India’s leading urban thinkers and practitioners gathered earlier this month, on November 1, 2017, in New Delhi to discuss “Challenges and Opportunities of Urbanization in India,” at a Roundtable Discussion organized by the World Bank Group. The event was chaired by Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez, Senior Director, Global Practice for Urban, Social, Rural and Resilience, World Bank.
“India's urban trajectory will be globally important,” said Vasquez in opening remarks, underscoring the strong link between the country’s economic trajectory and how it urbanizes, particularly over the next two decades. “It’s progress on poverty elimination, efficiency and growth of the economy, health of urban residents, climate emissions will all have a very important bearing, not just for India, but globally.”
Vasquez was addressing an audience of about 45 participants, spanning the spectrum from senior government officials implementing national urban schemes to policy experts, academics, civil society activists, urban specialists and practitioners, senior economists, donor agencies and private sector experts. The event also marked the launch of the India Urban Knowledge Platform – envisioned as a comprehensive knowledge strategy and vehicle on urban issues. “We want to incubate, foster and facilitate a steady flow of evidence-based knowledge and data on urban issues for policy officials and program implementer," said Balakrishna Menon, Lead Urban Specialist, World Bank.
The two-hour long dialogue was moderated by SR Ramanujan, Lead Urban Consultant, World Bank, and focussed on answering four broad thematic questions:
1. Is urban policy finally coming of age in India? What does the future hold for urban policy?
2. What has hindered the development of an active urban leadership and constituency in India?
3. How do we attract private resources to the urban sector?
4. How does urban economy create opportunities for the vulnerable groups?
“India is a self-governing society,” said Sameer Sharma, Additional Secretary, Smart Cities Mission, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, in his opening remarks, outlining the guiding principles shaping the government’s urban reform agenda. “So, a light-touch, loose-fit approach allows this self-organising society to play out and determine what has to be implemented."
On models of urbanization and city leadership, while no consensus emerged, participants shared several important insights. Not everyone was convinced that a strong "mayor" style city leadership is the answer for all Indian cities. At the same time, many highlighted concerns with existing models such as the lack of agency among local governments, even elected city officials, and of a common local government framework.
Others asked valid questions: How do we aggregate citizen preferences? Who takes decisions that are important? Do we have the public apparatus to be citizen-responsive? Do various stakeholders and agencies working on urban and city development talk to each other?
For attracting private investment and financing to the urban sector, the panelists were forthright in their views.
"There is willingness to pay but there is unwillingness to charge and that is a fundamental problem," said Hari Sankaran, Vice Chairman and Managing Director, Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services Ltd. "There is a political decision to be taken to price services...you don't have to price them immediately but can change price as services improve."
It was on aspects of social and economic inclusion for the urban poor and vulnerable groups that there was maximum discussion among participants.
"What we did was enough to keep labour in the city but never enough to concede real rights either of land or as residents," he said. "We underestimate the uncertainties that our citizens live with while expecting them to be politically informed, active, participatory and co-govern. I don't think you can expect a co-production of governance of any kind when the inequality is structural, which I think is the case."
Similar concerns were expressed by others, too. "There seems to be a very hesitant form of urbanization, where you're not quite sure whether you want rural migrants in the city - you want them here but also the safety of them still able to go back to their villages," observed Mukta Naik, Senior Researcher, Centre for Policy Research.
On employment trends and affordable housing, by far the biggest cause for concern was regarding women's employment but there were revelatory insights shared regarding India's young population, too.
"We have pretty much the lowest comparative female workforce participation rate than anywhere (27-31%) and it is not stabilizing but falling. It is the single issue and single metric that if we trace and pull and focus on can actually bring together multiple economic challenges around identity, around scale of industrialization, around skilling, around productivity, around returns to GDP."
"99% of young population don't get captured by any policy of the urban sector and almost a 100% don't believe government institutions or formal system of delivery or even corporates are a reliable source of livelihood," said Hari Sankaran, sharing data from an IL&FS survey for affordable housing. "They are moving away from these systems. Peer-to-peer, group interactions and economies and livelihoods and service provisions and arrangements are actually developing incredibly detailed identities, which are going sub-sovereign."
Finally, on environment, the writing was on the wall, according to Sankaran, when he remarked that, "It's no longer about climate change but how to live in a changed climate."
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