India has valuable lessons to learn from Brazil's urban failures as much as from its innovations. A recent report, published by the United Nations Population Fund and the International Institute for Environment Development, concludes that Brazil's urban policies over the last four decades failed because they were too slow to respond to changes and address inequalities. Successful planning measures adopted in cities such as Curitiba and Porto Alegre remained isolated exceptions. The growth of Brazilian cities coincided with a decline in agricultural production. There was an exodus from rural areas. Instead of paying attention to the housing needs of the migrants and other workers, policymakers left them at the mercy of market forces. Numerous underserviced and crime-ridden slums sprang up in the peripheries of the cities. Corrective efforts were too little, too late. As a result, these cities now face severe inequalities, tensions, and ecological deterioration. This is a warning to Indian cities with inept housing policies. The urgent need is for a bold plan that reserves sufficient land and built units for those who cannot access formal housing markets.

Brazil's experiment with regional planning is also of relevance to India. From the 1970s, the South American country relied on incentives to encourage growth in 130 small cities so as to relieve pressures on larger cities. This did not work as planned. India has tried similar policies from the mid-1970s with the same lack of success. Brazil's experience demonstrates that unless infrastructure, including schools and hospitals, are developed, growth cannot be directed to second- and third-tier cities. The City Statute enacted in Brazil in 2001 is a unique legal instrument appreciated worldwide for its potential benefits. Among other things, it helps municipalities democratise urban management through public hearings and participatory budgeting. Indian urban local bodies must adopt similar instruments. However, they should guard against their misuse, as evidenced in Brazil. Municipalities are empowered to negotiate with public groups and create Special Zones of Social Interest. This is meant to protect low-income areas from real estate speculation but in practice these powers have often been subverted by influential high-income groups. Urbanisation offers tangible benefits but to realise them, planning must keep pace with growth and be equitable.

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