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Urbanisation: UN report portrays the failure of govts

Pratap Ravindran

Pune , June 2

THE only assertion that can be made with any degree of confidence about elections in India is that it is the poor voter - and not the upper or middle class one - who makes and breaks governments.

And yet, successive governments in India — including the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) if one is to go by its Common Minimum Programme (CMP) and its public pronouncements — while claiming to be much concerned about the plight of the rural poor, have shown complete indifference to the travails of the urban poor even though the percentage of the urban poor has been greater than that of rural poor since 1987-88.

Ironically, the urban poor comprise, to a significant extent, villagers who have been impoverished by the pro-urban rich policies of various governments and have migrated to cities in search of livelihood.

This phenomenon is not restricted to India: There are many countries in which the production function in the globalised order has transformed peasants into urban workers to such an extent that peasantry as a class has experienced a sharp decline in terms of its numbers and political power.

Although the urbanisation process is acknowledged to be associated with increasing national production and higher levels of per capita GDP, poverty continues to be a persistent feature of urban life with a significant section of urban households in India living in slums, squatter settlements and refugee colonies due to non-availability of affordable habitat.

Government figures indicate that Maharashtra leads in slums, followed by Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal. Data from other sources suggest that over 40 million slum dwellers are yet to benefit from the various welfare schemes set out in the five-year plans and stand in urgent need of succour. The UPA is quite clear that reformist economic models successfully followed by other nations will not work in India and that this country must evolve a model of its own. This doctrine is an eminently sensible one — the only problem with it being that big capital does not seem to have heard of it and behaves in India exactly as it does in other countries.

The proliferation of urban slums in the wake of globalisation represents a case in point.

According to the United Nations, one billion people — roughly one-third of the world urban dwellers and a sixth of all humanity — live in slums today. And, in its late 2003 report titled `The Challenge of Slums,' it predicts that, within 30 years, this figure will double to two billion.

The report, the biggest ever study of international urban conditions, was prepared by UN-Habitat, the UN human settlement programme based in Nairobi, Kenya.

It goes on to observe that poverty, once predominately a rural issue, has now become an overwhelmingly urban phenomenon with city dwellers constituting the world majority after the spurt of urban growth in the nineties in which decade alone the urban population worldwide increased by 36 per cent. According to the UN, in addition to the growth of giant cities in all the continents, up to three-quarters of future anticipated urban population growth will occur in some of the world's smaller cities, defined as those with current populations between one and five million.

Significantly, while the largest economies are responsible for just two per cent of slum dwellers, an incredible 80 per cent of the urban population of the world's smallest economies lives in slums.

The UN-Habitat report attributes the deterioration in urban life the world over to the inertia of national governments, globalisation and the neo-liberal economic policies imposed upon nations by the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation over the last three decades. It describes how rural dwellers are drawn to the cities by factors such as the privatisation of public services, loss of rural employment or homestead and the removal of subsidies and tax breaks from national industries and how, over the last 25 years, the conditions in which urban slum dwellers lives have been exacerbated by free market policies and the absence of a trickle-down of the wealth created by deregulated markets to slum communities.

It records the failure of governments to provide affordable housing in cities which has forced the bulk of the urban population into inner city slums, peripheral shantytowns and, in many cases, the sidewalks and traffic roundabouts and condemned them to a life of insecure employment, state persecution and extreme poverty.

The UN-Habitat report, in effect, exposes the falsity of the political establishment's representation of poverty as an essentially rural issue to obscure its contours and pervasiveness.

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