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India’s concerns at Habitat III

Planners say that how India handles its urbanisation would affect global averages of development indicators

Written by Shalini Nair |
Updated: October 10, 2015 2:38:25 am
India is currently adding final touches to National Report for Habitat III. India is currently adding final touches to National Report for Habitat III.

The next year will be crucial in terms of agenda setting for cities world-over. The countdown has begun for Habitat III, the bi-decennial United Nations (UN) conference on housing and sustainable urban development, that will be held in Quito, Ecuador in October 2016.

India is currently adding final touches to National Report for Habitat III. The report will be presented later this month at the Asia -Pacific regional meeting in Jakarta, the first of many others to follow in Africa, Europe, Latin America and Caribbean. Country reports presented by member states will be factored in the regional and global reports. The exercise will culminate in to the New Urban Agenda aimed at securing political commitment across nations towards the cause of sustainable urban development as also defining the priorities of international development funding to cities.

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The draft India National report has identified broad focus areas that will underline its urban growth. These include inclusiveness, efficiency, sustainability and empowering the local governments. The 50 page national document is aimed at addressing expanding urbanisation over the next two decades. According to UN estimates, another 65 million people will be added to India’s urban population base by 2030, taking the total numbers up to 583 million people. This accounts for 18-19 per cent of the global increase in urban population. By virtue of its sheer size, planners point out that how India handles its urbanisation would affect global averages in terms of various urban development indicators such as access to water supply, sanitation, urban sprawl and institutional framework among others.

Urban expert OP Mathur— one of the authors of the country report, says that India still doesn’t have a comprehensive national urban and habitat policy. “Urban development has always been a state subject and states have never bothered to define a vision. The Centre has started increasingly giving it a direction, first with National Urban Renewal Mission and Rajiv Awas Yojana and now with the five recently-launched missions,” he said referring to the NDA government’s urban mission of Smart Cities, AMRUT, HRIDAY and Swachh Bharat and its housing mission Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. Mathur said that while such schemes have been in existence since 1972, reform linked grants are a feature of the post 2002 years. One of the primary purpose of reforms have been opening up the urban sector to the market by removing all regulations and easing procedures that constrained the urban sector from taking advantage of capital markets. He said that a national urban policy is required so as to aggregate the implications of existing policies and also provide perspective on the direction that cities are taking.

The country report’s focus area on efficiency is geared towards harnessing the agglomeration economy. Urban India currently contributes 63 per cent of the country’s GDP which is lower than cities’ share in most countries. The report’s stress on inclusion is two-pronged. It is aimed at attacking working poverty via investments in informal economy by skill development and other measures. It would also addresses the issue of universalition of basic services, including affordable housing. The third focus area, that of ensuring a sustainable habitat through energy efficient buildings and transport, is also one of the stated missions under India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change.

Despite the 74th amendment, enacted in 1993, that delegated greater powers to urban local bodies, the scrapping of revenue sources such as octroi has greatly reduced the capacity of municipal bodies when it comes to self-funding. Moreover, the essential nature of the services provided by ULBs, such as water supply and sanitation, makes it difficult to tap those for revenue sources. With the depleting powers of the urban local bodies in terms of revenue share, the final focus area of ’empowering local governments’ assumes greater urgency.

Much of the above focus areas also tie in with UN’s recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals wherein goal No. 11 calls upon world leaders to “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.

At the recently concluded Urban Thinkers Campus in Delhi, one of the several preparatory processes for stakeholder input towards Habitat III, the Human Settlement Management Institute (HSMI) presented 33 parameters that would be part of the country report. These included everything from public transport, planned settlements, adequate housing, better provision of basic services, disaster preparedness and e-governance. The HSMI, Centre’s research and training agency is involved in drafting of the country report. According to HSMI executive director HS Gill, “The cities we built have become irrelevant. One third of the housing stock is more than 40 years old and over the next 20 years half of the urban housing stock will have to be rebuilt.” He adds that, in a departure from previous urban agenda, land monetisation would be given increasing significance in the new country report.

Monetisation of land could take various forms all of it geared towards using land, including those that are publicly-owned, as a resource. It could be in the form of allowing higher floor area ratio on payment of a premium amount or it could be auctioning of public land. As a policy shift, this is already visible in the Centre’s recent Pradhan Mantri Yojana wherein private developers are allowed to leverage public land and commercially exploit it to redevelop slums in-situ.

Planners have however warned that one of the fall-outs of such a practice would be huge escalation in housing prices, making it unaffordable to all. “China has already seen the adverse impact of aggressively pursing such a policy and we have to be extremely careful about the effects of monetising land on our society,” said Barjor Mehta, Lead Urban Specialist, World Bank.

The UN General Assembly convened the Habitat I conference in Vancouver in 1976, when urban population was only 37.9 per cent of the world population. At the time of HABITAT II in 1996 in Istanbul, it was 45.1per cent. At the time of HABITAT III in 2016 the urban population at 54 per cent would be more than half the total population with cities in developing world accounting for majority of the urban expansion. This also raises questions about the futility of the entire exercise given that the New Urban Agenda is not binding. Jagan Shah, director at the National Institute of Urban Affairs said while the outcomes of stakeholder meetings and the new urban agenda itself may not be binding, it helps built a larger consensus around the need to address challenges from a socioeconomic framework. “Its outcomes help inform the need for differentiated approaches in urban policies so that cities can become vehicles for ensuring inclusive citizen rights,” he said.

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