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Wed 1Oct2014

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Urban development in the 12th Plan: Who's in? Who's out

It seems likely that the 12th Plan will also incorporate the same old gendered assumptions that have effectively invisibilised women -- particularly working class women -- from urban policies in India, writes Kalyani Menon-Sen

The 12th Plan has been in the pipeline for a while now. In a significant departure from earlier exercises, the Planning Commission made an effort this time to broaden the base of consultations and solicit suggestions from 20 different categories of interlocutors on how to address various strategic challenges. Respondents included several NGOs under the umbrella of Wada Na Todo Abhiyan; members of online discussion groups; people who wrote in on the 12th Plan website and  Facebook page; students who participated in an essay competition organised by the Tata group and online discussion groups managed by the UN system; as well as the usual suspects like CII, FICCI, FISME and NABARD. The outputs of these discussions have been collated into an impressive document (1) summarising the issues and recommendations with respect to the 12 strategic challenges identified by the Planning Commission. 

For the Planning Commission to go outside its traditional charmed circle of advisors and experts to solicit inputs from ordinary citizens is no small step. Whether motivated by the increasingly public critique of its positions on issues such as the poverty line, or by a genuine rethinking of its hitherto ivory-tower approach, we cannot but welcome the opening up of the planning process to public involvement. We must also applaud the fact that women's organisations and people working for gender equality and women's rights were represented in every sub-group and contributed inputs on a range of issues.

Can we then look forward to a 12th Plan that is significantly more pro-people, gender-just and inclusive than its predecessors? Although the answer to this question must await the unveiling of the final document, the indications are that there may not be too much to celebrate, at least for those who are concerned with urbanisation and urban issues.           

‘Managing urbanisation’ is one of the 12 strategic challenges identified by the Planning Commission. The report of the consultations provides an exhaustive list of issues raised by the various interlocutors, most of whom seem to agree on “the un-inclusive and unsustainable nature of Indian cities”. Increasing rural-urban migration, poor infrastructure and services, neglect of the unorganised sector, homelessness, problems in accessing services for “invisible people”, rising violence against women, lack of appropriate structures for planning and governance, poor convergence and lack of expertise in the implementation of schemes, resource constraints, environmental concerns -- the litany is not new, but no less valid for being oft-repeated.

The proposals for addressing these challenges are equally well-worn. Even without the attributions, it is easy to see who said what. The civil society groups voiced a demand for basic facilities -- water, electricity, healthcare, childcare, education -- for the urban poor. Population control, urban land reforms, encouraging PPP for urban infrastructure provision, operation and maintenance were raised by CII. The gender people called for gender-sensitive planning.

How is the Planning Commission going to deal with this long and rather messy collection of concerns and ideas, many of which stand in direct contradiction to each other?

Although we still do not have a 12th Plan document, the cabinet-approved version of the Approach Paper is now on the Planning Commission website (2) and provides sufficient evidence of how the data gleaned from the consultations has been used. Chapter 12 (‘The Challenge of Urbanisation’) does indeed list many of the challenges identified during the consultations -- increasing population density in urban areas, poor infrastructure and inadequate services, weaknesses in institutions of governance, the situation of those working in the informal sector, environmental concerns. The proposals for action include many of the suggestions made by NGOs and civil society groups -- a “whole city” approach to urban development, decentralised and participatory planning, subsidised basic services along with security of tenure and affordable housing for the poorest, increased investment in public transport systems and creation of opportunities for formal employment as well as “productive and dignified self-employment”. At the same time, the concerns of industry bodies and corporate players have not been ignored. Increased investment in infrastructure and maintenance of assets, continued pursuit of public-private partnerships including in the health sector, privatisation of services such as water supply and waste disposal, increased pressure on local bodies to mobilise private capital, opening up of land markets and investment in emerging cities -- all these are bound to gladden the hearts of corporate India.

However, there is one significant omission. Nowhere does the Approach Paper reflect any awareness of the differential situations, needs and concerns of women and men of different communities and occupations. Nowhere is there any acknowledgement of issues such as women’s role in the care economy, their lack of access to housing and sanitation, their vulnerability to violence in public spaces -- all of which were specifically highlighted by Wada Na Todo sub-groups and the Solutions Exchange Gender Community during the consultations. As a matter of fact, the text of the chapter on urbanisation does not contain a single specific mention of women.  

To be fair, this gender blindness is not confined to the discussion on urbanisation alone. The Planning Commission’s “challenges matrix” that provides the structural framework for the 12th Plan does not identify gender inequality as a cross-cutting challenge. One would have no quarrel with this, if there was a recognition of women’s vulnerabilities and of gender as a mechanism for social discrimination and exclusion. While glimmers of this understanding may be found in some other sections of the Approach Paper, women are not listed among the “historically disadvantaged groups” for whom focused interventions are needed -- an unexpected omission, considering that hitherto ignored and invisible categories such as “LGBT groups” and “differently-abled persons” are included.

The Planning Commission is following a time-honoured bureaucratic (and patriarchal) tradition in using the term “people” as if it were inclusive, rather than a cloak of invisibility that hides yawning gaps and inequalities not just between women and men, but between people living in different areas of the city, migrants and ‘insiders’, people of different castes and religions, people in different occupations… the list could go on.

The Approach Paper does talk of “slums” and “slum-dwellers” but, again, as an undifferentiated homogenous population that can be conveniently lumped under the label of “the urban poor” who are “largely employed in the informal sector and suffer from multiple deprivations and vulnerabilities that include lack of access to basic amenities such as water supply, sanitation, healthcare, education, social security and decent housing (and) are also not sufficiently represented in the urban governance process” (3). The only specific groups mentioned are street children and old people.

Improving “the ability of urban aggregations to gainfully accommodate migrants from rural India” is listed as the first of the outcomes of the urbanisation strategy proposed during the 12th Plan. However, the next few points leave no doubt about the rationale for this. “The urban centres and their peripheries should become the launch-pads for expansion of manufacturing and modern services. Economies and innovations within them should provide the country with the desired global competitive edge in larger numbers of products. Such economies of agglomeration would also enable the country to take full advantage of its diverse production base.”

Needless to say, a major element of the “diverse production base” is the availability of a large labour force, willing to work at a fraction of global wage standards. How convenient then, to have this pool of workers agglomerated within cities rather than scattered randomly across the countryside. To quote the report of the Planning Commission’s Working Group on urban poverty and slums (4): “Slums are an integral part of the phenomenon of urbanisation, and are contributing significantly to the economy of cities by being a source of affordable labour supply for production both in the formal and informal sectors of the economy.”

The Approach Paper suggests a “massive push” by urban local bodies to attract private investment in all areas of urban infrastructure, not only for large infrastructure projects (as  earlier in the first phase of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission), but also for drinking water supply, waste water recycling, treatment of solid waste and urban sewerage. The Approach Paper proposes an “extended ‘4P’ framework of People-Private-Public Partnerships as experience across the world indicates that in urban renewal and management, the role of ‘people’ in the design of projects and partnerships is crucial, much more so than in large infrastructure projects such as highways, airports, power, power plants, etc, in which ‘people’ have a relatively limited role in the ongoing governance of the projects and their outcomes.” And just in case the addition of the “people” still fails to persuade private players to fork out their money, there is a handy solution: “Subvention from property and other urban taxes is imaginatively used to meet any financial gap in the projects where felt necessary.” In other words, PPPP (like its precursor, PPP) will continue to be parsed as “Public Paisa in Private Pockets”. 

Despite the acknowledgement of the existence of “the poor” scattered here and there throughout the text, the 12th Plan Approach Paper seems to have taken several steps backward from the 11th Plan. Where the 11th Plan document at least listed “reduction of urban poverty” as an element of the strategy for urbanisation, the 12th Plan Approach paper speaks of “socio-technical considerations” in determining urban form. Where the 11th Plan includes “protection of the economic interests and safety of women and other vulnerable sections of society” among the objectives of the urban poverty alleviation strategy, the 12th Plan Approach Paper offers nothing more than the vague assurance that “people” will be consulted wherever appropriate.

It seems clear that the focus in the 12th Plan will continue to be on urban infrastructure, with social infrastructure also being brought into the PPPP embrace. Despite serious criticisms of both intention and implementation during its first phase, JNNURM seems well set to continue -- the Approach Paper proposes merging it with the Rajiv Awas Yojana to create a brontosaur of a programme that will continue to peddle the agenda of monetising and marketising public land and the urban commons, thinly disguised as urban “reforms”.    

It could be argued that the Approach Paper is not the Plan, and too much should not be read into it. In fact, the document itself mentions that a special sub-committee on urbanisation has been set up by the National Development Council, which will review the recommendations of the High-Powered Committee on Indian Urban Infrastructure and Services and “hopefully also deliberate on the issues raised in the Approach Paper”. The outputs of these deliberations are expected to inform the 12th Plan document. 

The report of the Steering Committee on Urbanisation -- intriguingly forward-dated November 2012 and marked ‘Confidential Working Draft Not For Circulation’ -- is also available on the website of the Planning Commission (5). This document reads like a preview of the Plan document and contains detailed proposals for schemes to be rolled out at national, state and local levels. Although the members of the committee are not listed, one suspects that they included some “povertywallahs”, since the document contains several pages of detailed analysis of urban poverty data and proposes some major policy changes. These include formalising and unionising informal sector workers, supporting street vending and informal markets and launching a comprehensive national urban livelihood programme with components for social protection, enterprise development, capacity development and access to credit. However, the overarching conceptual framework for urbanisation remains unchanged -- the goal is to make cities “engines of economic growth” through creating world-class infrastructure and professional management of urban services, with PPPPs backed by a “robust land monetisation framework” as the main drivers of change.

Given this scenario, it seems likely that the 12th Plan will also incorporate the same old gendered assumptions that have effectively invisibilised women -- particularly working class women -- from urban policies in India. Despite being repeatedly challenged and disproved by feminist scholars and women’s rights activists, our urban planners continue to operate on the assumption that what is good for families is (and should be) good for women; that male-headed households and nuclear families are (and should be) the norm; that all women have (and should have) the same needs and aspirations. These assumptions not only provide the justification for programmes that few, if any women can access and benefit from, but this is only one side of the problem. They also serve to hide the widening gaps and disparities between women and men and between different groups of women. The ongoing discussion on the poverty line is an excellent example of how this system operates.

Given this situation, one may well ask if there is anything to be gained by advocating for the insertion of gender-responsiveness into the urbanisation strategy of the 12th Plan. What does it matter whether women -- or dalits, or minorities, or homeless people, or daily wage workers -- are named or ignored in such documents? Has the more gendered language of the 11th Plan made any difference on the ground? Can it not be argued that insertion of gendered language is actually a form of containment, with even small concessions -- a word here, a sentence there -- seeming like  major victories that then have to be defended against attrition?

But these are questions for those who are engaging with and trying to influence the 12th Plan -- they need not concern the Planning Commission, which continues to demonstrate its commitment to “listening to India”. The 12th Plan website still invites “stakeholders’ suggestions”, with a montage of happy faces eager to “voice my opinion”. The page is also running an online poll. The question: “Should the PDS be universalised again?” Clicking on a button allows you to vote but not to see the results -- a reminder that even participation has limits set by those who, even as they invite people to speak up, can exercise the power to decide what to hear and what to ignore.

(Kalyani Menon-Sen is a feminist activist and writer based in Delhi)

Endnotes

  1. Planning Commission of India. 2011. Listening to India. A Conversation of Citizens with the Planning Commission Regarding the 12th Five-Year Plan. April 2011
  2. Planning Commission of India. 2011. Approach Paper to the 12th Five-Year Plan. Faster, Sustainable and more Inclusive Growth. October 2011. http://planningcommission.gov.in/plans/planrel/12appdrft/appraoch_12plan.pdf
  3. Approach Paper to the 12th Five-Year Plan. Page 109
  4. Planning Commission of India. 2011. Steering Committee on Urbanisation. Report of the Working Group on Urban Poverty, Slums and Service Delivery System. October 2011.   http://planningcommission.gov.in/aboutus/committee/wrkgrp12/hud/wg_Final_Urb_Pvt.pdf> Accessed April 6, 2012
  5. Planning Commission of India. November 2012 (sic). Report of the Steering Committee on Urbanisation. 12th  Five-Year Plan. http://planningcommission.gov.in/aboutus/committee/strgrp12/strrep_urban0401.pdf Accessed April 6, 2012 

Infochange News & Features, April 2012