Give the people what they want

The urban poor are not a small group: more than a quarter of India’s urban population lives below the poverty line,according to a recent UN study.

Written by Nithya Raman | Published:March 26, 2009 11:53 pm

The urban poor are not a small group: more than a quarter of India’s urban population lives below the poverty line,according to a recent UN study. The streets,the composition of the workforce,and the economy all bear the imprint of their contributions to city life. Yet they are often invisible to policymakers,who plan for them and around them,but without ever consulting them. Could asking for their input before we make policies help our broken urban planning system work better? 

Chennai attempted to do exactly this on February 14 when,for the first time in the city’s history,the city’s poorest workers,those in the informal sector,were officially consulted for a new plan for the city. More than 200 workers from the informal sector,including sanitation workers,domestic workers,construction workers,fisherpeople,street vendors,auto drivers and others,came together to discuss the City Development Plan,a plan that Chennai is writing in order to access funds under the central government’s Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). The new plan is supposed to outline a vision for Chennai and identify a series of infrastructure projects that will help the city to achieve its vision. A significant portion of JNNURM funding is designated to provide for the needs of the urban poor. 

The consultation revealed that poor workers’ needs and vision for the city require policy changes well beyond our current infrastructure-driven model of urban development. Indeed,their participation in the planning process teaches planners an important lesson: that urban development should aim higher than merely improving infrastructure. It should improve the quality of our lives.  

The workers offered many valuable inputs that could easily be translated into infrastructure projects for the City Development Plan. Workers asked that evictions of slum-dwellers immediately cease,and that funds allocated for the urban poor be used to provide infrastructure,services and tenure in existing slum settlements rather than to construct alternative housing on the outskirts of the city. They asked for the government to prioritise the needs of pedestrians,cyclists,and users of public transport over the needs of automobile and motorcycle owners. They also asked that the government designate spaces for them to work within the city,such as spaces in markets and on roadsides for street-vendors,and to provide them services like drinking water,toilets,and crèches in these work spaces. If such projects are included in the new city development plan,it will already mark a significant departure from the city’s traditional planning priorities.

However,a number of the things that they suggested had absolutely nothing to do with infrastructure or city development as conceived by the JNNURM,and yet,were central to workers’ vision of a better city.Workers asked for access to finance and social security benefits and better quality,better-paid jobs. They wanted medical insurance,well functioning welfare boards,and provisions for retirement benefits. They wanted access to low-interest loans,so that they could avoid usurious moneylenders. They wanted the police to stop harassing them at their workplaces. They also wanted the push towards privatising municipal services to end,because privatisation meant a decrease in the availability of formal sector,decently paid work. 

Workers also demanded changes in the government’s urban development policies that would give more power to citizens. They asked that the government provide complete information to city residents about all urban infrastructure projects. They also demanded that projects be approved through a genuinely consultative process,and that the final approvals for urban infrastructure projects should rest with local ward sabhas or gram sabhas. Why was this so central to their demands? Because urban infrastructure projects inevitably require government land,and result in the displacement of poor slum dwellers who squat on that land.  

Broadly speaking,when asked to think about city development,informal sector workers responded with measures that would improve their own quality of life. 

And maybe this is exactly the lesson that urban planners and the architects of the JNNURM should be taking from Chennai’s informal sector workers. The JNNURM focuses narrowly on the provision of infrastructure in cities,but it does not make any clear links between the provision of this infrastructure and improvements in the quality of life of residents. Nor is it clear how the JNNURM will measure its effectiveness. So far,the only proof of the JNNURM’s efficacy the government has offered residents is the amount of money spent,but it is unclear what good this money has done for residents,especially the city’s poorest. Instead,a consultative planning process could be used to identify what kinds of improvements are needed for city residents,to create transparent benchmarks by which this improvement can be measured,and ways to monitor this improvement. 

The persistence of significant levels of urban poverty even after rapid economic growth in the country is shameful. How we go about effectively addressing the needs of the urban poor can provide us valuable lessons for India’s cities as a whole.

The writer is an urban planner at the Centre for Development Finance,Chennai

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