Thursday, February 2nd, 2023 06:26:16

How To Make Urban Governance Pro-Poor

Updated: November 15, 2014 10:41 am

This introduction demystifies terms such as ‘the urbanisation of poverty’, ‘absolute’ and ‘relative poverty’ and the ‘informalisation’ and ‘feminisation of poverty’, and points out why urban poverty needs a different approach and set of solutions from rural poverty. Pro-poor urban governance follows on an acceptance of the poor as integral assets of the formal city

If cities do not deal constructively with poverty, poverty will deal destructively with cities, said Robert McNamara, ex-chief of the World Bank.

The poor are an extremely important constituent of the city, a huge asset. But if one looks at them only as an asset as far as services go, and as a liability where services to be rendered to them is concerned, then the numerical strength of the poor is such that it is possible they will impact the city so adversely that the city’s infrastructure and services are destroyed. This was a warning given a long time ago, and it needs to be heeded today if cities want to enjoy balanced growth.

Three Es drive a city. The first is Economy. A city must provide employment. It must create jobs. That is the genesis of the city, where a large number of people gather together to offer their talents and their services, and the economy of the city grows and provides employment. Now if people gather in a place, a habitat, they obviously need to live there. And if they want to live there, there has to be a particular quality of life offered to them so that they can become productive instruments in the city’s economy. That aspect is encapsulated in the word Environment, essentially meaning quality of life where you have good air, clean water, efficient transportation, a good residence and other infrastructure, education, health and recreational facilities, all of which allow you to be a productive member of the city’s employment force. The third word relevant to urban poverty is Equity. It is not enough to have economy for certain kinds of people. It is not enough to provide quality of life for a section of the people. Unless both economy and environment are available equitably to all citizens, the city will not remain balanced. The seeds of destruction are sown when you neglect any one of these. A city revolves around these three Es.

Urbanisation in our country has been growing over the past two-three decades. Urban population as a percentage of the country has moved from 23% to 27% to 31%. About 31% of India is currently urbanised. Although there are over 5,000 towns and cities across the country, the categorisation is wide. C-class towns have populations as low as 5,000 and 10,000. B- and C-class towns go up to around 100,000; municipal corporations have several lakhs; and metropolitan cities have more than 1 million population. The Government of India calls cities like Hyderabad and Bangalore, which have populations of over 5 million, metros.

Metropolitan cities have been growing fast, and the urban poverty in them is growing faster still. Sometime ago I heard a speaker very aptly describe the process: he said population was growing at less than 2%; rural areas were growing at 2%; urban areas at 3%; metropolitan cities at 4%; and urban poverty was growing at 5%. These may not be very accurate figures but they describe the rate at which things are happening in the urban scenario.

There are important facts about urban poverty that we need to look at on a broader scale. One, that there is urbanisation of national poverty. What do we mean by this? Earlier, we did not look at poverty as urban poverty; poverty was essentially rural poverty. When we became independent, India lived mainly in the villages. The poor were in the villages and the question was entirely about how to eradicate poverty there. Also, at that time we were talking about absolute poverty.


When we talk about poverty, the two terms that come up are ‘absolute poverty’ and ‘relative poverty’. Absolute poverty essentially means that a person does not have an income that allows him a minimum calorific value intake every day. If he is unable to do this, then he is absolutely poor and faces a question of survival. For a very long time we were dealing with that kind of poverty. But while in the process of doing that we found that large numbers of people were moving to the cities for employment and a better income that allowed them to feed their families and themselves, and because there was more on offer in the city. Therefore those who wanted to study, those who wanted to do business, those who wanted a better life for themselves opted to shift to the city.

As far as the poor were concerned, they mainly came to the city in search of employment. This led to the urbanisation of poverty which started becoming a big enough issue to begin competing with rural poverty. Soon the nation needed to look both at rural poverty and urban poverty.

What also happened within the urban scenario was that the poverty that came into the cities was largely informalised. This term ‘informalisation of poverty’ is important. What it means is that the city, because of the inflow of the poor, gets divided into two cities: the formal planned city and the informal unplanned city. When you move into the informal unplanned city, you live in a slum; where you work in the informal city, you join the informal sector as a hawker, domestic assistant, any job that is not formal. The informal sector is characterised by undercapitalisation, low skill levels and small businesses. That is the kind of informalisation that has happened in terms of urban poverty, all over the country.

The third component is ‘feminisation of poverty’. What we mean by this is that if we look at the profile of urban poverty we find that the worst off are women-headed households. They earn fewer wages, and the consumption basket available to them is smaller. Women’s needs are not customised in the city; many are simply not taken care of. Therefore, the overall quality of life in women-headed households is worse than in other kinds of families within the fold of urban poverty.


These three phrases: urbanisation of poverty, informalisation of urban poverty, and feminisation of urban poverty are what we need to keep in mind when we try and tackle the problems of urban poverty.

The natural tendency of people who devised policy for this problem has been to study rural poverty and then translate it to the urban scenario, building a replica of what we are doing with rural poverty, for urban poverty. This was the mistake that was being made for a long time, probably because our understanding was limited, and because the attention that urban poverty needed came late, when it had already become a huge problem.

What is it that differentiates rural poverty from urban poverty? Rural poverty is mainly a question of employment. People do not have enough income to give them two square meals a day. Income poverty therefore is the main plank of rural poverty. When people move into cities, they may have low incomes (some families may even be struggling in terms of income poverty), but what generally happens is that they exchange the kind of life they were living in the rural areas for an urban one. When they were living in rural areas, the air was not bad, housing was not a huge problem although they may not have had as good a house as their rich neighbours. Toilets were not a major problem. They went to the same school. They went to the same hospital and enjoyed the same medical facilities. When people shift to urban areas, income poverty may be taken care of partly but a whole host of new problems surround them, problems that have to do with the demeaning lives they live.

The quality of life deficits that come into an urban scenario distinguish rural poverty from urban poverty. Just to give you an example, Dharavi is the biggest slum in Asia. Mumbai in any case is the most densely populated city: it’s almost 30,000 people per square kilometre, which is about the highest in the world. But the population density in Dharavi is 1.25 lakh people per square kilometre! If you live in that kind of density you can imagine the average area available to a citizen to live his life. They live on storeys in shanty structures. Very meagre toilet facilities, very little hygiene, very little space to dump solid waste. All these problems — of air, water, living space, sanitation, toilets, transport, long distances to travel to work which means you spend more money on transport and more time commuting — add to your poverty. These are aspects of urban poverty that do not get visited on the rural poor. The larger the city, the worse off the poor in the sense that, for instance, commuting distances are greater, cost of land increases as cities become larger. The urban poor are deprived of many services.

And unlike in the village where some kind of barter also works, in the city the economy is completely monetised. If you don’t have money you cannot buy the service. Also, in the village, the basket of services is more or less the same for everyone. But when you move to the city, every service is different for every person. The poor will either walk or travel by bus; they cannot afford to drive in their own vehicle. If they have to go to a doctor, they cannot afford many of the medical services that are available. The same goes for education. And housing, and everything else that you need in your life. The basket of services offered to the poor is different from those offered to the rich. And it gets worse as cities move up the ladder.


The point I am making is that if you try and look at urban poverty in the same manner as you look at rural poverty, you will never be able to solve the problems of the urban poor. What you have to measure in cities is not income poverty, which would be one of the criteria, but urban vulnerability. Once you accept this as a definitional aspect of urban poverty, the entire scenario changes. Only then will you realise which aspects of urban poverty you need to strike at, and what the best possible solutions are.

What are the key issues in urban poverty? Firstly, when you look at laws you will see that most of them have nothing for the urban poor. Consider housing. When you live in a slum you are living in an unauthorised colony. Even if it gets authorised under the Slum Act, slums are usually outside the pale of the formal city. Urban planning laws do not recognise slums because they are not something the normal planning control regulations look at. Similarly, there is no place for hawkers in the plans. Although government recently passed the Street Vending Act, this is not enough because the Act must be reflected in all the laws that exist. If there is a separate Act that does not find place in the overall urban laws, then no planning will be done to provide for street vending. Therefore, we need to look closely at legislation. Urban planning has to be changed because equity has never been part of the urban planning process. We borrowed most of our urban planning from the British and have since not changed our planning ethos to reflect the socio-economics of our country.

Shelter is another key issue that needs to be looked at. And livelihoods — how do we provide livelihoods to these people, what is the basket of services that must be offered, and at what cost because the aspects of both service and delivery and cost are important elements of service-provision. How do we give poor people access to credit? How does the flow of information get to the poor? This is an extremely important issue because the poor do not have access to all the information they need. How do they become part of the decision-making process in the habitat in which they live? These are important aspects of urban poverty.

All of this must be related to governance. How far has the theory of governance moved to accommodate the urban poor?

A famous civil servant once said that when government performs its function of administering a country, the function is called ‘governance’. Governance is what a government does. But this is a somewhat naive statement because this is not what governance is. At best it is one kind of governance. The important thing is to what extent has the concept of governance evolved to move from one to all. That’s the direction in which we are going, although we haven’t reached our destination yet.

When we had kings, a single person was involved in the decision-making process. He decided, others followed. That was one kind of governance. Democratic governance moves beyond that. We have come to a situation where we have what we call a ‘representative form of governance’ in our country where we elect a person and he, on our behalf, participates in the decision-making process. The ultimate form of governance is where everyone participates in the governance process. Is that possible? Some say it isn’t. I believe that if technology grows, and if everyone can give his/her opinion through the Net, then everyone’s participation is possible. We would arrive at that point after some time. That is the direction in which governance has to move. Essentially, representative democracy gets replaced by participatory government and more and more people participate to make it more and more democratic so that the journey from one to all finally becomes the most democratic form of governance.

Governance is more than government. It recognises that power exists inside and outside the formal institutions of government. It includes what we call the ‘social capital’ of citizens, all of civil society. What happens in this kind of governance? What essentially happens is that the state continues to be an important element because it is the repository of a lot of power; it has the mandate to take decisions. But it has the mandate to take decisions in a particular manner. It is not the sole decision-maker. It takes along other constituents of civil society — NGOs, citizens, business, anyone who is interested in lending his/her voice to the decision-making process. Therefore government, from being the sole decision-maker, moves to a place where it becomes the orchestrator of social consensus. Like the person who conducts an orchestra. He brings all the opinions together and then derives a consensus which is translated into a decision and gets implemented. That’s the kind of governance we are talking about.

Governance includes three elements. They are: process, content, and deliverance.

Process is the manner in which decisions are made. When we add the word ‘good’ to governance, the ‘goodness’ of that governance is exemplified by the way a decision is taken. If it is taken in a transparent manner, where diverse opinions are taken into consideration and where the concerns of a large number of people, or everyone, are included in the decision-making, that’s inclusive governance. Good governance demands that the process be as inclusive as possible. This has relevance when we talk about urban poverty, because empowerment comes about through the inclusion of the poor in the decision-making process. That’s why it’s important.

What is content? Content involves certain principles which, irrespective of how many people vote for or against them, remain constant. A majority of people may, for instance, want a certain group of people to be exterminated. That’s not a value that good governance would allow, because everyone has an undeniable right to life. No matter how many people want a life to be taken, it cannot be done. Nazi Germany is not something that would ever qualify for good governance. There has to be justice, there has to be equity, there has to be fairness. Therefore, there are certain principles that form the content of good governance irrespective of the number of people who support or don’t support certain decisions.

And deliverables. No matter what process we follow, no matter how much we talk about good governance, ultimately it must deliver something. I may talk endlessly about how everyone should get water, but at the end of the day if there is no water in the tap then that is useless good governance. The tap must have water. A deliverable has to come out of good governance. Certain values and ideas are more or less accepted around the world with regard to good governance. Although there is a lot of debate among theoreticians, almost everyone agrees that they are the principles of good governance. One is the business of it being consensual. There must be as wide a consensus as possible. Another is a fair legal framework. Rule of law remains the bulwark of good governance. Subsidiarity is a word that needs to be explained. What does subsidiarity mean? Essentially it means that if a decision affects a mohalla and can be taken in a mohalla it need not be debated in parliament. If the mohalla is capable of taking the decision, it must be taken at that level. Decentralisation is the hallmark of good governance.

Equity is a very important consideration in good governance. Also, efficiency in service delivery. We talked about transparency and accountability, and security of life and property. These are principles that must be addressed by any society seeking to establish good governance.

We have talked about the urban poor, and we have talked about what governance is. We now need to see how the two relate through a governance mechanism that is pro-poor. In a nutshell, whatever you do, if you want to have pro-poor governance, ask one question: what’s in it for the poor, how do the poor get impacted? Revisit laws from this point of view. When you do, you will see that there is very little in the urban planning laws, for instance, for the urban poor. Shelter is not adequately provided in the way land is distributed, and very few livelihoods are offered in the urban planning laws. Rework urban planning so as to deliver shelter and livelihoods — the two main issues that concern the urban poor. Pro-poor urban governance must recognise that if the poor are citizens of the city, if they are assets to the city, providing them shelter and jobs is paramount. Plan, finance and deliver infrastructure services to everyone. Once poor people are accepted as integral to the city then it becomes obvious that they must get water, they must have toilets, their children must go to quality schools, their medical needs must be taken care of. They need transport, street lights, roads, sanitation, and all of this in the habitat in which they live. You will start addressing these issues the moment you look at them as assets of the formal city. Plan, finance and deliver social services. Once you begin planning and relating plans to the kind of incomes poor people generate for themselves, you will realise that services have to be priced within the reach of poor people. Draw up a strategy for credit. Involve citizens’ groups that work for the poor. There are CBOs and NGOs that link up with banks, guaranteeing that money flows backwards again.

Strengthen information flow. Set up kiosks where information can be distributed; educate the poor so that they can access the information they require. By listening to the poor, organisations of the poor, you will be empowering them. You will start to understand their problems. And they will be able to voice their concerns to you before decisions are taken.                                                                                                                           (Infochange)

By Ramanath Jha

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