Citizenship starts with making your community better: Thoughts on the AAP manifesto

I watch Kejriwal’s antics and I laugh, along with many who make fun of him. I doubt his capabilities, I wonder about his future. But I also admire his courage. Not just him, but all those who has taken the ultimate step towards making change possible. All those who have joined the AAP, given up being ordinary citizens to become people with a cause. I am excited to live these moments of history, experience these cataclysmic changes.

I, like many of you, am afraid to commit. I am shy, scared, ambivalent. I do not understand politics as deeply as I think I should. But I do care, about myself, my family, my nation. And I firmly believe that the way ahead can only be with the participation of all of us in the democratic process, in ways deeper than just pressing the button on the EVM every now and then!

I, like many of you, am loath to take either side on the Cong vs BJP, RaGa vs NaMo debate. I see them both as part of the same problem. Even though I abhor right wight politics, I do not see the Congress being able to, at this time, provide any stability or direction. AAP’s short stint in Delhi confused me. Like many of you, I wondered if this was the end before the beginning. I also went over the various choices again and again in my head.

This morning, though, something clicked. I was tired of hearing people make wild calculations about who would win and then try to take sides as per these estimates. It seemed to be a lot like betting on the horses. This is not a horse race, I thought. I’m not gambling, I’m trying to take a rational decision about who to vote for! I decided to vote by gut feel, for the sort of politics that I am willing to live with.

I read the AAP manifesto and it echoed a lot of things I have felt and said about how I want my nation to be. It, most of all, was rooted in the idea of giving power back to the people, the idea of deepening democracy. A few analysts feel it toes the Congress line and in a sense, there is a common left of political intent. (Aside-All manifestos must talk about the same stuff; modus operandi, collect a list of current hot topics and put in a point about each!) But therein ends the similarity. In tone, the AAP document empowers citizens. The Congress manifesto reads in a top-down fashion. It sort of lords it over us, the masses. It is a critical difference, I think. The AAP’s document is also a lot   more succinct and well-organised. The BJP is still silent, as of this moment (I just checked their website).

The idea of devolution of power is problematic, especially for us Indians who have been used to someone or the other being our mai-baap for centuries. But it’s time gave a chance to party that says of itself: “It is not a party that will solve your problems. It is a party that wants Swaraj; that wants power to return to your hands, so that you can solve your own problems.”

This is just my own personal point of view. Each of you reading this is entitled to their own perspective. I am not trying to convert you. But please, those of you who follow the strange logic that they should vote for XX because they will win anyway, please rethink. Either you should just admit that you agree with XX’s political agenda, or you should follow your heart and vote for the right candidate in your constituency. Please remember, citizenship starts with making your own community better!

Quick clicks in Jaipur

I’ve just returned from a quick trip to Jaipur for a wedding and while I will take my time to process the few hundred pictures I took of that gorgeous evening, here are a few quick snapshots of a halt we took in the market to buy a few knick knacks.

All the time in the world...

All the time in the world…

_DSC3325

In siesta hour

In siesta hour

_DSC3340_DSC3344_DSC3348

Lovers click each other, man watches them, tourists stroll by...quintessential Jaipur!

Lovers click each other, man watches them, tourists stroll by…quintessential Jaipur!

 

 

India is still a good story

As election fever grips the nation with Rajasthan, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh in poll mode; as the mind grapples with the several grey areas in the charges of sexual assault leveled at erstwhile respected and now much maligned citizens; as I worry about a nation pushing its multitudes of poor further to the sidelines in its current state of enamor for a particular strain of neo-liberal thinking…

In the midst of all this, I read with delight the news about India’s Mars spacecraft successfully exiting Earth’s orbit on its way to the Red Planet. I realized I had been worrying in my subconscious mind about the craft going off track and the profound sense of relief and pride that washed over me was both amusing and heartening.

I have to remind myself everyday that India is a good story. Not just because it is my country and I have more than my share of patriotism inside me, but because I see immense positives everyday. We are not a nation that has given up, we are on the street trying our best everyday. I refuse to believe in that self-created image of Indians as a people happy with status quo. No, we are restless for change and that is hugely hopeful. Let’s not give into the media-created hype of negativity, but look around us at all the success stories and brave attempts being made every day by ordinary people who want to live a good life, do a good job and leave a sound legacy behind for an undoubtedly capable generation to take on.

Designed to fail! The truth about the Indian city #urbanization #governance

I am not terribly excited by conspiracy theories. But when reality stares at you in the face too often and reality resembles a gigantic conspiracy theory, it is hard to ignore it. And that’s when life gets exciting!

I had my curtain raiser moment this morning, when I was attending a discussion on JNNURM and Indian cities this morning in which a group of very credible citizens and activists from Gurgaon were interacting with experts from rating agency ICRA to see how data could help influence a more robust citizen movement to improve this city.

What made this morning’s experience different from other presentations was the clarity it offered on core issues that have bothered me for a while. In our sector, we constantly run into systemic issues. Working with the government and running up against non-transparent ways of functioning is one source of frustration, of course. But more than that it is the growing awareness with every assignment you work on, that every inefficiency is part of a carefully orchestrated alternative system that is designed to render the official processes non-functional and redundant.

This is certainly true of Indian cities. As an entity, the city is getting short shrift in the Indian bureaucratic and political system. Despite being of enormous importance, cities are largely poorly governed, lagging behind in infrastructure and offer low quality of life and poor efficiencies.

The big questions we constantly ask are:

  • Why are cities such a low priority for state government despite the growing importance of the ‘urban’ as a source of income and growth?
  • If urbanization is a reality, as we know it to be today, why are city governments not more autonomous and powerful? Why is the Mayor a persona non grata in the Indian city?

Without going into a long historic discussion of this issue (one that has been written about extensively), let me offer the few points that emerged that struck me as interesting.

Shailesh Pathak from SREI, who has  many years of government service behind him, offered an interesting thesis. One that surmises that the growing importance of cities threatens the existing political establishment. Therefore, despite the 74th amendment, attempts to convert to systems where the Mayor is directly elected and therefore a powerful representative have actively been reversed or suppressed. He offered Maharashtra as an example.

Moreover, Shailesh also explained that the system of rotational reservation in city government ensures that councilors cannot stand for elections from the same ward twice in a row. It is therefore, we surmise, impossible to build a strong electoral base and commitment to a single ward and quite hard to get re-elected. This effectively prevents a class of city-level powerful political leadership from rising and MLAs and MPs can continue to be centers of power, often stepping in to give largesse or take decisions that councilors have been pushing for months without success. This sort of situation has been corroborated during my discussions with councilors in Gurgaon, including Ward 30 councilor Nisha Singh who was present at this morning’s meeting.

Cities at present are seen by State governments as the proverbial milking cow. Sources of revenue, to be blunt, both above the board and largely below it! Given the short term view that politicians usually have (by definition, I might add), this revenue is maximized in the ‘growth’ phase of a city, when land is available to be urbanized, zoned as per a Master Plan and much money is to be made for those who have access to this privileged information beforehand! Even above the table, money is to be made building real estate and setting up infrastructure, providing services, etc. Once this growth spurt is over, governments (read politicians and bureaucrats) tend to lose interest in performing the mundane functions of governance and service provisioning, as there are no big bucks in this any more.

In most cities across India, this is the situation. Of all the items that must be under the local government’s ambit, as per the 74th amendment, the most vital functions of urban planning, development control and infrastructure development are usurped by the State government using parastatal agencies like development authorities. The city is reduced to small functions, usually to be performed in a fractured landscape of jurisdictions. This is intensely frustrating for all those who operate at the city level (planners, bureaucrats, politicians, civil society, professionals, etc) and the general sentiment becomes one of cynicism and despair.

We cannot continue to live this paradox in which cities full of energy, enterprise and promise are log-jammed into an uncompromising political scenario. Yet, every conference and talk you attend, every report that is released re-iterates this situation of extremes, but offers absolutely no solutions! Take for example, this news item.

Delhi HT BoylePaul Boyle, who heads UK-based ESRC, spins the big story about the future of Delhi’s development as a mega city even as he outlines nearly everything that contributes to life as we desire it (all sorts of infrastructure basically) as a ‘problem’! I find this sort of position absolutely ridiculous and a fallout of a vision that is only driven by economic development figures like the GDP without an eye out for overall inclusive growth. But the essential message is about the importance of the city as a driver of growth, which we cannot and must not deny.

We have no choice but to ensure that cities function well given the trend towards urbanization that we cannot stem (another fact that the political class keeps turning a blind eye to). If cities in India need to meet their potential, it is pretty clear that some significant changes need to happen. In political mindsets, in legal and administrative processes, in institutional mechanisms and in the attitudes of urban citizens who must be more discerning and more demanding for a quality of life that they most certainly deserve.

The bald story: We need migrants and we need to talk about diversity

The buzz on migration has been growing the past few years, but it is hard to connect the dots on economic, social and right-based approaches the to the issue and even harder to understand migration in the context of urbanization and globalization, both forces that are fueling and shaping the mobility of human beings across the world.

The tragedy off Italian island Lampedusa with the drowning of 300 African migrants served to highlight the conflicts and contradictions, and how confused our understanding is on the issue of migration. This morning, The Hindu carries an excellent interview of Francois Crepeau, who is United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants. A few points he states helped me put things in perspective and am paraphrasing the highlights here for you.

1- Economies need migrants (widely rewfering to low-wage, illegal migrants in the international, esp European context) because they do unskilled, low-paid jobs that no one else wants to do and are regularly exploited while doing so

2- They subsidize industries (he cites the example of strawberry picking) that have low margins. If we really want to do away with illegal migration, we would need to subsidize or improve these industries, not clamp down on migration, which clearly is the backbone on which these industries survive. This sort of analogy holds equally true of internal migrants from rural areas to cities, except that there is no question of illegality (except for countries like China where systems like hukou restrict mobility).

3- The sovereignty of nations is hugely compromised by globalization and there is a sense of loss of control, hence an over emphasis on the protection of boundaries and clamping down on migration. It’s a misfit solution to a complex problem.

4- The plain fact is that politicians are “not up to the task of telling their populations that we need migrants-doctors abd engineers, but also we need low-skilled or unskilled migrants.” Crepeau states that this is because the discussion on migrants becomes about national identity and societies are simply not ready to accept change. There is therefore the need for a great discussion on “diversity policies- on who we are and how we see ourselves in 50 or hundred years.”

I couldn’t agree more. We do not need to see migration from a perspective of paranoia and suspicion. We cannot protect our boundaries of caste, clan, class forever. We, in India and especially in urbanizing areas of India, need a civic engagement and dialogue about diversity. In our schools and colleges, in our drawings rooms, in our workplaces, we need to talk about inclusion, humanity and human rights, we need to learn to accept the ‘other’. If we refuse to do so and continue to build the walls higher around us, we will leave behind for our children a world unlivable- a battleground, a barren waste.

Internal migration and urbanization: Why we need a nuanced view of how these intersect

UNESCO’s Internal Migration in India Initiative launched an important publication yesterday (see here for details). ‘Social Inclusion of Internal Migrants in India‘ draws focus to an issue we often sweep under the carpet, asking us to confront head-on the issue of India’s large population of internal migrants- some 326 million, close to 30% of India’s population as per estimates by the NSSO. I’ve been working in the area of migration and as an architect and urban planner, I see substantial linkages between urbanization and migration. Linkages that we need to scrutinize minutely if we are to create urban living environments that are equitable and enjoyable to all of us.

ImageTo begin with, we need to understand which urban areas migrants are opting to move to. In this regard, these figures from the report stand out- 43% of Delhi’s population comprises internal migrants. However, it is not just the metros, but cities like Surat (58%), Ludhiana (57%), Faridabad (55%), Nashik (50%), Pune (45%), Lucknow (28%), Patna (27%) and Kanpur (19%) that need to gear up to support migrant populations urgently. Cities often without strong planning and governance frameworks, and low capacities to create and implement sensitive city level planning programs. Yesterday Minister Jairam Ramesh mentioned, for instance, that data from the 2011 census highlights the presence of 3900 Census towns that fulfill various characteristics of being urban but are still managed by gram panchayats! Clearly, these places have no way of understanding or managing the rapid changes they are experiencing and we see a catastrophic impact on social cohesion as well as the environment. There is no doubt, therefore, that urbanization in the country needs to be seen with new eyes and local municipal bodies be strengthened substantially.

In all this, the migrant plays a significant role as a contributor to the economies of the cities that receive them. As we go about our daily lives, whatever we may be busy with, we interact with migrants across social class and from various parts of the country. We are migrants as well, often enough. The discussion at the book launch yesterday therefore, distinguishes between educated migrants that opt to migrate in search of better opportunities (like many of us) and those who need to migrate in order to find paid employment; in other words, they migrate as a survival strategy and this is often termed as distress migration. In that sense, the story of migration into urban India becomes a story of class, in fact another dimension to the class issues that urban Indians are facing on a day to day basis.

I make two observations out of this. As a citizen, I see a keener analysis of migration as a way to develop a more nuanced approach to how we lead our lives in the city. I have written often in this blog about middle class bias, our suspicion of the ‘other’ in our midst (on intolerance here and on the need for idealism here) and also of the shrinking of public spaces that help us interact with people from various walks of life (on community driven public spaces here) and retain our tolerant attitude towards those who are unlike us. Bringing to the fore the stories of migrant families, their experiential journey as they adjust to urban lives is an effective way of highlighting that they are not so much unlike us, their aspirations are not so different, and it may not be unthinkable to treat them in a humane manner and welcome them into the community. A friend told me yesterday that upper class women (madams) in the Durga Puja pandal in my neighborhood had literally shooed away Bengali women who are migrant domestic workers; the same women who are their support system in taking care of their homes, who cook, clean and babysit for them! Clearly, this sort of bias needs to be addressed.

Second, only by being able to understand the type of migrants in a specific city can city planners hope to cater to the needs of the future. Cities like Gurgaon may have, unfortunately, missed the boat. But all those new urban areas scattered across the nation might benefit hugely from research that creates fine and nuanced distinctions between circular/seasonal migrants and more permanent ones, as well as from studies that map migrant consumption choices  of both goods and services.  Urbanizing areas need to have in place systems to monitor incoming migrants. It is debatable, but perhaps the Aadhaar could be a means of tracking data as well as providing portable services to migrants, as was discussed at yesterday’s event.

Tenement rooms are taken on rent by migrants privately in informal areas like urban villages in the absence of formal supply of affordable rentals

Tenement rooms are taken on rent by migrants privately in informal areas like urban villages in the absence of formal supply of affordable rentals

My research focuses on housing, which is one of the most challenging issues cities are facing today. Nuanced data on migration (in addition to other forms of data on employment, labour, industry, demographics, etc),  is imperative to be able to decide what sort of housing must be planned in a city- how much rental and how much ownership, what sort of affordability slabs must these be in, etc. The role of governments in this is critical, as land is a crucial resource. The earlier we recognize the urgency of this need and use it to create new data collection, analysis and planning systems for upcoming urban areas, the better we will be able to reap the benefits of urbanization, as indeed as a nation we should and will.

If idealism were to die, what would we live for? #inclusiveness #politics #Indian youth

Harish Khare’s editorial in The Hindu titled This perverse rage against the poor today really struck a chord. He writes about the inherent class bias in a situation when the media blames the falling Sensex on the passing of the Food Security Bill, he writes about the irrationality of the rage against the poor and the belief that the poor are weighing the nation down when in fact India needs to distance itself from the needy and focus on economic development. I am aware that many people I know would regard Khare’s views as biased ‘Congressi’, ‘pseudo-secular’ rants, but I do think they merit some introspection.

An irresponsible media has made it easier still for an already isolated middle class and elite population to shrug off concerns about equity and inclusiveness. Yesterday, I was struck by a few conversations with fellow teachers as well as students as I was teaching a research seminar at SPA (School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi) of which I am an alumnus.

As one teacher worked with his group, advocating the democratic use of common resources in the context of sustainability, another called him a socialist and exclaimed, “But capitalism works, doesn’t it?”. The students looked on, quite confused and even alarmed about the sudden turn of debate away from architecture and design to politics!

A short while later, as my group hotly debated the place of the urban poor in slums in a futuristic ‘smart’ city, one of them lamented in the most heartfelt manner: “Why is everything in India always a problem with no solutions, except idealistic impossible ones?”

The conversation went something like this: You can start with any development related issue in India and the discussion would boil to your belief system- whether it agrees with what the nation’s Constitution started out with, a socialist welfare State, placing our collective political believe firmly left off center. Or whether it veers to the right or further left. In the 67 years of being independent, India has naturally meandered along, testing this belief system, challenging it, twisting it, etc. Young people across the country, however, are unable to contribute meaningfully to national growth, frustrated by inefficiencies of the State and driven to cynicism by the apparent unwillingness of the political and bureaucratic class to really put their weight behind this belief system. The pursuit of material goals solely for personal gain, the perception of oneself as the productive worker and nothing more, not only makes the citizen feel useful but also absolved her of the responsibility of doing more, and even thinking more!

My students are highly idealistic. I can see it in their eyes. The need to dream and believe in a better collective future. I also see the skepticism and much of the angst is about resolving these two conflicting emotions and figuring out how they could play a role. I still feel the same. So do many of us. We refuse to let our dreams die, but are steadily reminded of the futility of these idealistic notions.

If idealism were to die, then what would be living for?

I, for one, would find it quite hard. And so I persevere. To instill in young people an empathy towards those who did not get a head-start in life like we did, is a starting point. To address the rage we feel about the world around us, to deconstruct its origins and emerge with a better understanding of how to address it, is another step in the right direction. To remind ourselves everyday that we have a right to dream and no one can take that from us. And to train ourselves to listen to the other point of view, for even those who speak in a very different voice may in fact be saying the same thing!

Favellas/jhuggis deserve support not scorn from professionals #urbanism #housing

Those of us who do not believe in the idea of eradicating slums as a solution for post-modern cities are often seen as crazies who are getting away with romanticizing the slum without having any ‘solutions’ on offer. However, globally the tide is turning away from evictions and relocations as strategies to capture occupied lands and satisfy the land requirements for upscale real estate. Housing is increasingly being seen as a right and forced eviction of residents as a clear violation of human rights. This, along with rising costs, formed the pillars of the widespread protests in Brazil against the preparations for the upcoming football World Cup and Olympics.

But because governments can no longer bring on the bulldozer without undue bad press (unfortunately in India, I think the English press is hopelessly bourgeoise, with little empathy for the poor), they often resort of subtle forms of bullying. For instance, in Vila Autodrome, a favella in Rio de Janeiro that has recently won a major battle to prevent eviction, residents were being put under undue pressure from government employees to waive their current leases and vacate their homes. The story of this favella’s pursuit of their right to culturally adequate housing involves considerable community organization through the tool of resident assemblies, alongside legal battles and advocacy. More importantly, the struggle included the creation of a Plano Popular by the community that listed the city’s violations of their rights, but also addressed what support they needed to upgrade and retrofit their community to make it safer and more liveable.

The favella that has stood up to the Mayor in Rio

The favella that has stood up to the Mayor in Rio

The plan was supported and informed by architects and planners in the city’s universities and this really struck me. I teach in SPA, one of the premier educational institutes in the city of Delhi and perhaps in all of India, and I have not heard of any such initiative to reach out to and partner with the city’s low-income communities to help them achieve a better standard of life. I do not intend to criticize my alma mater in particular, it’s just that we in India seem to not have a professional culture of reaching out and delving into the problem. Rather, we tend to theorize and shun the real issues and echo the most politically correct sentiments of the time- slum free India, sanitize the city, relocation and the like.

A DDA official recently told me that the government is now aiming to redevelop slums, often relocating them within 500 metres of their current location. Though he did not say so, we know that slum dwellers are to be offered high rise apartment living in place of their current low-rise high-density existence (my Hindu piece on this, read here). It’s not rocket science to know that this is only a form of gentrification and high-rises will rapidly become middle class homes, while the poor go back to the slum (squatting on untenable flood-prone land or renting in an existing slum, fueling more unsafe vertical additions). Clearly, this is not a solution.

Vertical slums in Latin America, born out of relocating favella residents into high rise apartments

Vertical slums in Latin America, born out of relocating favella residents into high rise apartments

The need is therefore, to find a way to retrofit/reshape irregular housing to make it safer. So we might need to widen a street to put in a sewer line, or find off-the-grid technological solutions for water supply and sewerage, or train masons in communities to build better, etc. Furthermore, we need more engagement of a diverse set of actors to crack this problem of housing the urban poor. And an open mind.

We need community enablers, we need policymakers and planners, and we need bridge groups who can take ideas and solutions to the community and bring feedback to the planning table. There is plenty of energy out there to make this happen, if governments would be more open to the idea, if educational institutions wouldn’t shy away from engagement and if we were all not so hopelessly taken in by the idea of a perfectly ‘planned’, sanitized, slum free city.

The slum in the city, the slum and the city, the slum the city.....We really need to find a more engaged way to 'solve' this 'problem'!

The slum in the city, the slum and the city, the slum is the city…..We really need to find a more engaged way to ‘solve’ this ‘problem’!

In a related rant, I often wonder, after having been through the Commonwealth Games debacle would the middle and elite classes in Delhi be enthused if India were to bid to host the Olympics in or around the city? Or would we also take to the streets to ensure that  grand development and infrastructure must not come in at the cost of the poor? I live in hope!

I’d like to acknowledge the contribution of MIT-based researcher Caleb Harper to this post, whose sharp insights helped me put a lot of what I knew in perspective. Thanks Caleb!

Savar, Thane, Delhi- Continuing building collapses and our moral imperative

Each time a building collapses, our team at micro Home Solutions is severely pained. In the early years, each collapse meant long discussions about the possible causes and solutions. Now we know that the reasons are obvious–poor construction quality, no structural precautions, low lying areas prone to flooding, overloading, etc.

As I read last night about the latest 4-story building that has collapsed in north-east Delhi that has killed one and injured 14 people, I remembered this excellent post by Architect Marco Ferrario, co-founder of mHS on the company blog that reminds us (professionals, government, citizens) of the moral imperatives of building unsafe structures and putting lives at risk. Am reproducing it here and the original can be found here.

I must put in a word here for how impressed I have been with Marco’s sense of empathy and dedication to the cause of building safety. Far away from his home in Italy, he has spent several years in India, documenting and finding solutions for self-built settlements that represent perhaps the most pressing challenge and opportunity for Indian urbanization. Thank you, Marco, for teaching me so much :)

Savar and Thane highlight a moral imperative we cannot ignore

May 1, 2013 by Marco Ferrario

In the last month we have been witness to two building collapses. Or at least two have been widely covered by the media. The first one happened in Thane (Mumbai), with a toll of 74 lives. The second one happened last week in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Over 400 people lost their lives, and the death count is still rising.

The Rana Plaza collapse was the worst industrial disaster in Bangladesh's history.: Photo courtesy of libcom.org

The Rana Plaza collapse was the worst industrial disaster in Bangladesh’s history.: Photo courtesy of libcom.org

These events happen quite regularly in rapidly growing South Asian cities, often involving small buildings in low-income, semi-formal and informal neighborhoods.

There is not an official record of such events, but a graph recording their incidence over recent years would inevitably show an upward trend, with an increasingly exponential shape.

These collapses are not usually investigated and their causes are explained with generic reasons. In Mumbai the media reported ‘use of substandard materials’ as the cause. In Dhaka they are simply talking about ‘bad construction’.

‘Bad construction’ is not far from the truth. But what the media must realize, and what communities in informal settlements may or may not be aware of, is that this ‘bad construction’ is the rule rather than the exception.

Normally, buildings in the same settlement are built in the same way. It is likely that only marginal variables (level of use and degradation, slight differences in amount or quality of materials) leave buildings around the collapsed garment factory in Savar or the collapsed apartment building in Thane still standing. It is alarming how minimal these differences really are.

Collapses caused by heavy vertical loads, as in these recent cases, are relatively rare. But how will buildings in these types of settlements behave in the case of horizontal loads (i.e. earthquakes)?

In India there are many examples of earthquake-resistant structures, especially in the Himalayas, where timber and stone have been used together effectively. However, India’s current urbanization, with the cost of land rising and only tiny plots available for low-income dwellers, leaves only one option: going vertical. Settlements one storey high 10 years ago are now full of three- and four-storey buildings.

The other critical factors are materials used and construction method. Poorly designed RC (reinforced concrete) frames, with fired clay brick walls, constitute the majority of these buildings. The problem is that RC structures require design input from engineers, who, along with architects, are not working in low-income settlements.

There is a dramatic difference between a well-engineered structure and one that is not. Sometimes adding one column in the whole structure can make the difference. These units are built by masons and builders without technical knowledge. Often the basics of construction are not respected.

Because for different reasons—social and economic being the most relevant—architects and engineers are not serving these neighborhoods, we all need to find an alternative solution to address the problem. Especially given that these self-built settlements house over 60% of people in Indian cities. Cities, in particular informal settlements, are growing at steady peace with higher and higher multi-storey buildings.

One positive note is that large-scale impact could come from simple interventions: dissemination of information on safe building practices, and more mason training for construction teams that work in informal settlements. The government should play a key role in this. Furthermore, a simpler building code and monitoring system should be implemented, since the current system doesn’t even work in formal settlements. All this requires an accountable government willing to take responsibility and invest in safety.

The cost of inaction is almost impossible to estimate.

Comments on social engineering and urbanization in China, India

I won’t say I am shocked by the news that China is moving 250 million rural residents to newly created towns and cities over the next 12 years. In keeping with an economic policy restructuring that aims to rely less on exports and increase domestic demand, China is re-engineering the lives of rural people in a bid to convert them into urban consumers who will boost their economy in the future. As rural homes are bulldozed and replaced by highrises, people’s lives are being thrown into turmoil and I can only imagine the sense of loss and outrage being experienced by those who are the guinea pigs of this economic experiment.

It seems to be standard for governments, not just in China, to simply decide what’s good for thousands of their citizens; no skin off their backs, just a steely face and a shrug!

It’s not just China, where in the absence of democratic institutions, it is perhaps easier to implement sweeping decisions like this. When Delhi decided to relocate slum dwellers to far-flung resettlement colonies before the Commonwealth Games 2010, it also subscribed to a notion that world-class cities were those that did not have slums, were exceedingly clean and I would say, devoid of anything spontaneous at all! What gives governments the right to take decisions that benefit a small minority in the name of the greater common good, decisions that often follow no proven success mantra (indeed defy everything suggested by previous experience!) and put those who are poor and disadvantages through suffering and misery? When such massive changes are carried out without consultation, without debate and without any window for recourse, it violates not only democratic principles, but humanistic ones as well. What is the hope then for societies, indeed civilizations, based on the premise of exploitation?

Yes, yes, I know. The poor cannot hope to move toward prosperity if there is no economic growth and therefore they need to sacrifice their lives at the altar of national growth. I am familiar with that line of thinking and I find it hard to agree.

Urban planners like me are trained in the great tradition of modernism and taught that everything can be planned. I have come to believe that there is much to be said for not planning, simply leaving things be. A balanced perspective would mean that we neither over-plan, nor abandon planning completely. We try to propose the future based on an informed understanding of the present, including physical and socio-economic conditions as well as aspirations of the people whose lives will be impacted by what you propose. This is not just a question of human rights, but also a matter of common sense, if our objective is to build a society where people can hope to lead happy lives and contribute meaningfully to the collective progress of their communities, cities, nations. I am suggesting that the desire for growth needs to be balanced with measures that allow people to opt for alternatives ways of life.

In China, would it not be possible to identify areas slated for urbanization and then allow options for farmers to either opt for urban jobs by retraining for them and changing their lifestyle, or be offered alternative space where they can continue to live rural lives. I am sure enough young people would opt to join to new economy, while others would still be able to live lives of dignity and earn enough to feed themselves. This way, reports say, the old and the infirm are reduced to playing mah-jong all day without having any useful role to play in these new cities and towns.