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.

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.

Growing cities: Are there patterns at all?

It’s a question urbanists obsess about all the time. Is there a pattern in how cities grow? If we can find one, we would be in a much better position to plan, manage and grow our urban areas, we argue. But cities are shifty, complex creatures. My own take has always been that we can shape cities in small ways, but mostly our role as city planners, managers or designers is to manage change. I tend to be very skeptical of large, sweeping gestures and strongly feel that community-led neighbourhood level changes, incremental design is the right way to view cities.

This study by Prof Beveridge at Queens College, therefore, was very interesting to me. It compares three schools of urbanist theory in the US and finds that while the conventional patterns remained true in the first half of the 20th century and even up until the post-war era, recent decades see no real patterns coming forth. Cities are behaving in more complex, random ways.

A study of cities elsewhere, in India specifically, would be needed to understand the global significance of these findings, but to me it only confirms my belief that we urban practitioners need to drastically change the way we are looking at cities. What do you think?

Sharing experiences, opinions on informal urbanism

Hearing from practitioners, government officials, researchers and funders on their experiences in engaging with informality in cities has been quite invigorating. We have spent the last couple of months gearing up for this workshop at micro Home Solutions, mostly focusing on getting on board the right partners and then figuring out logistics. I must say it has been a most satisfying experience to see it come together well.

Informality was a contested term at the day’s first session where URBZ took the lead. Rahul and Matias took exception to the connotation that everything in the informal realm is sans form,the objected to the dichotomies of formal-informal, urban-rural that we cling to and called for a more nuanced understanding if the terms used. The stance generated a lot of debate and their presentation of their Homegrown Cities project fascinated me, in which the strategy is to support local contractors and crowdfund to support cost of expertise, and thus construct houses in informal areas, ultimately to form a cooperative of homegrown homes and a neighbourhood that sustains itself through self-organisation. Quite an undertaking! Be sure to visit their Facebook page and website to know more and contribute!

Nithya and Vinaya from Transparent Chennai had put together a short exercise for all of us. The task of filling out a form to apply for a water and sewage connection scheme by the Chennai water utility as though we were one of three persons they had profiled! Threw up many points. Complexity of paperwork, hidden costs to avail the scheme, eligibility issues, a huge push towards rent seeking behaviour because of the complexities and loopholes. Ineffective for the common man and certainly excludes slum dwellers who really need these services badly! Complimenting this exercise were comments from Patrick Heller on his research on citizenship with regards to accessing basic services. Julia King’s walk through of providing community based sanitation in Savda Ghevra, a resettlement colony outside Delhi opened the doors for participation by DUSIB (Delhi Shelter improvement Board), which was a great value add and gave the chance for us to ask difficult questions from government officers face to face. I must say all the exchanges were surprisingly respectful and honest.

The concluding session for the day on access to finance saw a micro finance player and National Housing Bank present diametrically opposite approaches to lending for the poor. Lalit Kumar from NHB did a great job of fielding questions from the audience on why schemes like the credit guarantee fund or refinancing for construction of affordable housing are unsuitable for the incremental situation. The takeaway from this was that precious little can be done with formal finance unless govt moves to grant legal titles to slum dwellers. The question of why it is such a no-no to experiment with higher risk when MFIs have has such good experiences with repayment was well taken. Sandeep Farias from Elevar Equity who was moderating the session along with CPR‘s Partha Mukhopadhyay, suggested an ‘incremental’ build up towards finance schemes that incorporate more risk. Quite appropriate, given the day’s discussions

Looking forward to tomorrow’s sessions on building safety and disaster preparedness in incremental communities and a closing panel that discusses ways forward for policy.

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.

From hopelessness to a sense of purpose: Musings on a sunny November day

Self-confidence and motivation levels have a lot to do with how I feel, on any given day. Small things can disturb my usual sense of buoyant well being. This morning, I woke up feeling I’m not doing enough with my life. It was a holiday for the kids and all the little creatures were out in the park, soaking in the sunshine and running around happily. Watching them, I felt strangely disconnected.

It was a return to a phase that I went through a while ago, when I constantly doubted myself and lived in a state of anxiety. I was transitioning from being an entrepreneur and a content writer to I didn’t quite know what. I did know that urbanism is something I wanted to work in and that I thought about urban issues all the time. But to get a foot into the field when I had been outside it for years was quite a challennge.

Today, I have already been working in the low income housing sector for a year and a half and am actively researching urban issues related to poverty and housing, plus teaching a few hours a week. And in general, I feel a huge sense of achievement about all of this.

However, I do sorely regret the absence from the sector and feel it acutely at certain moments. The grounding in research that my masters degree gave me has been blurred inside my head and I find myself groping to find the level of clarity I need in my work. And of course, I’ve missed developments in theory and practice that happened in the interim years between graduating and returning to the field.

Focus has always been a problem. I am given to see the inter-relatedness among things and to narrow my thinking down to a single hypothesis is daunting; worse, I don’t believe narrowed-down hypotheses reflect reality in most cases, but I also know this sort of narrowing needs to be done in the interests of arriving at conclusions!

I’ve spent the day, and indeed the week, worrying about my naivette in trying to find low-income housing solutions in a city like Gurgaon, where land prices are prohibitive, the development pattern driven by private developers and political will is seriously in doubt. This sort of work is bound to push me into a sense of hopelessness, helplessness; but I need to believe that this research will yield something of use. I need to constantly remind myself that it is through constant endeavor to challenge existing notions of practice that new solutions might emerge. And most all, I feel strongly that we need to listen to the people we wish to accommodate, help, include in the development process. I would be happy if my research would offer a clear picture of what migrants experience and aspire to with respect to housing when they come from rural (and often far flung) areas of the country to a confusing, alienating city like Gurgaon. The findings would help us think about how we could help them, as planners, as city administrators, as politicians, as citizens….I do, despite the chaos, believe there is a possibility to weave government, private sector and civil society together to create a more inclusive and sustainable model of growth.

Focus on affordable housing can transform cities

A politician and two architect-planners addressing urbanism and debating planning and vision. What could be more interesting than that? To me, as an architect and urban planner, this was a vital session here that opened people’s minds to a burning issue we rarely spend time on.
Amid talk of aesthetics, planning, politics and urban fabric, they keep coming back to the core problem if housing poor people. We need to stop pushing the poor out or keeping them in substandard living spaces. I Sn glad to hear KT speak up for the need to envision the poor as a part of urban economy. Find ways to help them afford their own homes. Design homes that suit them and not create homes that are unsuitable and impractical. I am happy to hear both KT Ravindran and David Gensler talk bout out high density low rise as a viable option.
The interesting aspect that is coming through is the idea that government needs to play a significant role in creating this affordable housing stock. Free or subsidised housing may still be the only option for some sections of the society.
CM Maharashtra Prithviraj Chauhan speaks eloquently about the bed for integrated townships away from existing cities. A new policy is on the anvil from him.
Our work in housing at the micro Home Solutions shows us that helping the poor directly can be very effective in combating some if these issues. But the larger vision still needs to be local, in context and solutions will differ slightly from city to city. Urgently, municipalities need sharper minds and more power to steer growth in unique directions!

The myth of orderliness- Aug 7, 2012

Planned developments are overrated and certainly alien to human nature. People at work were amused to hear that coming from an urban planner. Aren’t you the folks who want the straight lines, the zoning, the setbacks and height restrictions? Aren’t you the people who say planning creates better lives? Well, yes. But not the way it’s being done. In India, we are clearly happier having more of a say in the places where we live. I argue that is but natural and I support it by observing children at play.
I was clearing up Aadyaa’s toys today and I noticed she had a strange assortment of items placed together, no doubt essential components of an elaborate role play. There was one wooden circular piece from the carrom set, a few pieces from a set of interlinking blocks, a plastic horse, a teddy, pieces from a puzzle and so on and so forth. My mommy brains immediately noted that I need to set their toys in order someday, restore the various pieces to their own sets, etc. The fact that many fellow mums maintain impeccably well sorted playrooms for their children has always given me a complex! But then I stopped. Was I not, by doing do, imposing my adult sense of order on my child? She was not throwing away things or spoiling them. In fact, she was being creative by mixing sets up to create infinite new combinations and therefore new ways to play with the same bunch of toys. And instead of encouraging her, I was planning to (pun intended) simplify her wonderfully and effortlessly complex world.
And that’s what city plans do as well. Attempt to oversimplify urbanisation, which is an incredibly complex process. Sure planning needs to ensure adequate infrastructure and inclusion and perhaps offer broad guidelines, but beyond that there are surely ways to encourage people to create built form to suit their own lives?
Ever watched kids build Lego? Only the ones over instructed by adults build long straight towers. Usually, kids create complex forms that explore many dimensions, that are interesting and exciting. As an urban practitioner, this is something I think about a lot. How do we take the best of the two systems (planned and spontaneous) and marry them into something we can all live with and enjoy?

Affordable housing is tricky the world over! Dark clouds and the silver lining- July 25, 2012

Affordable housing in clearly a tough nut to crack. Everywhere.

I was interested to read the following lines in The Global Urbanist’s feature titled ‘Is vertical living a solution for London’s strained housing stock?’, which discusses the possibility of densifying areas of London to cater to the growing demand for housing:

Underpinning the density debate is the politics of compromise. Dollar Bay in Canary Wharf, a 31-storey luxury tower providing 111 high specification apartments, was granted planning permission in part because it contributed 51% of the area of the scheme towards affordable housing. The reason it could achieve this, however, was because it was provided off-site, with the majority of its 59 affordable housing units approximately one mile away. Many schemes don’t even identify a site, simply providing funds towards a local authority’s affordable housing budget; King’s Reach Tower contributed approximately 22 million pounds, for example.

To me, working in the Indian context, this is both a hopeful and a hopeless statement. Hopeful because it offers solutions- asking developers of high-end high-rise housing to provide affordable housing stock or contribute to a fund for the same. Hopeless because it smacks of the same sort of social divide (note, the affordable stock is in another location) and ‘politics of compromise’ as here in India. Of course, the management and execution of a fund for affordable housing in India would in itself be a nightmare, with issues like weak will, corruption and scams being the fate of most well-intentioned public schemes.

Dollar Bay, the 31-storey slim slim tower, is being advertised as a ‘new icon’ for Canary Wharf. It was given planning permission (partly) because it created affordable housing units a mile away.

The other article authored by Dr. Mathew Gebhardt of Portland State University that came to me today via realism.in (a great initiative, doing a super job of creating relevant information) discussed experiences in the United States with mixed financing for affordable housing projects. The piece simply blew my mind. It mirrored so closely what we are trying to do in India that I realized it was critical to study experiences elsewhere very very closely, not just experiences in other so-called developing nations like Brazil, Argentina and Thailand, but also in the developed world, where the struggle to create affordable housing has had a longer history.

The challenges are rarely where you expect them to be. The vast differences in the aspirations and needs of low-income families vi-a-viz middle-income families is true of the US as much as in India. Genhrat writes: There is a tension between the need to design market rate units with high end amenities to meet market demand and lender criteria and affordable units in the most cost effective manner to meet program requirements. As an example, en-suite bathrooms or air conditioning might make sense for market rate units but are unnecessary and unallowable additions for affordable units. We face the exact same type of issues while designing affordable homes here and community inputs are key.

However, even when you have developers who might be willing to come forth and enter this segment, they are challenged by a complex regulatory environment, the access to finance is complicated, incentives are often unavailable because of multiple schemes that rule each other out! We see this in India all the time. Gebhart details the same experiences in the US as well. Complicated programs that make accessing public funds confusing and difficult or mixed finance schemes that are equally or even more risky than competing projects are not likely to attract the number or diversity of developers or lenders that are necessary to address significant affordable housing shortfalls.

Sigh! This is a tough nut indeed… and it is clear we need a lot more experimentation and collaborative thinking. Plus, a comprehensive and intelligent documentation of what has happened and is happening to guide future work.

Urban villages fill the gaps precisely because they aren’t zoned! Amid pots and basins in Sikanderpur – May 4, 2012

A few days ago, mum and me did the the rounds of Sikanderpur, an urban village in Gurgaon that has a concentration of building material stores, especially hardware, electricals, lighting and all sorts of other knick knacks. In the NCR, urban villages are the default location for all things messy. Except for the few villages like Hauz Khas and Shahpur Jat and perhaps parts Khirki and Lado Sarai, that have become gentrified and accommodate eclectic tastes in art and food, many urban villages consist of a winding maze of streets crowded with miscellaneous goods that service the zoned, usually higher income, residential and commercial areas in the vicinity. Often, some of these markets, like Sikanderpur in Gurgaon and Kotla Mubarakpur in Delhi, specialize in certain types of goods and serve a larger urban area.

Planned development in Indian cities has not been able to accommodate many essential components. I write often about planned development not catering to low-income housing, but I observe that small retailers too are being pushed out of high-income areas where shop rents are unaffordable for them. Urban villages or illegally using residential property for shops are viable options for them, especially if they sell something as unglamorous as pipes and wires!

In Sikanderpur, we realized the posh bath accessory stores did not exist. They were located in DLF Phase I and similar colonies where moneyed people went. These swank stores displayed foreign brands like Grohe and American Standard, while it was the back alley in Sikanderpur that finally satisfied my search for a Hindware dealer!

We had a good time choosing pots and washbasins and kitchen sinks, as you can see from the pics below!

Mom in pot heaven!

The vibrant market thrives even as the Metro soars up above: Kind of parodies India’s paradoxical, interesting development and growth, doesn’t it?