It is reported the Prime Minister has given the housing and urban poverty alleviation minister Kumari Selja two books by the visiting Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto. The books by the economist are called the poor man’s capitalist, the books by the economist who seems to have created urban housing the in the slums there in his country. What is new in the books? No one so far has told us. There are so many eminent persons in the government, in the PM’s advisory councils, experts outside who advise on urban poverty and transport, why, we have such outstanding names like eminent architect, Charles Correa who has written extensively and he is one who has been associated with the Mumbai urban development, slum housing projects and townships.
Much more significant he is one person who is a big visionary and a thinking sort of creative solution provider.
If the government is really serious about tackling urban poverty and slum cleaning, slum housing, then, the country must get to know what the thinking of the government is on such a vital subject.
Correa says in his latest collection of essays that the cities are the very future of the country and the cities are the precious natural resources and as other natural resources, as he says, like the coal reserves of Bihar and the mineral reserves of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. So, the city spaces must be treated as the natural resources of the country, of the entire people, the poor and the rich who both live and work in the city.
Now, what is happening, asks Correa.
Now, the physical spaces of the cities are plundered, the scarce space is invaded by the powerful and the mighty, first the politicians who are not elected by the voters of the Mumbai municipal corporation limits and the accountability for spending the scarce natural resources of the cities is almost nil. Says Correa without mincing any words: the Chief Minister of the state in which a city is located, say, as Mumbai or Chennai , and the elected politicians, the state government and the ruling party politicians go to make the most.
The ruling parties mobilize their funds by using and abusing the floor space index and other rights to plunder the scarce resource like the urban space and this is now accelerating, it seems, says Correa, without any thought for the people who live and occupy the urban space, in particular, the slums, the slum dwellers now increase without any thought of any future or the ruling elite also live happily without any thought of the future as well, we have to say.
So, what is happening today?
The PM might make some gestures as he invites the Peruvian economist and expert and also gift his cabinet colleague the books he might want her to red and benefit.
But for what benefit or for what end result?
It is quite clear that the urbanization process is now relentless and the further intensification of the process would only multiply the slum creation.
Says Correa: the first characteristic of a city is its transportation system. First, the people from the outside, from the rural areas come into the city by the available transportation means, usually by roads and the railways. Once they come in the search for settling down, this usually happens on the pavements or any other open space that is left vacant for even a day or two. Then, they move about in search of an earning. It could be anything, from begging to other menial jobs and one after another the new migrants start find a dwelling, it could still be a busty, a shanty location and once the slums start sprouting other things follow.
Problems only multiply, not the solutions, from water supply to hygiene to other questions arise.
So, we have got to a situation that is now a common sight. The more the cities expand, more are the slums and more are the urban problems.
Unless there is a long-term vision and a long-term thinking and a long term plan, there can’t be a satisfactory solution, no sustainable urban development infrastructure, and urban governance in short.
How to do urban governance?
A big question that of course has many answers and many approaches.
One obvious model is the urban governance model put out by the Bangalore Corporation during a previous government and now followed in some form or other by the present government.
There are of course so many issues here.
As listed out by Correa, it is the large scale corruption in urban governance which ,as he says again so perceptively, part management and part political.
It is the political that is critical, that is part of the problem and part of the solution.
Urban space is the most precious resource and so we have to plan for preserving and conserving the precious national and natural resources.
What is interesting, please note, interesting is the word, is the news that the visiting Peruvian economist is known for his new theory, it is new because we haven’t heard before, is that he wants to give the slum dwellers property titles and land ownerships.
That is both interesting and intriguing.
Why? Because of the many populist policies pursued by the state and the central government, property titles have almost become non-existent, you talk of property, and then you get into so many convoluting terms and endless discussions.
Today, to hold a property title even to a small piece of land even if it is inherited from family origins is challenged in the courts, increasingly out of the courts owing to the rise of populist democratic politics.
The point here is that the government seems to be just drifting and has no definite plans or ideas to tackle the urbanization issues.
Yes, there have been many new initiatives, the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Mission and also there are now huge urban infrastructure developments, metros, flyovers and massive housing projects. The developments that are taking place in the private sector housing, the big players all bring to the Indian urban scene the foreign development models.
So, there is every reason to believe that while the huge political corruption would push things in the urban space sharing in its own momentum and direction(what alternative is there for political parties to mobilize funds?)And as long as the huge corruption is brought into within manageable proportions, we have to look at the urban developments only in an international perspective.
At the end of the day, it is how the general public, the people see what a government does or doesn’t do.
But there is every reason to feel that things are going only in the right direction.
The National Highways have opened up the countryside and there is very little incentive to abandon the rural India to itself. It is getting integrated with the urban conglomerates.
The telecom revolution is another big new element that would connect the cities and the rural hinterland.
There would be a process of suburbanization and the further dispersal of the urban population as prosperity grows.
The IT revolution is also creating its own momentum, the tier ii and tier iii cities would all become centres of growth and this would only augment the housing stock and ease the pressures on the more developed city centres in the big metropolises.
Urbanisation is only a continuous process.
There is no reversal or any halt to this process.
It is the new prosperity, the new wealth and the spreading effect of the new, a sort of a new “money order economy” that transfer the funds from the urban centres to their rural hinterlands.
So, we have to take a positive look and wait for the wisdom of the Peruvian economist as to how the poor can have landed property rights and the new illusion of slum owners catching up with our present plight in owning lands in the urban centres and more challengingly in the rural agricultural environment.
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