Making sense of the urban maze
Reviewed by Meeta Rajivlochan

Urbanisation in India: Challenges, Opportunities and the Way Forward
Ed: Isher Judge Ahluwalia, Ravi Kanbur and P K Mohanty
Sage. Pages 337. Rs 850.

Urbanisation in India: Challenges, Opportunities and the Way ForwardTHIS book focuses on the prescription-side of urban planning to tell us of what all is wrong with present-day urbanisation, the possible solutions and the way forward. Unfortunately, it makes little effort to unravel the knots on the implementation side that have kept similar prescriptions tied to the wall for all these years while our cities rot.

India today is an urban nation without much thought being given on how to organise living urbanely. The matter is of considerable importance considering that urban living affects over 62 crore people out of which over 30 crore live in sub-human conditions with little access to water and shelter and almost no access to sewage disposal. In the most literal sense, our towns are wallowing in dirt and we do not know what to do about it. They are growing uncontrollably and we lie helpless, letting politics decide on how to prohibit outsiders from entering the town. Creating more cities, ensuring that a new city is built every time an existing one crosses a population size of a few lakhs is something we have not even thought about.

The issues here are of planning, infrastructure and sustainability; finance; and the question of inclusion so that no one living in a town gets left out of consideration. It is these issues that the present volume addresses. There are a total of 10 papers along with one that lays down the framework for better organising urban development, government and living as provided in the recommendations of the High-Powered Expert Committee that created a perspective plan for urban growth till 2032. We can expect the new government to build upon the ideas presented here and ensure that the knots that tied down the implementation of these ideas would be loosened and proper growth of our towns would become possible.

The book argues for a greater role of the city government in the growth of the city, the need for more investment in capacity building and infrastructure development and the need to involve the people of a locality more in governance. One of the most interesting papers here is by Samuel Paul who shares experiences of generating demand from the public for good governance and how it helps improve urban governance. Social audits, community score cards, citizen report cards, public expenditure tracking have been some of the devices, he suggests, that have been fruitfully used. Bimal Patel and V K Phatak provide an equally interesting account from Gujarat of integrating slum development within the ambit of a healthy development of the city. Isher Judge Ahluwalia's two essays tell us of the issues concerned with creating infrastructure, setting up healthy systems of service delivery and leveraging market forces for achieving goals for creating a healthier urban conglomerate. What is missing in all these papers, however, are two crucial elements. As mentioned above, one is about the lack of political will that ensures that many of the ideas being suggested in this book, like that of fiscal federalism remain unimplemented. The same goes for leveraging market forces to smoothen out service delivery in towns. Almost no thought is given on how to surmount the political obstructions which often are braced by judicial pronouncements that suspect the executive to be doing wrong.

The larger lacuna concerns the scale of living. If India is urbanising today it is mostly because of the tremendous growth of the large and very large urban conglomerates. Covering humungous population sprawls, these regions attract people from all over the country depleting villages as well as the smaller towns but without a corresponding increase in civic facilities and municipal incomes. No wonder both sets of settlements, the ones from where people were pushed out and the ones where people came in to find work and settle, begin to look like an irremediable disaster area. Chaos rules. In the absence of government, hoodlums take over. Then a new kind of political problem emerges for all to cry over. It occurs to me that most of the solutions discussed in this volume would be eminently implementable in towns with smaller size, say a population of 10 lakhs or less. At the same time, they would be impossible to implement in the massive urban spreads covering the country today. However, the contributors here have yet not considered the possibility of insisting that by executive order town sizes be limited. As soon as a town size exceeds 10 lakh it be incumbent on the government to build a new town nearby. At the moment our government has let towns sprout rather than have them grow.