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Triggering Urban Renewal – Tackling the Needs of Urban Poor

Triggering Urban Renewal – Tackling the Needs of Urban Poor

By  Raakhee Suryaprakash

Edited by Nandita Singh, Senior Editor, The Indian Economist

India may still be more rural than urban, however, migration to cities in search of better opportunities and a better life is slowly but surely changing the balance. According to UN Habitat, “In the next few decades, urban dwellers will double in number, accounting for nearly three-quarters of the world’s population. This phenomenon, which began a century ago in Europe and North America, is now occurring at lightning speed in Asia and Africa, where millions of people are moving to cities. In order to keep up with current growth rates, urbanising countries will have to build a city of one million inhabitants every week for the next forty years. … If not critically re-examined, urbanisation will continue to propagate negative trends, including: increased segregation, inequality, and environmental degradation.”

With the Government of India announcing plans for ‘smart cities’ and the international community celebrating Urban October (“Urban October is the overarching platform where partners can converge and debate on urban issues, building up to the Post 2015 Development Agenda and the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Development”) culminating in World Cities Day 2014 celebrated on October 31st with the aim of “redefining the urban paradigm for future generations” the time is ripe to discuss the needs of the urban poor, as well as the need for sustained and sustainable urban renewal. Urban management strategies must take into account the needs of the poor and the needs of the environment to sustainably harness the power of the urban masses.

Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto’s path-breaking strategies on how to bring the urban poor engaged in the informal sector into the formal system so that they can benefit from the growing urban economies to both create and share in the wealth of the nation, shows the way forward through inclusive growth and sustainable development.

Provision of infrastructure such as water supply and sanitation, sewerage and solid waste management, construction and improvement of drains and storm water drainage is essential to consolidate the city. A sound strategy towards housing, slum development and bringing basic services to the poor is essential to empower and vitalise the lives of city-dwellers. The urban poor not only need shelter and basic amenities, but also access to employment opportunities. Urban poverty alleviation programmes should develop strategies and programmes that focus on skill development, self-employment, wage employment and empowerment of the urban poor, especially women. For the feminization of poverty is as much a urban reality as it is a rural one. Such programmes could translate the demographic-dividend, into employee statistics while reducing urban and youth unemployment.

National Geographic Magazine described the Dharavi as “a subcontinental Harlem – a square-mile centre of all things, geographically, psychologically, spiritually.” and it is valued at several billion dollars. Dharavi is a slum seething with a million or more of poor people drawn from many parts of India, who have taken abode in the cesspit to eke out a living. The largest slum in the world is typical of slums across the cities of the nation and the world: a hotbed of enterprise and fight for survival. Over the years, Dharavi has grown into a throbbing manufacturing zone – tanneries, potteries, bargains for the foreign tourists, as well as providing them with the unique experience of seeing a different world.

Cities and urban dwellers are the engine and fuel of economic growth. They are central to the boom of any nation’s economy. The important item on the agenda is to improve the quality of urban life, especially those of the urban poor in the slums of the cities. As Liza Weinstein says about Mumbai and Dharavi, “If the mega-slum was to disappear, then Mumbai would have to lose so many of its drivers, domestic servants, domestic workers, garment manufacturers, garbage collectors, and office workers that India’s commercial capital would simply cease to function.” This fact applies to almost all slums in all cities so the priority of the government should not be just a slum-free blueprint for development but improve the carbon footprint and the lifestyle of the slums by modernising amenities in terms housing, civic facilities, and good environment.

The increase in manufacturing of export goods, fuelled by the cheap labour of rural migrants is typical of cities but deepens the economic divide. “For the excluded – unskilled workers and the jobless young people – urban growth is occurring without economic benefit. Attracted to the promise of the metropolis or unable to make a living on the farm, many pour into cities. Many born in urban centres have no access to education. The supply of jobs can’t keep up with the demand, which forces men, women, and children to depend on informal work to survive.” The recent Hong Kong protests and the other versions of the Occupy movement are in many ways is more about the problems due to the poor quality of life and rising inequalities faced by the young including job and housing crises and the high-price of education with no job guarantee than about democracy.

As with anything, there are threats that coexist with these urban opportunities and vice-versa. Cities can become more than engines of economic development, they can evolve into spaces of freedom, innovation, prosperity, and resilience. For cities and their inhabitants to thrive, a new urban paradigm is needed; one that recognises local contexts and is founded on the respect of public and private uses of land, sound urban design, and a well-coordinated system of systems. If a city is to function properly, it must coordinate very diverse agendas related to land use, energy, water, waste, mobility, health and education, economic development, and the promotion of cultural vitality and social inclusion. Urban dwellers are over-consumers in many ways and the overflowing ubiquitous landfills are eyesores as well as health and environmental hazards.  These megaliths of garbage should be monetised by the setting up of waste to energy plants that reduce the piles while powering the city. Power crises abound in Indian cities, and when Scandinavia and Italy have mastered the art of generating electricity, why can’t we? Power crises hinder the development of the cities and the nation, thus technology that uses one problem to solve another should be adopted. Similarly inventors in India and abroad have figured out how to extract petroleum like fuel from discarded plastics. Adopting such technology combined with renewable energy to power it can both tackle the disposal of non-biodegradable plastics while providing an income generating avenue.

Cities are hubs of talent and opportunities. The manufacturing and services sectors are powering the nation’s development, but their human resources could help build the future of the newly graduating and unskilled masses through responsible corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes. With the presence of industry – labour that flows into the cities can be trained through CSR programs that impart skill trainings to the young and jobless or those made redundant. Vocational training and industry tie ups in schools and colleges will add to the employability of future generations. Some of the industry leaders already have such programmes in place that in turn produce a labour pool for other industries, as well as for themselves, but such programmes need to be scaled up.

Urbanisation removes sentimentality from land ownership, but research has shown that mankind needs to feel a direct connection to the earth for a better quality of life. Roof-top gardens fertilised by composted kitchen waste can be the answer to many urban problems, thereby providing a stress-relieving hobby, while recycling kitchen waste and providing vegetables and fruits to add to the nutrition needs of the urban populations. Produce from roof-top gardens could become secondary income sources or provide employment opportunities for the illiterate labour.

The cities are as thirsty for water as they are hungry for power and labour. Rain-water harvesting and desalination free of the dependence on city’s power (use of off-grid renewable energy supply) can vastly improve the quality of life. Urbanisation plays a critical role in development, and the nature of urbanisation will determine the nature of our future. So to get the future we want, we need to mould the paths of urbanisation.


Raakhee has a Master’s degree in International Studies and a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry but is passionate about writing and researching ideas that change the world for the better. She is in the process of launching a social enterprise SUNSHINE MILLENNIUM that aims to help India’s off-grid rural areas achieve the Millennium Development Goals by setting up of solar-powered millennium development centres. Her work has been widely published both in print and online media.

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