The United Nations has played an influential global role in shaping governance and civic action. By highlighting issues, providing variables for social audits, suggesting pathways for governmental and non-governmental organisations, it has produced a massive amount of literature and policy frameworks. This knowledge is very much a result of the conjoined efforts of universities, UN offices, activists and government thinktanks which reflect diverse approaches, ideological frameworks and concerns.
Within the realm of urban practice, the UN-Habitat in particular has shaped perspectives related to housing and urbanisation, that have now become commonplace, especially from the 1990s onwards. The megacity, the slum, the urban poor, the informal sector are concepts that intensified to become powerful tools to think and work with. In some ways, they balanced the older concerns of rural development which dominated the ’60s and ’70s.
Indian policy also reflected these shifting trajectories. During the decades after Independence, the village was the prime focus of government and civic action. For India, this had a double emphasis, thanks to a Gandhian influence, particularly on the development sector. According to urban commentators, India virtually ignored the city or gave urban governance a relatively low priority — notwithstanding the occasional grand gesture for Chandigarh.
In fact, the lag in prioritising urban issues is still seen blameworthy, when showing up the poor quality of our cities. It was only post-liberalisation that urban policies started getting some attention.
However, these quickly converged with policies that saw a shift away from social development goals. While urban poverty came under the spotlight and housing became an abstracted goal in itself, urban policies saw a greater role of privatisation and withdrawal of welfare schemes. These tendencies were reflected globally and the UN-Habitat also responded to and shaped them in their own way.
An understanding of urbanisation in purely demographic terms began to dominate and, indeed, still dominates policies. This is supported by a wide range of diverse players, from real-estate developers to housing activists, from architects and urban planners to governments.
It is as if the desire to urbanise has become a goal in itself. In the race between China and India, for example, the state of China’s cities and its higher urban demographic are seen as indicators of its forward position. That is why the release of UN-Habitat’s latest policy document (published in August 2017) comes as a pleasant surprise. While it continues to aim towards a better ‘urban future’, it does this through a vision of ‘Urban-Rural Linkages’, and calling for implementing a new urban agenda — which is about ‘strengthening’ these connections.
However, it still speaks from the point of view of governance and guidelines, rather than seeing these linkages as part of existing and very real dynamics between villages and cities in many parts of the world — from Africa to Latin America, from the Indian subcontinent to China. While it rightly highlights the need for more mobility, rural urbanisation, regional and territorial planning, and food security systems, it does not do justice to demonstrate how these are already parts of strategies that people practise by default.
A closer grounds-eye view of countries such as India would reveal how its highly mobile urban-rural workforce — which can move from Odisha to Kerala and back seasonally, thanks to its cheap and affordable railway network — is already doing many things which the report recommends. Like providing homegrown food, social security systems and access to home-ownership for example. These have been useful in the massive slowdown post demonetisation and GST that hit small industries and informal trade particularly hard.
The UN report unwittingly highlights India’s supposed weakness — a slow response to hyper-urban policies — into its greatest potential. Perhaps, the government can be smarter and pay greater attention to its own smart village policy (like the well-meaning but not fully thought-through Shyama Prasad Mukherji Rurban Mission) by fine-tuning it into the latest goals recommended by the UN-Habitat — which, if seen carefully, already gives high marks to India.
The writers are co-founders of urbz.net, an urban network that’s active in Mumbai, Goa and beyond.