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Of smart cities and (un)smart decisions – A tale of misplaced priorities

Friday, 27 June 2014 - 6:47pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
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It has been more than a month since the Modi-led BJP government swept to power at the Center, primarily riding on the anti-incumbency wave against the UPA, and on the promise of good days ahead (ache din aanewale hain).

Now, it is the (over-employed) mantra of “minimum government and maximum governance” that leads the policy-making discourse, advocating shrinking the top levels of government with “expansion at the grass-roots level”.  Having worked on Mumbai’s housing and urbanisation issues at the grassroot level, I'd like to highlight the misplaced priorities and the consequent policy contradictions in urban areas that have emerged in the new government’s short tenure until now. This article analyses our urban future given the current political climate in light of a few recent incidents in Mumbai. It is time for the State to rethink its priorities and goals for urban India.

The BJP Manifesto – Promises Galore 

The BJP’s election manifesto, like all party manifestos was full of loud claims for urban India. It clearly stated that “our cities should no longer remain a reflection of poverty and bottlenecks.” Contrary to the rural-centric policies until recently, BJP clearly views “urbanisation as an opportunity rather than a threat” and outlined an (albeit vague and contradictory) urban agenda to make cities “symbols of efficiency, speed and scale.” To achieve this, the manifesto makes many promises - it plans to prioritise low-cost housing and public transport, build 100 new cities, upgrade the existing 8,000 urban centres, use technology to improve urban services and also make development sustainable. The dream is powerful in rhetoric and imagination. But no one knows how these grand imaginations would pan out on the ground. If this very early tenure is to be analysed, it has frighteningly been heavily tilted towards intensive capital investment while the working poor and environment are at the margins of this envisaged development. 

Low-Cost Housing and Public Transport  

On 27 May 2014, urban development minister Venkaiah Naidu, just hours into office, declared the intent of the new government by announcing “the need for the creation of 100 smart cities, to provide housing for all by 2020 and to reduce the interest rate on home loans”. To describe the concept of smart cities, he went on to add, “Our PM has a vision and we will give top priority to 100 smart new cities - smart, safe and better environment, better facilities better connectivity and better living condition for people. That is the concept we are finalising.” While the State was busy finalising ideas of smart cities and housing for all, more than 1400 (slum) homes were demolished in Ganpat Patil Nagar, located in north-west Mumbai. In the last month and a half, after the elections, we have seen more than three demolitions drives where more 1800 homes were demolished in different parts of Mumbai and at least 6,000 evicted.  

The housing shortage in India, according to latest reports, is now pegged at 19 million, of which about 95% is for the lower income groups. Mumbai’s share in the grand total, according to unofficial numbers is around 2 million. i.e. 20 lakh houses! The much talked about and now idolised SRA (Slum Rehabilitation Authority) model, which in very simple terms allowed the private builder to monetise urban slum land by dispossessing the poor, has only added at best 2 lakh housing units over the past two decades of its implementation. The State’s retrenchment from housing provision has resulted in only a few thousands being added to Mumbai’s affordable housing stock. The bigger question is: Will this government succeed where the previous ones failed? Yes, it can. But not just with proposals to reduce interest rates on home loans and rope in builders or private companies, all of which are good initiatives, but might cater to only the higher incomes groups. Also, these incentives will surely fail unless they sync with the actual creation and delivery of affordable housing by the State to the lower income groups. Right now, we need to admit that urban housing policies have failed and the only way we can address the shortage is by working with people and their basic needs. The loud rhetoric of housing for all by 2020 must give way to pragmatism and programmes. Clearly, the 1800 homeless families will not add to Mumbai being any closer to a ‘smart city’ of the BJP or the ‘world class city’ imagined by the Congress government. 

Less than a month after being elected, the government on 20 June, pushed through a steep rail fare hike ahead of the budget. This hike doubles the fare on suburban train travel in Mumbai after 25 June. However unsafe and crowded they might be, the local trains are the life-line of the city, and enable the financial capital of the country to function. The increase, as it was said, was to ease the subsidy burden on the railways, but the average Mumbaikar is enraged. The tariff hike does not promise to address any of the pressing issues they face – facilities like clean water and toilets, unsafe platforms and the lack of foot-over bridges etc. Fiasco ensued and parties and activists hit the streets to oppose the move which led to partial roll back of the fare hike. 

The precarious situation of public transport in Mumbai is not new - over the years we have increasingly seen how the State has been more accommodative of projects that are money guzzling, encouraging only private vehicles and is detrimental to our city’s robust public transport. The recent tussle between the government and Reliance regarding the fares on the PPP-run metro are ominous signs for the future; of a government that encourages public-private partnerships in traditional state-run services. Projects like the coastal road (with a budget of Rs 10,000 crores) that are economically and ecologically unsustainable and benefit only a minuscule of Mumbai’s population are sanctioned, however un-smart the decision may be.  

The Way Forward – To Re-envision our ‘Smart’ Cities as ‘Inclusive’ 

It is very clear that there is something fundamentally flawed in the urbanisation plan. Even though the BJP's manifesto speaks of low-cost housing and public transport, the latest hints are emphatically in favour of urban infrastructure investments, green field developments, technology-oriented and wi-fi enabled, investor-friendly, 100 new ‘smart’ cities and upgraded old urban areas. However necessary these investments may seem, the big claims coupled with the investment-friendly jargon will only lead to further exclusion of the poor; their land - be it urban or in the urban peripheries. These will be monetized and appropriated, environmental laws diluted and ecological concerns sidelined, thus leading to hyper (unbridled) urbanisation – the China way. And we all know, that all Chinese models are not sustainable.  

There is an urgent need to re-prioritise the policy and implementation directives. Considering the mammoth 20 million housing shortfall and the current 8000 unplanned, informal urban areas, the justification for re-thinking priorities cannot be dismissed. However, the way in which the new government re-thinks these priorities will have a far and lasting impact on India’s urban fabric. The new government needs to come out strongly and change the discourse on urbanisation by taking a stand on increasing state investment on the urban poor by providing security of tenure and livelihood. It is in recognising their contribution to the making and sustaining of our urban centres and making them partners in deciding urban futures that India will begin creating smart cities. 

Aravind Unni has completed his B.Arch from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi and M.S. Arch from University of California- Berkeley, and is currently working as a Planner with YUVA (Youth for Unitary and Voluntary Action) on various developmental issues in Mumbai




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