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City must be equitable, not smart

We have to think of ways to evolve equitable and sustainable alternatives in each sector of urban planning.

Written by Medha Patkar |
Updated: January 10, 2015 12:00:51 am
(Source: Illustrated by C R Sasikumar) (Source: Illustrated by C R Sasikumar)

Just a few years ago, the World Bank in its World Development Report claimed that migration from rural India to urban centres is “natural” and the same should not be interrupted or prevented through schemes like the MGNREGA.

This was a shocking statement to all those who know why there is huge and ever-growing migration to cities, not only of the labour class but also of farmers and small traders: deprivation due to disparity. Push and pull factors have always been noted, yet their meaning and concept have changed over the years.

The city has no walls, no gates and welcomes everyone, poor or rich. Nearly 90 per cent of those who come in search of livelihood, however, belong to the unprotected section, with no socio-economic security. They walk in without any guarantee, with no natural capital (such as land), to sell their labour. This section is mostly self-employed and includes producers, distributors and service providers, without whom the city cannot be run. However, most labour laws cover mainly the so-called organised sector, as the unorganised, indeed unprotected, are compelled to fight for protection even after the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008. The government machinery admits to having no record to regulate or monitor migrants even under the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act. As per the act, water, shelter, crèche and medical facilities are to be provided by the contractors, to be registered with the labour commissioner. Compare their wages with the salaries offered by the Sixth Pay Commission, and you can’t help but conclude that inequality leads to a subsistence-level existence for the majority of the urban poor.

With the least burden put on society or the state, this population lands in small self-built hutments with no access to water or sanitation facilities. Thus, in Mumbai, 60 per cent of the population lives in slums that occupy only 9.24 per cent of the space. Moreover, as per a Comptroller and Auditor General report (2011), Mumbai’s slum rehabilitation scheme (SRS) shows a slow rate of success. Investors with politicians as partners take their chunk of land for profit, but deliver too little and too late. The 1996 target of building 40 lakh houses under the SRS remains to be achieved, with only 8.5 lakh houses built and fewer allotted to date. With fraud and irregularities abundant, residents are harassed, targeted, at times attacked and deprived of lawful benefits. There exists no channel for an in-depth inquiry without resorting to corruption. On the other hand, thousands of unaffordable houses lie vacant.

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Why can’t lakhs of people in a megalopolis afford a house? Urban planners are invariably biased against poor dwellers. Land distribution and allocation is tilted against the masses. With no limits to houses per family and thousands of cars (each requiring space at home, the office and on the road), new infrastructure is created for the rich, usurping large chunks of land. The majority of the population, including construction workers, who are the real builders, is left without even a small piece of land to erect shelters. Instead of a right to shelter, housing schemes further distort the priority and allocation.

Hiranandani Gardens in Mumbai is the worst example of how concessions under the Urban Land (Ceiling and Regulation) Act, 1976, were misused. The holder of the power of attorney during the purchase of land later taken over by the government at the cheapest rate got it back in the name of a development scheme at the same rate, 40 paise per acre. The condition that it would be used for low-cost housing stands violated and the Bombay High Court’s order to build 3,144 houses for the needy, before any further construction, has not been obeyed either.

The Adarsh Society and Lavasa cases being fought by us are indicative of how the politically influential get hold of the desired land in violation of all laws and regulations, even by changing policy. But the poor struggle against eviction and “illegality” throughout their lives. Legal workers and legal voters they may be, yet they are treated as illegal residents.


Urban infrastructure created over the last few years, including the industrial corridors, are taking a big toll on the rural agricultural economy. The rural landscape will be transformed into urban, with no guarantee of livelihood or adequate amenities. Housing schemes like the SRS, cluster development, etc become mechanisms for transferring land to builders. When land leased to the haves for 99 or 999 years at throwaway prices doesn’t fill the state’s coffers, why can’t the government afford to do the same with the have-nots?

The answer lies in a housing policy that includes low-cost rental and dormitory accommodation for temporary migrants, reserving land for “site and service” schemes for the poor. No free houses, but self-reliant, participatory community or cooperative housing schemes by and for the poor that lease out land on a long-term basis, are a solution. The land in the hands of a few landlords, individual and corporations, should be requisitioned and redistributed.

The goal of minimising uncontrolled migration can be attained not through aggressive and divisive regional politics but through rural development. Ensuring adequate livelihood sources developed in the neighbourhood, based on the natural and human resources available within a local unit, should be the priority. This will not exclude industrialisation; on the contrary, it will promote it.


The “pull” factor of the urban is no less important. However, the opportunity to escape drudgery in urban centres for women is to be compared with the rise in insecurity and crime. The availability of better health and education facilities is negated by their unaffordability.
A centralisation of these basic services could be a solution to mitigate the exodus and related unruly expansion of the urban.

City life, with its high incidence of injustice, can surely be improved. Basic services for all should be the goal of city development plans, not just the creation of physical infrastructure. Metros and bullet trains or thousands of cars demanding more space at the cost of shelter can’t be the only symbol of progress.

Above all, no urbanisation that exploits the working classes within should be acceptable. We have to think of ways to evolve equitable and sustainable alternatives in each sector of urban planning, be it water, energy, waste management or housing. Smart cities are not the answer, as those will only replicate an anti-poor bias. Shanghai, Singapore or even Curitiba, an example of sustainable urban planning, cannot be taken as readymade models. India needs to evolve a new, truly indigenous paradigm based on the constitutional values of equity and justice.

The writer is a social activist and founding member of Narmada Bachao Andolan, Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan and National Alliance of People’s Movements

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First published on: 10-01-2015 at 12:00:48 am
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