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Need for better, equitable urban planning

The United Nations has designated the first Monday of October every year as World Habitat Day. The idea is to reflect on the state of towns and cities and the basic right of all to adequate shelter. It is also intended to remind the world of its collective responsibility for the future of the human habitat.

The theme of this year’s observance of World Habitat Day, Planning our Urban Future, is meant. To raise awareness of the need to improve urban planning to deal with new major challenges of the 21st century.  This is because urban settlements in all parts of the world are being influenced by new and powerful forces. In both developed and developing countries, cities and towns are increasingly feeling the effects of climate change, resource depletion, food insecurity, population growth and economic instability. These factors will significantly reshape towns and cities, physically and socially, in the century ahead. Many developing countries will, in addition, continue to experience rapid rates of urbanization, along with its most serious negative consequences such as overcrowding, poverty, slums with many poorly equipped to meet the service demands of ever growing urban populations. With over half of the world’s population currently living in urban areas, and this number set to rise to two-thirds in another generation, there is no doubt that the ‘urban agenda’ will increasingly become a priority for all.

In India an estimated 810 lakh people or 25 per cent of urban population still subsists on incomes that are below the poverty line. Eighty per cent of their meager earnings go towards food and energy, leaving very little for meeting the costs of living in an increasingly monetized society. The majority of them live in slums and squatter settlements, in inhuman conditions that deny them dignity, shelter, security and the right to basic civic amenities or social services, in an environment in which crime, ill-health and disease frequently raise demands that draw them deeper into vulnerability and poverty. That about a quarter of the country’s urban population lives in notified and non-notified slums is an indication of the iniquitous and exclusionary urban planning, urban land management practices and land legislation that have not been able to adapt themselves to the pace or profile of indigenous urban growth; or to create space within the formal system of planned living and working spaces to accommodate the informal working classes.

As urbanization grows, and the projected share of urban households rises in the next two decades from the current 28 per cent to 50 per cent of the country’s population, a grim prospect looms large that slums will grow, seriously crippling the productive capacities of a growing number of people by the denial of basic services, shelter and security, increasing inequity and retarding the GDP potential of urban areas.

It is necessary to break away from past trends and practices and to take decisive action for inclusive urban development that acknowledges the presence of the poor in cities, recognizes their contribution as essential to the city’s functioning, and redresses the fundamental reasons for inequity that ties them down to poverty.

A number of major programmes have been started by the Government to address these shortages. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) was launched in 2005, two new schemes entitled Interest Subsidy Scheme for Housing the Urban Poor (ISHUP) and the Scheme for Affordable Housing in Partnership, were launched in February 2009. Together, they seek to upgrade slums and create additional stock by enabling the construction of about 25 lakh houses with basic amenities for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) and Low Income Groups (LIG) by the end of 11th Five Year Plan.

The schemes were launched with the overarching aims of focusing state planning attention on the problems of inequity in urban areas, and drawing budgetary resources to  the welfare of the urban poor. Cities have begun earmarking funds within their budgets for the urban poor and an increasing number of State Governments have notified regulations for reservation of land for EWS housing in all new developments. There is now general awareness that encroachments are the result of an unrealistic town planning model that saw cities as idylls of urbane living, without any consideration of the economic profile of the country or the outcome on urban population statistics of economic growth.

Today, there is an increasing assumption of responsibility towards the slum dweller, and his entitlement to conditions conducive to a dignified quality of life. Rajiv Awas Yojna offers a ray of hope to slum dwellers and other urban poor to access a decent and dignified living environment and an affordable home.

The proposed Rajiv Awas Yojana,  proposes to bringing existing slums within the formal system and enabling them to avail of the same amenities as the rest of the town; redressing the failures of the formal system that lie behind the creation of slum and force the poor to resort to extralegal solutions in a bid to retain their sources of livelihood and employment. A slum-free India is an aggregate of the vision of slum-free state. To achieve this the States need to attend and arrest the problem through a two pronged approach; by upgradation of existing slums and preventing new slums. The scheme focuses on according property rights to slum-dwellers/urban poor by States/UTs, but facilitate an all-encompassing environ adopting a ‘whole city’ approach and providing basic amenities such as water supply, sewerage, drainage, internal and approach roads, street lighting and social infrastructure facilities in slums and low income settlements and enabling the construction of houses by the slum-dweller/ urban poor through access to subsidized credit.

At the dawn of this new urban age only an inclusive city can be a sustainable city and one has to work towards an urban India where one would have addressed the developmental disparities in a comprehensive and holistic manner.

Planning is at the heart of this year’s theme.  Better, more equitable urban planning is essential. But planning will work only where there is good urban governance and where the urban poor are brought into the decisions that affect their lives.  On World Habitat Day, the need is to have best solutions and the indicators of livable cities are good infrastructure, clean environment, good quality of life and vibrant economic base for all its citizens.

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