Thursday, December 4, 2014

How to Build 'Just'-Cities

The "Right to the City Campaign" was launched two days back on 1st December. The crux of the launch, as per my understanding was to build ‘Just-cities’, cities which have a justified place for everyone, instead of classist smart-cities.

Cities are employment magnets. They attract people from everywhere who aspire for a better future and this influx is not going to reduce in the near future.
Our governments have consistently failed our villages. Agriculture, despite all the tax-benefits, remains one of the riskiest and least-return professions. Education in most government schools is a sham. People will come to cities in search of their livelihood and education for their children.

Where would they live?

Presently, those who can’t even afford a rented accommodation in middle, lower-middle class localities of these Metro Cities live in ghettos, unauthorized colonies, Slums, under flyovers, Jhuggis by roadside, footpaths or simply under the sky.
It’s not a small number. 40% of Delhi lives in unauthorized colonies. (Interestingly, the revenue lost to “leaks” of Delhi Jal Board also hovers around similar number!)

So what’s the solution?
Should a government acknowledge their right to live in the city? To put it bluntly, it means a government simply turning a blind eye to any encroachment on its land and other properties. How sound a policy can that be?

Of course I am in favor of optimum utilization of resources – land included. What better way to use a vacant piece of government land than to provide shelter to homeless? (It even earns you good Karma, and votes!). But the problem arises when one day, they try to reclaim the land for a project and the people show them their finger! Also, how would the government differentiate if the so called encroacher is a land mafia, me or a migrant labourer? (Although financially, the last two are at par!)

Are there ways through which a government can allow homeless people live on its vacant land yet retain the ownership of the land? Can these people be ‘tenant’ to the government? And what’s an amicable way to get that land vacated in a least invasive way when, after say 10-15 years, the government needs that land for some project?

Should government earmark its land as “habitable for 5 years”… “10 years” … so on and so forth depending on the probability of that land’s requirement in the future. And should the government enter into a lease with its “tenants” for the respective period (and extend it, in case the land is not used after that period)

What if the project is to build a sports complex or Multiplex? Would it be questioned or subjected to ‘emotional atyaachaar’ by inhabitants and various other organizations to not go ahead with such a project as it uproots the ‘poor’ to cater to the ‘rich’?

Same is the case with other public spaces like Roads, footpaths etc.
Research after research has shown that Delhi and most Indian cities are not pedestrian friendly (let alone disabled friendly). Footpaths simply don’t exist! But whatever limited number of footpaths that we have are encroached!

Of course, not all the ‘encroachers are chai-wallas, vegetable vendors and other micro-entrepreneurs selling various stuffs. They can also be established shopkeepers ‘extending’ their business on the available and free public space. On what basis would a government ask these shopkeepers to wind up but let the small time vendors carry on?

What comes at a higher priority for the government – inconvenience to the public or the livelihood of these small vendors?

Now let’s take an extreme example - a man sitting right in the middle of the road, selling momos. Should traffic police chase him away and fine him for obstructing the traffic or just let him continue earning his 'livelihood'? Of course, former. But I don’t mind buying a plate or two from him if he is doing the same business by the side of the road or footpath where he is not posing a major obstruction to neither the traffic nor the pedestrians.

Instead of complete wipe-out of these small vendors (because rigid city planning guidelines say so) we must set flexible thresholds of how much ‘inconvenience’ is acceptable in exchange of the undeniable services these people provide at an affordable price. A Monday or Thursday market is a good example of this mutual understanding.

When we talk of just-cities, I think the challenge is to bring this accommodating nature in the policy of the state itself. So far we have seen authorities utilize their discretionary powers highhandedly. It's time to replace it with sensitivity without compromising too much with the original purpose of that public good/property or the authority to regulate its use.

1 comment:

  1. There is a lot of subjectivity involved in the matter and no one (except you on your blog) is talking about it. I think having more urban centers than 5 or 6 is the very first step for diluting the problem in intensity but increasing in number.