April 2009 Edition
CITIES are meant to be levellers and drivers of opportunities and growth. But our cities are mainly known for their inequalities and inefficiencies. While a few Indians enjoy urban facilities, in some cases equal to the best in the world, tens of millions of others continue to live in appalling conditions. Such disparity makes it necessary to raise questions about our democracy and the real depth of our economy. If so many people do not have access to basic amenities, what good is the progress that we claim?
The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), launched about four years ago, was meant to deal with the backlog in our cities by providing funds and vision and establishing public-private partnerships. But if the Hazards Centre, a feisty little outfit located in Delhi, is to be believed, not all is well with the JNNURM.
You can read about the Hazards Centre’s findings in this issue, and there will be replies from the government for sure, but the question before us is whether we can afford to continue to merely tinker with the problems of our cities.
Real solutions are required. And they are available For instance the task force on affordable housing for all headed by Deepak Parekh of HDFC has made several suggestions with regard to increasing the urban land stock and directly addressing the issue of housing and civic amenities for the poor.
The task force has emphasised the need to regard affordable housing as a core economic activity and place it at the centre of public policy because housing, housing quality and economic development are inextricably linked.
It is necessary to win the confidence of the urban poor so that they become participants and beneficiaries and not mere targets. With that focus, it is even possible to enter the tricky terrain of land acquisitions by making affordable housing one of the declared social objectives and structuring compensation as sustained long-term benefits.
The housing sector as a whole is a major contributor to employment and growth. It will therefore not do to allow it to go into a slump. But the housing sector needs to be more broad-based and inclusive. Both in its own interests and for the larger national good it can’t restrict itself to the wealthy.
The task force has suggested that governments give the urban poor security of tenure because only then will they participate without fear in a process of renewal. Slum redevelopment, for instance, is a better and cheaper option than relocation, but it needs to be achieved through a community effort.
Similarly, finance has to reach the poor and for that they have to be brought within the banking system. Micro-finance institutions (MFIs) have a role to play here. Once again flexibility is called for so that MFIs can take deposits.