Sustainable Urban Development in India: An Inclusive Perspective

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Sustainable Urban Development in India: An Inclusive Perspective

Darshini Mahadevia1

Workshop on Cities of the South: Sustainable for Whom

Organized by

European Science Foundation

Institute for the Built Environment of the Federal Polytechnic of Lausanne

United Nations Research Institute for Social Development

Geneva, Palais de Nation, May 3-6, 2000


Last two decades has seen large number of development policy changes. Particularly, the 1990s has witnessed a significant change in the paradigm of development at the global level, the shift being towards sustainable and human-centred or people-centred development paradigms. The new development paradigm emerging recognises the need to be inclusivist and not exclusivist; broad-based and bottom-up and not centralised and top-down. These ideas have been subsumed under the paradigm of sustainable development, alternatively referred as sustainable human development. There is therefore a very high and all-round positive feeling about the outcomes in the future.

While the overall feelings are positive, there is also a certain disappointment, with inability to achieve rapid results. Starting from, inability to functionalise the concepts and paradigm into actions, realising the inadequacy of the approach, inability to implement the programmes (that is, inadequacy of actions), dogged continuance of the old structures and systems of power and success stories not replicating, are the few setbacks of the new paradigm of development. Also, there is a lack of conceptual clarity; mainly because of the different meanings the term sustainability assumes depending on the philosophy, political ideology and reality in which the concept is operationalized. There are differences with regards to what the new paradigm should lead to, in other words, what is the utopia that one is working towards. Amidst these conceptual differences of sustainable development concept of sustainable cities has to be located.

Concept of sustainable cities is an amalgamation of number of independent ideas and processes; urban environment movement1, decentralization of local governance, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 and with it popularisation and then operationalization (through Agenda 21) of the concept of sustainable development, and Habitat II Conference of United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS) in Istanbul in 1996. Two other UN Conferences of the nineties, Beijing Women’s Conference and Social Summit at Copenhagen in 1995 are other two influences, not much observed in sustainable city concept but definitely has reflection in the concept of sustainable development. As a result number of international efforts have been observed in the latter half of the nineties towards sustainable cities; Sustainable City Programme (SCP), Urban Management Programme (UMP) that is part of the SCP, setting up of Urban Environment Forum (UEF) and recording and supporting of Best Practices, setting up of International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), International Union of Local Authorities (IULA) and UNCHS’s awards of Best Practices towards Sustainable Cities. While a good beginning has been made, the concept of ‘Sustainable Cities’ lacks conceptual variations emerging from differences in ideologies and contexts from which the approaches emerge (the current concept being moored in only one paradigm) and fragmented or extremely micro practices (giving a cause of pessimism when looked in the macro context). This paper reviews the concept of ‘Sustainable Cities’ locating it in the overall debate of ‘Sustainable Development’ and critically overviews the practices towards ‘Sustainable Cities’, in the context of the South drawing experience from India to enunciate the Southern perspective on ‘Sustainable Cities’.

The second section, after this introductory section deals with the concept of sustainable development and following from there the concept of sustainable cities. The North vs South debate is taken up here. Then follows the section that addresses issues related to urban development in India, which is the second largest country in the world housing about 16% of the global population and even at such a low level of urbanization, urban India alone has population to become the fourth largest country in the world. Number of urban poor in India would amount to the population of the whole of Mexico. The fourth section overviews the implementation of programmes towards sustainable cities in India. Deliberately, the term SCP is not used as that would limit the discussion to only programmes supported by the international development agencies and to components identified by the SCP whereas there are many independent efforts at the national and city level that are not part of the SCP but can lead to sustainable cities. The fifth section overviews the spontaneous efforts from the grassroots towards sustainable cities. The last section discusses the issues of Southern Perspectives on sustainable cities. Within the South there is a South, whose perspective should be taken care of for in efforts towards sustainable cities.

Sustainable Cities: Unravelling the Concept

Sustainable Development

Sustainable development is a frequently used nomenclature in the development literature. This phrase was first brought in the development terminology in 1980 in the ‘World Conservation Strategy’ introduced by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) (Heerings and Zeldenrust 1995). The phrase had ecological sustainability in mind given the fact that the post-World War II world, especially the developed countries had embarked on a high resource consuming development path. The coinage of the phrase was an outcome of ‘limits to growth’ theory. The World Commission on Environment and Development’s (WCED), report, popularly known as the ‘Brundtland Report’, popularised the phrase and at the same time gave the most widely accepted definition: “development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987). The concept provides a mediating bridge between development and environment lobbies, as per Huckle (1996), which some researchers (O’Riordan 1988; Adams 1991, in Huckle 1996) attribute to spread of modernity and growth of environmental science and managerialism. As per the definition of the WCED, sustainable development is that which does not reduce environmental capital, that is, available world resources are not reduced, ecological regeneration remains intact and biological diversity and resilience of the ecosystems are respected.

Concept of sustainability is socially and politically constructed. Term sustainable is very appealing as the social, economic and political structures constructed especially in the last fifty years, are collapsing. Every dimensions of society built is under scrutiny and criticism, coming not only from the countries of the South but also in the Northern developed countries that have disproportionately reaped the benefits of the last fifty years of development. On top of it, the development model has been severely criticised from the perspective of ecology. This criticism of ‘modernity’ and dominance of the North over the South is not recent. In fact, the naturalists of the colonising countries, when travelling in the colonised countries had long ago argued that the colonialism was nothing but ‘ecological imperialism’ (Crosby 1986). Similarly, sociologists have argued that it was cultural colonialism and political economists have argued that it was economic colonialism. Political power was a tool to colonise the South in different forms. After the Second World War, when the countries of the South were liberated, hopes were raised of overall development of the countries of the South. The let down led to rethinking about the new development paradigm in the nineties.

Over time, the concept of sustainable development has evolved, and expanded to encompass eclectic ideas and ideologies, from neo-classical economics to post-modern ideologies. There is therefore no single meaning of sustainable development, as the meaning differs with political ideologies, knowledge, values, philosophy and context in which the concept is situated. Like with the sustainable development, there would be different meaning of the concept ‘sustainable cities’, which however, is not yet so widely debated. No matter how variant the conceptualisation of sustainable development is, environment and ecology and its relationship with human beings is the common theme in all the varying perspectives. Human societies are complex and diverse and have numerous interlinkages. More is the understanding of these interlinkages, complex the understanding of the phrase sustainable development becomes.

The diverse conceptualisation of the term ‘sustainable development’ is grouped into two categories by Huckle (1996), one he terms as weak sustainability and the other he terms as strong sustainability. The first one is supported by the conservative and liberal political ideologies, which generally work within the framework of market economy. It views sustainable development as compatible to free market, individual property rights and minimum State regulation and intervention. Nature is brought in through the theory of value; where value of nature is related to the value people derive from its use. A minority among them (the neo-classical economists) suggest that only the market will correct resource scarcity if appropriate pricing of natural resources is done and demand of clean environment is responded through greening of production and consumption, that is greening of business and education by environmental taxes and pollution licenses and trade. In short, they argue for economic instruments to move towards sustainable development. The liberals among these envisage larger role of the State whereas the neo-classical economists envisage minimum role of the State. Here most development funding organisations, the multilateral ones such as the World Bank, UNCHS, and so on and the bilateral ones belong. At the time of the UNCED Conference at Rio, since there was unclear consensus and understanding of sustainable development, Heerings and Zeldenrust (1995) argue that the Transnational Corporations (TNCs) stepped in to project themselves as ‘green’2.

Of late, economic and social dimensions have been added to the concept of ‘sustainable development’, however that is towards achieving long-term economic growth within the present unequal global system. The concept of Environmentally Sustainable Development (ESD) of the World Bank subsumes within it the social, economic and ecological concerns (Serageldin and Steers 1994). The issue of poverty is also addressed within this framework as effort to maximize human welfare. The World Bank’s ESD stands on three pillars (approaches), sociologist’s approach to sustainability, ecologists approach to sustainability and economist’s approach to sustainability. The ESD argues that long-term economic development will not take place if the sustainability of ecological sub-systems and sustainable participation of human beings through their social organizations are not taken into account. It calls for “putting the people first in policies and investment programmes for inducing development, or for assistance in spontaneous development” (Cernea 1994). Building of social capital is an important option to enable people towards sustainable participation in the development processes. It is argued that economists should incorporate environmental and social concerns in the conventional decision-making by the economists (Munasinghe 1994).

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been promoting the concept of Sustainable Human Development (SHD), also termed as human development, since 1990, when it came out with the first Human Development Report (HDR). It defines human development as a process of expansion of people’s capabilities and choices so as to enable them to satisfy their own needs (maximize their own welfare) (UNDP 1990). It argues that people are not the ‘means’ but the ‘ends’ of development process and economic growth as ‘means’ and not the ‘ends’ of human development process. It states that economic growth process that is sustainable, equitous, job-creating, participative and supporting cultural diversity, will lead to human development (UNDP 1996). This approach towards sustainable development is criticized for being ‘economistic’ (where emphasis is on material well-being), approaching human development in an unequal global system where the North dominates the South (and thereby inadvertently supporting the Northern material and ideological domination) and engendering of development is not a part of the process but an added concern (Hirway and Mahadevia 1996, 1999). Nicholls (1996) criticizes this approach for skirting the issue of existing power structure at global, national and local levels and thereby attempting to achieve sustainable development as well as human development within the exiting structures; inadequate global, national and local institutional structures to carry out bottom-up, participatory, holistic and process-based development initiatives; and ignoring the fact that there are self-interested development partners (from global to local levels) who might have interest in perpetuating the current unequal power structures.

The strong definition of sustainable development accommodates various approaches, namely, deep ecologists, ‘greens’, social ecologists, ecofeminists, postmodernists, political economists, and others. They first of all reject the position that the nature and social systems have to be internalised for economic development arguing that this bolsters the position of capital and not the people in the development process. Equity and its sustainability (at global, national and local levels) is at the centre of concern. Redclift (1987) has argued that sustainable development is being promoted within the framework of standard development models of the North, so that the North can continue to overexploit the resources of the South and continue to pollute the South by considering it as waste sink. Sachs (1993) stated that the talk of common future and global crises have been put forward to mask the real causes of and therefore real solutions to environmental crises and sustainable development has remained as a rhetoric to continuing commodification of nature. Modernity converted natural resources into a commodity. Modernity came as an outcome of capitalism, which requires economic growth or capital accumulation, a goal that takes precedence over other goals and which commodifies everything, nature, people and so on. It is techno-managerialism (Huckle 1996) at the assistance of the globe that treats every development issue as technical and managerial and not of political in nature.

Sustainable political economy is one that is ecologically and socially sustainable. It will protect and enhance life support systems on which it depends and develop social institutions that generate social harmony and commitment to shared values (Huckle 1996 quoting Robinson et al 1990). In the times we are living, dominant forms of economic production and distribution are unable to meet the needs of millions of people and at the same time damaging the nature on which these forms of economic production depend. There is a need to move towards a form of political economy that meets everyone’s need without damaging nature on which production depends. Towards this, people and communities should critically examine the technologies, systems of economic production, cultural systems of reproduction, laws and politics, and ideas and ideologies they currently employ to live with the rest of the nature. Political economy defines economic production and social reproduction.

In short, the strong definition of sustainable development accommodates all concerns of equity, between nature and human society, between rural and urban, between the North and the South, between different social/ethnic groups, between economic class, and between present and future generation, suggesting that there is no sustainability now without equity. Even if the environmental and ecological concerns are at heart, it argues that without other forms of equity, environmental sustainability will not be possible. It opposes development as economic growth or economic development alone. It opposes the concept that capital is the essential component of development process and also opposes the existing structures of domination and control. Equity is considered as a pre-condition of sustainability of environment and human societies.

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