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Rights, capacity and control: Debating issues around the ability and willingness of cities to extend social services

This post was first published on the SHRAM blog. SHRAMIC (Strength and Harmonize Research and Action on Migration) seeks to bring together academia and NGOs to develop a richer understanding of migration in South Asia. 

The economic benefits of migration to the city is often offset by expenditure towards schooling, healthcare, food, sanitation and other services that the State is meant to provide.

Rights vs capacity: Are cities able to service the needs of the needy (migrants included?)

One dimension of this issue is the mechanisms of accessing social services. The question of portability of rights has been debated time and again and there is no real solution in sight. However, attempts are constantly being made to push this rights-based agenda that help let migrants into the social security net. For example, the National Health Policy 2015, the draft version of which was made public on 31st December 2014 talks the language of universal health coverage and portability of the Right to Health, which it advocates as a fundamental right.

The other dimension, and an important one, is that of the capacity of cities to provide these services. Large metropolitan centres like Mumbai and Delhi are unable to service residents, regardless of whether they came in yesterday or have lived there for generations. Small cities are stretched for finances and have barely any capacities to service residents.

Don’t let them in: The idea of entry barriers

In this context, I find the idea of allowing cities to define limits to their growth fascinating. Historically, land use planning has been a popular instrument to contain growth. By specifying densities, types of land use and building controls, it was possible for cities to imagine what kind of people would live there, what they would do and how communities would function and interact. In theory, at least. Urban growth boundaries, for instance, were used widely in the US through the ’80s and ’90s to limit growth and contain urban sprawl, with mixed success.

Closer to home, China is in the process of reforming its hukou system, which is a legal system of house registration that has historically acted as a formidable tool in controlling rural to urban migration. The reforms, which were announced in mid 2014, boldly delink hukou and entitlement to welfare, allowing city governments to decide on the level of social service provisioning that is possible. The larger intent of the policy seems to be to redistribute populations, urging rural migrants to move to small and mid-sized cities.

Professor Bingqin Li, who teaches at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, recently wrote a piece on the hukou reforms on the website of the East Asia Forum. Her article illustrates some of the ways in which different cities have reacted to the reforms,

“Cities that are either unwilling or unable to invest more in social services can use the flexible settlement criteria to set up alternative barriers for entry to replace the older hukou barrier. The largest cities, such as Shanghai and Beijing, have made it even more difficult for migrants to settle down permanently than before. A number of medium-sized cities have also introduced policies to favour highly-skilled migrants at the expense of low-skilled ones.” 

In India, the question of entry barriers is not on the table, but somewhere under it! Prof. Amitabh Kundu and others have commented that Indian cities (esp large ones) have become “less welcome to migrants” (Kundu and Kundu 2011) by using processes of formalisation and sanitisation that discourages the inflow of the rural poor.

A case for strengthening capacity

In her article, Bingqin Li subtly points out that the apparent merit in permitting autonomy of decision at city level masks the fact that cities are not equal in being able to provide services; and that inequalities would likely result in higher entry barriers for migrants coming in from rural China. A strengthening of the social services system is her ask.

In India too, rights-based approaches like that of the new health policy are critiqued for the same reason; inequalities across States in being able to provide the coverage and quality of primary health services threaten to render the most progressive of legislation ineffective when it comes to the ground. The same goes for education as is seen from the recent results of the Aser Survey, which pronounce dismal education outcomes, more in some States than others.

Better delivery of services for the urban poor is clearly an issue that merits both introspection and investment, regardless of whether the urban poor are migrants; however the removal of barriers for migrants to access government-subsidised social services can go a long way in helping migrant families truly reap the economic benefits of migration.

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.

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