India – Unsung urban heroes
In spite of the current hiccups in economic growth, India is urbanising at an unprecedented pace. The metros are growing at 12 per cent on average, the large towns at 10 per cent. This uncontrolled growth is the result of lopsided policies promoting economic prosperity around population clusters. People flock to these already populated centres to engage in economic activities like the services, construction and urban transport.
Sadly, our cities are just not able to cope with these levels of growth. The result is the chaos we increasingly experience every day: traffic, transport woes, rising crime rates, corruption, lack of basic sanitation, pollution, slum and pavement dwellers. This chaos is ironically acting as a leveller for the middle class, the poor and women, young and aged alike. Never before have so many felt so insecure and so excluded.
It is easy to apportion blame on city authorities and politicians without really understanding the underlying causes. There are structural flaws like the inequitable allocation of resources, lack of planning, and absence of able governance. Combine these with the inherent societal flaws of caste, community, religious intolerance and greed and the result is a cauldron of chaos.
So what are the solutions to this massive urban chaos?
Let’s start with underlying solutions: sharing and allocating resources, mainstreaming migrant populations and the urban poor, skilling city managers, and participation in urban governance.
Fifty per cent of the urban population is poor. These are the people who keep our cities going; the street-vendors, household help, rickshaw drivers, construction workers, garbage waste removers are amongst these unrecognised stakeholders. Yet they occupy less than 5 per cent of the land and are allocated less than 10 per cent of the city’s budget for housing, basic sanitation and transport. No small wonder these vital stakeholders are turning increasingly resentful and sometimes hostile.
If these basic needs are met, this critical mass of people will no longer be part of the problem, but the solution. Understanding the aspirations of these migrant populations then is at the core of resolving the crisis of a burgeoning urban India.
I have often heard the former collector of Ahmedabad city K. Srinivas, who is now the Managing Director of Gujarat Urban Development Company, make a case for creating dedicated cadre for urban management on the lines of the administrative services. I cannot agree more. Our city managers are inadequately trained for the job. Most learn through experience, which often becomes obsolete in the face of the complex growth of our urban centres.
Urban management today goes beyond basic engineering tasks and involves clear strategies and multiple skills across sectors like public health, transport, security and housing. The work may be unglamorous but those who have succeeded have really been our unsung heroes.
Take, for instance, Devuben Parmar, a feisty woman living in the Guptanagar slums of Ahmedabad. The 2002 riots saw her galvanise people to rehabilitate and reintegrate women and children in relief camps. She turned that into a scalable model of 190 Anganwadis under the Integrated Child Development Scheme with an annual budget of Rs 1 crore. Devuben now runs an Urban Resource Centre, which links slum residents to government, NGOs and the private sector.
Yaqoob Pathan from the ghettoised Juhapura area of Ahmedabad built on his experience in the relief camps to promote a local NGO called Sankalp Mitra Mandal. The NGO convinced the Ahmedabad Electricity Company to lower connection charges for local slum residents and facilitated transparent connection and payment procedures. The public utility scale has now applied slum electrification programmes across the city.
Many of us leave managing our cities to authorities. Yet, there are these people willing to get their hands dirty. Often they go unnoticed but create the groundswell for a nationwide movement for change.