micrograms/m3 annual mean; for PM10 – 20 micrograms/m3 annual mean. The two charts show just how dangerously above the WHO guidelines the air quality of our cities are.

India's cities and PM10 - it is the latest amongst many signs that India's GDP growth fever is a killer.

India’s cities and PM10 – it is the latest amongst many signs that India’s GDP growth fever is a killer.

Half of India’s urban population lives in cities where particulate pollution levels exceed the standards considered safe. A third of this population breathes air having critical levels of particulate pollution, which is considered to be extremely harmful. “We are also running out of ‘clean’ places. Small and big cities are now joined in the pain of pollution,” commented Down To Earth, the environment magazine.

Typically, the official Indian response was to question the WHO findings (these were carried out in the same way in 91 countries, and we don’t hear the other 90 complaining) and to reject them. The reason is easy to spot. Global offender Number One for air pollution amongst world cities is New Delhi, a city that has been pampered as the showcase for what the Congress government myopically calls “the India growth story”.

Hence government scientists are reported to have quickly said that WHO overestimated air pollution levels in New Delhi. “Delhi is not the dirtiest… certainly it is not that dangerous as projected,” said A B Akolkar, a member secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board.

The same recidivist line was parroted by Gufran Beig, chief project scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (which otherwise does good work on the monsoon and on climate change). He is reported as having said that New Delhi’s air quality was better than Beijing’s, and that pollution levels in winter are relatively higher in New Delhi because of extreme weather events. Beig said: “The value which has been given in this (WHO) report is overestimating (pollution levels) for Delhi … the reality is that the yearly average is around 110 (micrograms).”

The WHO database has captured measurements from monitoring stations located in urban background, residential, commercial and mixed areas. The world’s average PM10 levels by region range from 26 to 208 micrograms/m3, with a world average of 71 micrograms/m3.

PM affects more people than any other pollutant. The major components of PM are sulfate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, black carbon, mineral dust and water. It consists of a complex mixture of solid and liquid particles of organic and inorganic substances suspended in the air. The most health-damaging particles are those with a diameter of 10 microns or less, which can penetrate and lodge deep inside the lungs. Chronic exposure to particles contributes to the risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as of lung cancer.

Central and state governments show no inclination to join the obvious dots. These are, that with more fuels being burned to satisfy the electricity and transport needs of a middle class now addicted to irresponsible consumption, the ‘India growth story’ is what we are choking to death on.

Poverty is a new market for management firms

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The Rs 1,336 proposed by McKinsey will neither help run this household nor provide any 'empowerment'.

The Rs 1,336 proposed by McKinsey will neither help run this household in rural Karnataka nor provide any ’empowerment’. The family’s entrepreneurship, running a cooked food stall in a part of the house, keeps it comfortably above the poverty line.

There is a new contributor to an old subject in India. The subject is poverty, and the newcomer is a management consulting company. This sort of company has no experience with such a subject, however the McKinsey Global Institute – which works as “the research arm of consulting company McKinsey” – has not been short of advisers on the matter.

What does this consulting company say and why should we keep an eye on their activity in this subject? This institute has issued a report called ‘From poverty to empowerment: India’s imperative for jobs, growth and effective basic services’. The proposal, unabashedly touted as new thinking, is that India should focus not on a poverty line but on a “more comprehensive measure of what it would take to satisfy a person’s basic needs for food, energy, housing, drinking water, sanitation, healthcare, schooling and social security”.

This new thinking – presented as a startling innovation in the same way that a new brand of running shoes or some such frippery is launched – is called an “empowerment line”. This ‘line’ has been placed at Rs 1,336 rupees a month – which McKinsey points out is about 50% higher than the national official poverty line.

McKinsey_India_poverty_coverWhat is sought to be fixed at the bidding of the current government of India and at what cost? This new report by the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that Rs 330,000 crore should be spent over the next 10 years to “empower 680 million Indians who are only marginally better than those under the poverty line”. And moreover that this spending be increased to reach 1.08 million crore by 2022 because “the government’s spending on various development schemes” does not “effectively reach much of the public”. At current rates of exchange, that is US$ 173 billion and what handsome percentage of that will be marked (or unmarked) as consultants’ fees?

Likewise, we must also examine those who have provided, as McKinsey has said, “insights and guidance” for this work. Among those listed are Subir Gokarn, director of research of Brookings India and former deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of India; Vijay Kelkar, chairman of the India Development Foundation, former chairman of India’s Finance Commission, and former finance secretary, Government of India; Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission of India; Arun Maira and B K Chaturvedi, members of the Planning Commission of India; Rakesh Mohan, India’s executive director at the International Monetary Fund; Nandan Nilekani, chairman, Unique Identification Authority of India; S Ramadorai, adviser to the Prime Minister, National Council on Skill Development; and Soli Sorabjee, former attorney-general of India.

Disconnected entirely from the dynamics of district livelihoods and factors that influence income and well-being, consulting companies such as McKinsey must not continue to be engaged by central and state governments in any capacity.

Disconnected entirely from the dynamics of district livelihoods and factors that influence income and well-being, consulting companies such as McKinsey must not continue to be engaged by central and state governments in any capacity.

These people are votaries of the thesis that GDP growth is good, and that all policy must conform to such a doctrine. Hence it becomes easier to see the connection between the direction that the UPA 1 and UPA 2 governments have taken till here, and the firm grip finance and industry have on the country’s journey into ‘development’, aided by the outpourings of management consulting companies such as McKinsey. This ‘empowerment index’ is nothing but a repetition of the desire that over the period 2010-20, urban India must create 70% of all new jobs in India and these urban jobs will be twice as productive as equivalent jobs in the rural sector, as stated in ‘India’s Urban Awakening: Building Inclusive Cities, Sustaining Economic Growth’, a report by the McKinsey Global Institute issued in early 2010.

The expectation is that as India’s cities expand, India’s economic profile will also change. In 1995, India’s GDP was divided almost evenly between its urban and rural economies. In 2008, urban GDP accounted for 58% of overall GDP. By 2030, according to the McKinsey report’s calculations, urban India will generate nearly 70% of India’s GDP. Such a transformation, if it comes to pass, is expected to deliver a steep increase in India’s per capita income between now and 2030 wherein the number of middle class households (earning between Rs 2 lakh and Rs 10 lakh a year) will increase from 32 million to 147 million. And it is against the drawing of that alarming line of minimum urbanisation drawn four years earlier, that this new line must be viewed, together with the injunction that “India can bring more than 90 percent of its people above the Empowerment Line in just a decade by implementing inclusive reforms”.