The fork in the urban road

  • Arjun Appadurai
  • Updated: Oct 05, 2014 18:10 IST

India's cities are today its biggest challenge and its biggest opportunity. This is partly a matter of numbers. India's cities are growing. There are many more second and third tier metros now than ever before. By and large, their growth is led by politicians and real-estate developers rather than by planners or community leaders. The market-led growth of Indian cities is inevitable in a democracy, where central planning has been under attack for almost 30 years, since Rajiv Gandhi first encouraged liberalisation, new technologies and innovation.

The question now is: what are the alternatives to urban planning if cities are not going to be state-led, centrally-planned and managed by technocrats? The market is part of the answer. A certain amount of growth will be led by the emerging middle classes, in search of superior housing, gated communities and economic mobility. But the fate and public inclusion of the working classes, the informally employed and indigent classes is both theoretically and practically unresolved.

There are a variety of issues to be resolved in trying to create cities that are simultaneously dynamic and inclusive. The first, without doubt, is employment. Where will the jobs for the uneducated and under-educated populations in the cities come from? Until public education becomes truly high quality, cheap and near-universal, education alone will not solve the problem, and especially so in the short run. This means jobs in the private and public sectors will have to provide on-the-job training for semi-skilled and low-skilled workers.

Tamil Nadu, with its concentration of new industrial jobs, provides excellent examples of training programmes for semi-skilled and unskilled workers to enter the industrial workforce that is typically located in peri-urban areas. This example should be studied, replicated and scaled up wherever Indian states and cities are encouraging manufacturing industries to locate or grow.

The second issue which could well rise to crisis proportions is urban health. The problem has two aspects. The first is public health, which has been targeted as a major development area by the previous government in India. But the distance to be covered is large. Two areas stand out. One is the absence of potable water, which is the source of a disproportionate amount of human suffering in urban slums and poor neighbourhoods, through the vector of water-borne diseases. India has yet to see the public health revolutions of the industrial West in the early 20th century. This revolution, when it comes, has to have a major urban focus.

Related to this is the crisis of sanitation, in terms of toilets, sewage and drainage systems which are notoriously weak or non-existent in many cities in India, both old and new. The current government has flagged off sanitation as a priority but the policy details have not been spelled out in any detail. Connected to the challenges of public health is the availability of high-quality hospital care and adequate insurance or social welfare provisions to prevent poor urban populations from becoming further impoverished during health crises.

The third issue is housing, which is a chaotic patchwork of negotiations between real-estate developers, slum rehabilitation bureaucrats, slumlords and politicians in most Indian cities. There are no powerful housing authorities in India cities which are empowered to work without pressure from developer lobbies and politicians, who often work in hand in hand to extract profits, often corruptly, from urban housing shortages. The need for strong and politically independent housing agencies in each and every city is a part and parcel of the larger challenge in Indian public administration, which is the absence of powerful elected city governments and mayors in almost all Indian cities.

There is nothing new in identifying jobs, health and housing as vital policy priorities in the urban context or in noting that the urban sector in India will become even more unmanageable than it is today unless there are new ideas in each of these areas. Where will these ideas come from?

This is where the idea of smart cities might be helpful. The "smart city" concept is especially popular in the European Union, where individual states are keen to make their cities effective hubs for global markets, creative innovation and social inclusion, as linked goals. Smart cities are cities that foster innovation, reward creative ideas and bring connective technologies into wide use to serve social aims. Especially in Northern Europe, the idea of smart cities is tied to the idea of "valorisation", a recent term for the importance of connecting high-end academic research to useful social applications.

At first glance, the idea of smart cities appears to require a high level of technological development, significant pre-existing communication technologies and a high existing level of literacy. These requirements appear to make the idea of "smart cities" less relevant to India. But the Aadhaar experiment, the Right to Information Act, and the growing use of internet technologies to expand social welfare in India suggests that Indian cities can also be assisted to be "smart cities" with appropriate incentives from the State and the market.

There are also positive factors in Indian cities: the high and growing rates of mobile telephony, the growth of cable television, the large number of IT professionals, the number of non-governmental organisations that are assisting poorer citizens to make use of new media technologies and the relative cheapness of new media compared to older ones.

There is no doubt that applying the idea of "smart cities" to India will require considerable thought, adaptation, creativity and foresight so that it does not become one more elite fashion with few concrete benefits for India's less wealthy urban residents. It will require entrepreneurs, politicians, courts and civil society activists to cooperate on the virtues of cheap access, high accessibility, maximum social inclusion and minimum rent-seeking and other forms of corruption in the distribution of bandwidth and user-friendliness.

Moreover, these priorities will have to be set in a wider framework of transparency, accountability and citizen empowerment which are priorities for India's public life which far transcends cities and technology.

There is one more reason for paying attention to the inclusion of the poor into the evolving social design of India's cities. Because of their density, their saturation with media images, and their exposure to political propaganda, Indian cities are susceptible to communal, class and caste violence, as well as to new levels of violence against women, as we have recently seen in Delhi, Mumbai and many other cities. It is impossible to avoid the inference that such violence is closely tied to economic frustrations, disappointments and exclusions, especially of the young male populations of these cities. Urban planners and leaders need to think carefully, as they design cities, about the conditions of urban violence and of its prevention, apart from law and order solutions.

Urban violence is partly a result of crowding, economic frustration and radical inequality, all problems that can only be tackled by dealing with the primary issues of jobs, health and housing. But urban violence is also a matter that requires direct address through education, media and cultural programs that emphasise the values of diversity, tolerance and inclusion. These issues require a partnership between old and new media, as well as between public and private media partners. Social media can be powerful tools for fostering the values of co-existence and conviviality between groups, communities and classes. But this will require social media policies that encourage these values consciously.

At the end of the day, Indian cities face a major fork in the road, in the era of new media, aggressive market forces and new patterns of consumption and class. They can be truly face-to-face societies, in which urban alienation, stress and uncertainty are partly alleviated by social contact, direct social relationships and mutual recognition and acknowledgement. Or they can become back-to-back societies, where urban groups become isolated and inward-looking, avoiding contact with one another except in conditions of hostility and hierarchy. This back-to-back order remains one of the worst aspects of the caste system.

If Indian cities are to make the right choice at this fork in the road, it will require the combined efforts of private as well as public forces, of leaders and ordinary citizens. At stake is the livability of Indian cities and also their capacity to become drivers of genuinely inclusive growth.

(Arjun Appadurai is Paulette Goddard Professor of Media, Culture & Communication at New York University. He is founder-president of PUKAR, a participatory research outfit in Mumbai, the city of his birth)

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