Habitat III……how much sustainable is the Sustainable developmental goals !

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The world Habitat III ( the  United nations conference  on Housing and Sustainable Urban development ) concluded in Quito the capital city of Ecuador. Over 50 thousand people including government officials , parliamentarians, civil society groups, indigenous peoples and local communities, professionals and practitioners , the scientific and academic community , NGOs, various stakeholders like the slum dwellers associations, street vendors, students and a cross section of the people participated in this event. One of its kind that focused on the sustainability of the people there was widespread discussion on the agenda. But the point is who will take it forward. The national governments made their commitments to implements the SDGs and the new urban agenda. However not being mandatory I wish the Habitat III agenda does not become a wish list which apparently seems quite radical. For example para 3 of the declaration states, quote, “..the persistence of multiple forms of poverty, growing inequalities , and environmental degradation, remain among the major obstacles to sustainable development worldwide , with social and economic exclusion and spatial segregation often an irrefutable reality in cities and human settlements.” Unquote.

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The agenda as  I have stated is quite radical and speaks about its mandate  to end poverty and hunger , reduce inequalities , promote sustained inclusive and sustainable economic  growth, achieve gender equality and stresses on women and girls empowerment and gives another new term called ‘foster resilience’ and protect the environment. As far as shared vision of the respective governments is concerned it is stated that the foremost vision is ‘cities for all’ to promote inclusivity and ensure that all inhabitants , of present and future generations without discrimination of any kind are able to inhabit and produce just , safe, healthy , accessible , affordable , resilient  and sustainable cities and human settlements to foster prosperity  and quality of life for all. Para 13 envisages 8 visions for human settlements that speaks about inclusive growth and access to public utilities to all in the urban habitations.

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Similarly para 14 speaks about ‘our principles and commitments’ which are quite amazing and more of theoretical jargon than actual reality on ground. It has a,b,c three principles which it states is interlinked and interestingly it lays emphasis on eradication of poverty, well planned urbanization , high productivity and something unheard of in the capitalist world to ‘prevent land speculation’ . Now this is quite a paradox the way urbanization has developed in the major cities of the world . In fact land speculation has been one of the key drivers.  Similarly it has a call for action, which  also speaks about the implementation strategy which is more of an integrated planning process and seems quite a distant dream especially in the developing world where the city governments are just adjuncts of the state governments except a few states where Left ruled or had its imprint. The new urban agenda also focuses on the urban governance structure which sounds quite interesting and calls for establishing a supportive framework. Para 86 is quite explicit about it, quote, ” We will anchor the effective implementation of the new urban Agenda  in inclusive , implementable , and participatory  urban policies as appropriate to mainstream sustainable  urban  and territorial development as part of the integrated development strategies and plans supported as appropriate by national , sub-national and local institutional and regulatory frameworks ensuring that they are adequately linked to transparent and accountable finance mechanisms. “ Unquote.

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Why I am worried that it would remain a wish list is because when I asked the Indian delegation about the way forward they were quite Swanky in saying we know everything and have decided the way forward in the form of Smart cities, AMRUT etc. I did not like to mention there that the way smart cities are being rolled down is actually the reverse of the Habitat III agenda and virtually like writing the obituary of the 74th constitutional amendment! Anyway the point is how I, who is engaged with Urbanization and the manners of urbanism view this conference for,  I was there for over 4 days and what do I am concerned about.

I think while while speaking about sustainable development goals (SDGs) , resilience or the new urban agenda  it is imperative to understand that the cities are not just about the inorganic material consisting of mere infrastructure but constitutes the organic material , set of relations in between the socio economic dynamics of the system what I call the forces of production or the base. So it is this base which is of utmost importance to understand,  which way the cities are getting evolved. Remember what Haussmann did for Paris or Moses for many of the US cities is not a sustainable model of development as has been proven by the history itself. So sustainable development goals have to focus on sustainability of the people and not just the geographical boundary of a city. I was a witness to many of the discussions of the grassroots stakeholders where they have expressed their complete displeasure over what they call the 90% informal sector producing people being unheard within the cities. Apparently before being the deputy Mayor of Shimla I too was leading one of the stakeholders and that was the street vendor’s movement. So to speak about sustainability and resilience is I believe quite compatible to each other and these two speak to each other quite in harmony. But the point is who commands or drives the city. Is it planned, organized or spontaneous? I would say it is both, it is planned and also spontaneous. However the core element within the city, which people here call is the ´cities being engines of growth ´or cities producing the largest share of the GDP is the economic activity within the cities.  I would like to quote from Lefebvre´s infamous quote of the cities ‘producing the surplus’ out of human sweat and hence ‘right to the city’ is not just a moral right, it is economic and political as well. What I intend to demand and say is that there is nothing wrong while this surplus is being produced after all, all  capitalist economies would do that , this is  how the economies are driven. My concern is about the ‘democratization of this surplus’. Actually this term was coined by David Harvey.  How does that happen and who will do it. I think this is one of the foremost questions jittering today. But I am sure without this the entire model of sustainability and the achievement of SDGs would be a distant dream, and here i would like to  quote Joan Closs  , the secretary General of UN Habitat III in one of his famous speeches where he said, quote  “if the system is inherently unsustainable how can you expect the sustainability of the people”, Unquote . Hence I am so concerned about the democratization of this surplus which would mean democratizing the institutions of the people to build their resilience for not just empowering the local bodies but the people. Of course the local bodies happen to bear the entire brunt of urbanization but hardly being empowered especially in the developing world. In India just 1% of the GDP is spent on the municipal expenditure. Hence this democratization is required.

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I have always been championing this phrase of the national governments plan and decide and pass , the state governments in similar fashion decide, plan and pass whereas the city governments plan, decide and pass nowhere but execute and implement all that has been decided at the top. Despite that the body that has a direct connection with the people is the least empowered. Apparently in developing world they are at the mercy of the state or provincial governments.

 Therefore democratization or resilience would mean empowering them and the people For that various models can come up and can be discussed . But the foremost model that needs to be championed is the slogan of ‘right to the city’ which is an inalienable right of the people . However with cities getting gravitated towards the rich and the upper middle class this right too is being under threat. The new paradigm of urban governance (especially in the developing world , India being the classical example) , which is neo liberal which means the utilities and service delivery mechanism will either be privatised or will mount tremendous burden on the people and hence the right to the city or the democratization of the surplus  becomes an arduous task. I remember when we (the Mayor and I are from the CPIM ) got elected the first job for us was to privatize water in the city. We blatantly refused and now with sheer practice and our engagement we have been able to create a new utility for water and sewerage which will be more effective and pro people.

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Therefore the issues in the cities which will haunt the people is and will be the shrinking of the public services and utilities and the escalating costs that they are forced to pay. The travesty is and will be that the people will pay but still would be lurking for the services to be delivered. Similarly the issues of mobility and sanitation are not just mere technical ones but concerns this space of democratization of surplus . For whom does the city move and where is the space for the working people who generally are pedestrians or who move by public transport . This space is shrinking and is being encroached over by the urban middle classes. I remember an anecdote when I was in Leipzig, Germany  for a fellowship programme on urban mobility and inquired about their strategy and the reason for reducing their 8 lanes road to 6  . The prompt answer was that the new spaces needs to be handed over to the pedestrians and the cyclists. Interestingly Leipzig happens to be the city which produces the Porsche cars , one of the expensive ones and I asked who then are you manufacturing these cars for !, again the reply was prompt and it was for ‘you’. That is for us in developing world and India. And I could easily draw a coherence in between our national governments strategy for announcing national highways, widening roads and massive money being pumped in by the World Bank for these activities and the vulnerability we are put into .

Hence these are not just issues in isolation but real class issues of the working people in the cities who require and demand theoretical comprehension of the problems that they face owing to the new paradigm of urbanization and then finding small-small interventions and solutions for their future ‘right to the city’

Hence I have this impending fear and I wish that  Habitat III does not just restrict to a mere ‘wishlist‘.

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