Today's Editorial

27 October 2016

New urban agenda



Source: By Tathagata Chatterji: The Financial Express



Representatives from 193 countries met between 17 and 20 October this year for the Habitat III Conference at Ecuador's charming capital, Quito, to sign the Quito Declaration, adopting the United Nations' New Urban Agenda. Although legally not binding, the agenda provides a roadmap on how to turn our urban future in a more positive direction to create more jobs, provide cheaper housing, cleaner energy, better transportation and greater social equity, indeed issues that are of crucial importance to a fast urbanising country like India.


The previous Habitat Conference was held in Istanbul in 1996. Between then and now, the number of people living in urban areas worldwide has increased from 45 per cent to 55 per cent. It is projected that by 2030, two-thirds of the global population and 40 per cent of India's population will be urban. Cities today generate 80 per cent of global GDP, but also 70 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Every sixth urban resident lives in a slum. Land conflicts are erupting with the haphazard spread of the urban footprint over its rural periphery and urban social divides are widening.


The New Urban Agenda attempts to address the opportunities and challenges associated with the global urban turn, explained Joan Clos, Executive Director of UN-Habitat. It also takes into account recommendations of the Paris Declaration on Climate Change, World Urban Forum 2014, and of course Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets, including SDG 11 of making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.


However, human rights activists expressed strong disappointment at the dilution of the contentious 'right to the city' clause in the draft agenda finalised earlier in New York, in the run-up to the Quito conference. 'Right to the city' recognises access to urban space and civic services (like water and sanitation) as a basic human right for all, including people living in slums and squatter settlements and engaged in informal economy like street vending. The controversial clause was backed by Brazil and various Latin American countries. It was, however, strongly opposed by India, which has a colossal slum population of 65 million Rs larger than the population of Britain.


The new agenda acknowledges urbanisation as a transformative force. It calls to treat urbanisation as an engine of sustained and inclusive economic growth, social and cultural development and environmental protection. This is a belated acceptance of the ground reality (since 2008, more than 50 per cent of the global population has become urban). Nevertheless, it is important. Many governments in Asia and Africa, especially those of countries which are still predominantly rural, see urbanisation in a negative way. Several others see urbanisation as a routine process, adopt a hands-off approach and seldom prepare for the outcomes.


This belated recognition about the economic, cultural and social roles of cities could be a potential game-changer and impact the way urban and rural development programmes are designed and funded.   Also implicit in this acknowledgment about the economic, social and cultural role of cities is the necessity to treat urban space as an integrative platform. Various sectoral policies related to industrial location, employment generation, transportation, energy usage, housing, disaster mitigation, gender relations, safety and health care come together in the city.


Therefore, by "readdressing the way cities and human settlements are planned, designed, financed, developed, governed and managed", the New Urban Agenda attempts to "end poverty and hunger in all its forms and dimensions, reduce inequalities, promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls … improve human health and well-being, as well as foster resilience and protect the environment". The new agenda is based on hard evidence-based research from across the globe over the past 20 years. Its most important takeaway point is the importance of urban (or spatial) planning as a process to manage urbanisation and its various implications in a more systematic and orderly way.


The Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation recently launched the India Habitat III National Report, 2016, which declared the government's intention to steer India's urban transformation in line with the objectives of the New Urban Agenda. While that intention sounds great, the question is whether we would be able to rise to the challenge. The devil is in the detail. According to the Census projections, between 2015 and 2030, India's urban population is going to jump from 428 million to 606 million. That means over the next 15 years, India needs to build 22 more cities of the size of Bangalore to accommodate the new urban residents.  The question before us is whether India wants to urbanise in a planned or unplanned way. Does it want rapid urbanisation to turn its cities into growth engines and lift millions out of poverty as was done in China? Or does India want the drift to continue and let the teeming millions turn its habitats into ghettos of deprivation?


The number of urban planners in India is microscopic. Britain has 38 planners per 100,000 people. In India, the figure is just 0.23. There are several urban local bodies without a single qualified urban planner. There are hardly twenty planning schools. Barring the top two or three, the rest are highly understaffed and the syllabus archaic. The institutional structures of planning are weak and are dominated by an engineering bureaucracy, whose world view frequently hovers within the ambit of 'tender-contract- project cycle', with hardly any scope for long-term strategic thinking.


Until recently, urban issues never figured prominently in India's public policy discourse, as the Gandhian maxim Rs 'India lives in villages' Rs held sway. The scenario started to change slowly with the launching of the JNNURM programme in 2005, and then in 2015, the Modi government launched a plethora of urban-centric schemes, including the ambitious Smart Cities Mission. However, if India wants to make the urbanisation process truly sustainable, it needs to get rid of its preoccupation with short-term projects with fancy acronyms and focus more on the fundamentals of urban management, through an overarching policy regime that would take into account its enormous regional diversity in settlement patterns.


India needs to strengthen its urban governance and management systems by overcoming chaos and confusion due to multiplicity of authorities with overlapping jurisdictions, by building city-specific data-sharing platforms, integrating various government departments and private utility providers as Brazil has started developing.


India also needs to substantially scale-up the ambit of planning, beyond the existing urban areas and over a larger geography, as China started doing long back and South Africa started recently. This would help it to develop greater harmony between economic investments and their spatial outcomes, strengthen backward-forward linkages between cities and their rural hinterlands, and protect fertile agricultural belts and ecologically vulnerable regions.

Above all, to implement the New Urban Agenda, India needs to develop a high degree of operational synergy between the national, state and municipal governments. Are we ready for that?

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