The Centre for Policy Research, a leading think tank in Delhi, hosts a monthly urbanization forum, bringing experts from across India and the world to shed light on India’s ongoing and rapid era of urbanization.
We all know the overwhelming, even numbing, statistics surrounding urbanization in India’s already densely populated cities. By 2030, Delhi will have 46 million people and be the largest urban agglomeration in the world. But beyond the numbers—let’s be honest, the low and high estimates of urban population growth both demand immediate policy attention and government action—the real questions revolve around what character these cities will assume. For whom will they be built? What will the aspirations be of the people who fill their streets? What agendas will shape municipal policy? These questions are crucial to the work I’m involved with as an AIF fellow placed at micro Home Solutions, whose mission is to create inclusive cities.
To offer a comparative perspective on these issues, CPR’s forum this month brought Patrick Heller, a political sociologist who compares cities, citizenships and urban governance. His presentation examined Brazilian, South African and Indian cities, defining each according to an urban paradigm that shapes how the city grows and how its citizens take part in that growth. He called South African cities growth machines, where the dominant agenda is developer-driven economic expansion, at the expense of everything else—environment, progressive race relations, socio-economic mobility. Brazilian urban centres are “social cities,” according to Heller, where the long-term agenda is inclusivity and the governance structure is highly democratic and participatory.
Even though he suggested that developer-ruled places like Gurgaon seem similar to the South African model, Heller expressed that the defining paradigm of Indian cities is yet to be determined. Both economic and social change is happening so quickly that the nature of India’s cities is still unfolding; there is no “machine,” neither for growth nor for social inclusion. To illuminate this historical moment, Heller turns to a term anthropologist Arjun Appadurai used to describe Mumbai’s poor: “citizens without a city.” Even in a democracy, citizens have extremely few institutionalized channels they can use to seek redress when their rights are violated. Even fewer are these channels for those who live in “informality”—in informal settlements, with informal jobs, with access only to informal services.
If Patrick Heller is right, that India’s cities now face a critical juncture, then perhaps the most important variable in the urban equation is governance. Going forward, the state will inevitably play an enormous role, through what it does and what it fails to do. Will it support the parochial interests of a few and use clientalist politics to maintain the appearance of democracy? Or will it manage to build a “city” in the true sense, a place of civic participation where the associations of caste and class are less important than citizens’ equal ability to govern themselves? As cities mushroom and resources like land and water become ever scarcer, the stakes of urban governance have never been higher.