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Has the Urban been Depoliticised?

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Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhyay and Dr Arjun Kumar

In the contemporary world, cities have become a representation of prosperity and useful life, attractive and desirable. This picture is juxtaposed with the inefficient and overcrowded sanitation services, housing services, and abject poverty. In the past few years, Indian cities have undergone urban restructuring to par with their first-world counterparts. However, the reality is not as glittery and shiny. Myriad problems of weak governance, poor planning, and fragile financial health have plagued Indian cities. Pictorial representation of cities excludes poverty, which gives rise to slums, temporary dwellings characterized by extreme congestion.

However, tracing urban policies’ evolution on slum management provides some exciting insights into the relationship between urbanity and politics. In a webinar organized by the Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies at Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi and IndraStra Global, New York, Dr. Nipesh P Narayana has discussed this relationship extensively.

Nipesh P Narayan _ #CityConversations with Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhyay
Has Urban been Depoliticised?

He opined electoral politics have deliberately excluded a city from its agendas. Urban planning and development is a state issue since land falls under the state list as listed under the Constitution’s seventh schedule. However, national authorities have always formulated urban plans because the central government has been mobilizing the funds.

These development authorities actualise the policies and, and local municipal bodies are left out. The reason being municipal elections does not consider urban issues in their agendas. He also traced the evolution in the definition of slum over the years. In 1957, defining slum was absurd, while in 2014, different categorizations of slums led to statistical discrepancies in the NSSO and Census data.

After scrutinizing the question hour proceedings of both the houses of parliament from 1953 to 2014, Dr. Narayana analyzed that from 1953 to 1971, the slum was a public health issue. The state believed in identifying and demolishing slums, which was a epidemic approach. Slums were undefined and discussed for the first time in parliament in the 1960s.

In 1969, the parliament passed the Slum Area Improvement and Clearance Act, which enabled the state to demarcate slums and improve them. The parliament discussions around slums only rested on anecdotal evidence since what constituted a slum was still under contestation. This phase was essentially a time when there was minimal evidence on life in slums and minimal interest in improving it. The state majorly focused on providing housing and demolishing slums.

The second phase, 1971 to 1994, rested on the idea of providing amenities and housing. By the 1970s, the state realized the impossibility of destroying all the houses; thus, they stick to provide basic amenities. The national commission on urbanization was setup considering cities as engines of growth in the second phase. Many interventions came into play.

The perception and approach towards slums changed from demolition to amenities. However, the demolitions continued across the country, perhaps at a lower degree and simultaneously providing housing with civic amenities to make life habitable. Shelter policies were discussed in the parliament, supplemented with economic intervention. The questions in the parliament were not just anecdotal but now involved numbers. There was an attempt to measure the number of people without access to water and sanitation facilities. This period was an improvement over the previous one in terms of progressive policies towards slums.

In the third phase from 1995 to 2010, housing shortage issues emerged, and debates revolved around providing necessary facilities. In 1996, the National Slum Development program kicked in since, due to 1980s housing policies, it became impossible for the state to provide housing for all. Parliament started questioning the universal housing rights of people. The inability of the country to have the Right to Housing called upon the market intervention.

The commission considered spending on housing as social but this notion changed in the late 1980s when it was considered an investment since cities were looked at as drivers of growth. Hence, slums were now seen as opportunities for investment and generating a return. In the 2001 census, slum data was officially collected for the first time, which provided numbers and highlighted patterns of migration and growth rates.

The data-driven move led the debates and questions in the parliament, focusing more on the crisis’s magnitude. Interventions such as Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) and National Habitat Policy pumped in. This period welcomed the market intervention for providing housing and civic amenities.

The last stage started in 2011 when Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY) came into the picture, and the discussion moved to property rights. The neoliberal agenda of the previous phase carried to the next level. The issue in parliament was now to discuss the disbursement of property rights over slum areas to solve the problem without state intervention.

Gathering income and caste data of slum dwellers became a necessity, and there was a spree of land registrations and transfer of ownership. The parliament’s question now was how to effectively manage the funds pumped in schemes of JNNURM and RAY schemes. This period was more about providing property rights for upward economic mobility.

In this entire timeline, slum demolition was never out of the urban agendas. However, there has been a shift in the government’s responsibility towards slums and city life. The government’s role changed from being a benevolent caretaker of its citizens in the slums to a manager of market funds and interventions, from active engagement to passive observation.

The parliament’s discussions evolved from the consensus on what needs to be done, where the government involved itself actively in policymaking (the question of efficacy) towards a contestation on how it needs to be done (political question). However, the debates have become managerial, and “what needs to be done” has escaped the parliamentary debates.

Prof P Sridhar, Founding Director, South India School of Public Policy, highlighted the exciting phase of growth after the 73rd and 74th amendments of the Constitution, which provided states with more power and local self-government legitimized on papers. If cities are engines of growth, then slums can be prevented while tracing growth and migration. Smart planning would be providing affordable housing to people who are coming to cities.

The other participants in the webinar were- Mr Sameer Unhale, Joint Commissioner, Department of Municipal Corporation, Government of Maharashtra, Dr Simi Mehta, CEO & Editorial Director, IMPRI; Dr Arjun Kumar, Director, IMPRI and Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhyay, Associate Professor, Visva-Bharati University, Santi-Niketan, West Bengal and Senior Fellow, IMPRI.

Acknowledgments: Sarthak Singhal is a research intern at IMPRI.

YouTube Video for Has the Urban been Depoliticised?

Picture Courtesy: The Logical Indian

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