A recent study, “Towards a better life? A cautionary tale of progress in Ahmedabad”, authored by Tanvi Bhatkal, William Avis and Susan Nicolai for the Overseas Development Institute, London, says that there may have been significant gains for poor people across different dimensions of well-being in Ahmedabad, yet several key challenges continue to hold back progress. Among the main challenges it has identified are inequity in access to services and opportunities, centralised approaches to implementing urban policy, leading to increased social dislocation, increasing social tension driven by both population growth and religious polarization, and environmental damage. Excerpts:
Inequity in access to services and opportunities
While the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) has introduced policies to improve the living conditions of slum dwellers, recognition of slum settlements and their rights remains an issue across India and within Ahmedabad. The perception of ‘urban advantage’ in services can obscure great differences among and within urban populations. This has been shown to be true in Ahmedabad: the city scores well in terms of service-level benchmarks for water and sanitation, but significant sections of the population, particularly the urban poor, continue to either lack services completely or lack access to services of good quality.
Similarly, while the city has performed well in terms of the construction of housing for low-income families under the Basic Services to the Urban Poor (BSUP) component of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Renewal Mission (JnNURM), which has often been used to house those displaced by large infrastructure projects, such as the bus rapid transit system (BRTS) and Sabarmati Riverfront Project, there have been several challenges in implementation.
The sites selected to rehabilitate displaced slum residents tend to be far from the city centre, often in poorly developed or industrial areas, with poor access to transport links. As a result, many people are unable to continue with their previous occupations, while others need to spend more travel time and money to reach their place of work.
A study of the impact of those displaced by the Sabarmati River Front Project found that among the children of displaced families relocated to BSUP housing, about 18% of students dropped out of school and an additional 11% lost school attendance. Those that stayed in school spent more time and money commuting to school as relocation sites were often at a greater travelling distance and had poor transport links to schools.
Similarly, access to health facilities is also often poor. Although primary health centres are to be constructed on all occupied BSUP sites, they have often been found to not be functional. Moreover, drinking-water in many sites has shown high concentrations of chemicals and coliform bacteria, which have contributed to illness among residents. In addition, the allocation of families to housing units has generally been based on a lottery system. This often negatively affects their social networks and contributes to greater social isolation and lower access to informal insurance. As a result, families often return to the city to live in slums. For instance, a study on the relocation of households to low-income housing found that 34% of those who were allocated housing did not move into the assigned housing, and 32% of those who moved eventually returned to their families and friends. While the number of houses produced in Ahmedabad under the JnNURM has been impressive, several challenges prevent it from meeting the needs of the intended beneficiaries, and indeed relocation has often reduced their well-being.
Regressive moves in terms of the opportunities for livelihoods among street vendors have also been recorded. According to SEWA there are about 100,000 street vendors in Ahmedabad. The street vendors in Ahmedabad are restricted and regulated by five laws, making them vulnerable to eviction, confiscation of their goods and continuous harassment.
The government invoked a National Policy on Urban Street Vendors in 2009 to recognize street vending as an integral and legitimate part of the urban retail trade and distribution system. The centrepiece of the policy is the formation of a city or town vending committee, which includes representatives of street vendors, and which registers street vendors and manages vending spaces. The policy recommends that the municipal authorities provide street vendors a range of civic services. However, as noted in Section 2.4, the urban poor have been reduced to forcing the implementation of policies in their interest through public interest litigation. In the case of street vendors SEWA filed a case in the Gujarat High Court to demand the rights of street vendors.
Even in urban planning for city expansion under the Development Plan – Town Planning Scheme (DP-TPS) there are some concerns over whom the process actually includes. Ahmedabad involves landowners in the planning process and performs better than most cities where land is still acquired without consultation. Yet, the DP-TPS process only consults official landowners. This excludes many other people that depend on the land being incorporated into the urban areas, notably labourers, people renting land and also landowners that purchased land informally – who are probably poorer and more likely to lose from the process. Many of these groups lose their land and source of livelihood. While the AMC stated it would reserve 2% of TPS areas for street vending, as of December 2011, this had not been implemented.
Increasing centralised approaches to implementing urban policy
While the JnNURM marked the first step in terms of recognising the need to invest in urban areas – more recently the ‘Smart Cities’ and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation has taken this forward – increased funding has meant the increasing adoption of a top-down, project-driven and deterministic model of development with minimum community input. Whereas the JnNURM included, as an essential component, governance reforms to strengthen municipal capacity, most cities have struggled on this front. Ahmedabad, which has had strong municipal governance even before the JnNURM, too has failed to provide voice to citizens and has not yet created ward sabhas (assemblies at the lowest level), which were mandated as JnNURM reforms.
In addition, while cities with poor municipal capacity have struggled to absorb funds under the JnNURM, in the case of cities such as Ahmedabad there has been criticism that the inflow of money has reduced incentives for local resource mobilisation (stakeholder interview – public finance expert). While the AMC previously raised money through innovative mechanisms, such as through issuing municipal bonds, such initiatives have been crowded out.
The rapid inflow of money has also contributed in part to the change in approach from slum upgrading – which involved more effort and time – towards the construction of new housing units. Of course, the availability of subsidies need not mean the end of local programmes. City authorities can leverage public funding to augment the development of city-wide infrastructure while continuing a community-driven approach to make this infrastructure accessible to slum communities. Yet, attention has been diverted from local, cost-effective programmes, like the SNP, that were built on a collaborative and incremental model of development.
In fact, in the case of Ahmedabad, there has been increasing control by the state government – with a stronger focus on attracting private investment at the cost of involving communities. This goes to the heart of what is meant by ‘development’ in developing countries. In Ahmedabad, and indeed in much of urban India, there has been a shift in the conception of development from inclusive growth to the creation of ‘global cities’ marked by capital-intensive projects, such as the Sabarmati Riverfront project, that often neglect the concerns of poor people. This was raised by several interviewees in the course of this research, who identified the need for debate on what is meant by urban modernity – particularly in the context of the planned ‘Smart Cities’ (stakeholder interview – academics, civil society and NGO representatives). The abandonment of slum upgrading in favour of a return to old policies of the resettlement of slum dwellers has accentuated the exclusion of the urban poor.
Even though Ahmedabad has had progressive programmes in place that involved cooperation between the local government and poor communities, over time the government has failed to engage with the poor and there has been a breakdown in trust. For instance, the ‘development’ of two of the lakes as gated recreational spaces led to the demolition of two of the slums upgraded under the SNP. As brought out in our interviews this raises pertinent questions about whom the development process seeks to benefit, and importantly it contributed to a breakdown in trust between communities and the government (stakeholder interview – representative from civil society organisation). As a result, dialogue at the city level has decreased and interaction between the government and civil society has become strained and increasingly confrontational.
Increasing social tension
Ahmedabad has a long history of socio-religious violence and has been one of the most riot-prone cities in India. Since the 1960s Ahmedabad has witnessed several instances of ethnic violence, and conservative elements have led several agitations in Ahmedabad as well as more widely in the state.
Around 1,500 people were killed in the city’s first major riot in 1969 – 90% of them from the Muslim community. Many smaller communal conflicts took place over the next decade, with a major riot in 1985. In most cases the police were unable to maintain order, and they were even known to take part in violence against minority groups, according to government enquiry commissions and citizen tribunals.
Over time many Muslims have moved out of the old city and mill areas of eastern Ahmedabad to the western periphery of the city, to an area commonly known as Juhapura. With the communal divide increasing in the wake of each riot, and access to housing for Muslims in other parts of the city becoming more and more difficult, an increasing number of Muslims have left for Juhapura. Their flight was particularly marked after the violence escalated in 2002, with mobs administering a ‘near pogrom of the Muslim inhabitants’, which is reported to have left 1,000 people dead.
Since 2002 the city has become increasingly divided along religious lines. Many of those who fled the centre of the city are now living in areas where there has been no town planning and, as a result, they have poor access to basic services. There has been a very marked segmentation of residential space in the city since 2002, with the ‘ghettoisation’ of Muslim communities.
The core (or walled city) houses both Hindu and Muslim communities that have become increasingly distanced from each other. The industrial area on the eastern side is largely occupied by lower caste and Muslim families, while the western side is occupied by the rich and middle classes in gated communities interspersed with pockets of migrant labour and social housing created under the TPS. As discussed in Section 4.1, there are evident inequities in access to basic services: the western side of the city has the highest level of basic services, public spaces, schools and universities, and other institutions and amenities. On the other hand, the eastern side and its periphery has much lower levels of amenities, exacerbating inequalities in living standards and opportunities.
The environmental impact
With Ahmedabad continuing to expand, both in terms of its population and geographic size, increasing pressure is being placed on its available infrastructure. While the AMC has been able to maintain the coverage and efficiency of public amenities, the continued expansion of the city presents challenges.
While the AMC has high coverage in terms of water supply, it only supplies water for two hours each day, with most housing societies constructing water storage to access water through the day. Many middle-class residential societies maintain their own bore wells to supplement the water supplied by the AMC, with usage remaining unmetered and thereby depleting the groundwater levels. Anecdotal evidence suggests that several industries in the city are also drawing groundwater in significant quantities. The AMC lacks the means to monitor private wells, so it has limited information on groundwater being drawn privately.
Ahmedabad once had sophisticated water management structures, such as stepwells and rainwater harvesting and storage systems, but these structures now lie derelict. The AMC lacks a strong water management policy. While the Development Control Regulations (DCRs) require that all new developments above a certain size should either capture rainwater for direct use or collect it in a percolation pond for filtration and recharge of groundwater sources, this rarely happens in the absence of effective monitoring and enforcement.
Integrated water management, including the sensitive use of groundwater resources, is essential to achieve long-term environmental sustainability. Yet, despite the AMC’s efforts to source and supply water from surface sources, the groundwater table in Ahmedabad is being depleted year on year.
Water pollution is also a big concern in the Ahmedabad region. One major cause of pollution is the discharge of inadequately treated industrial effluent directly into the river, much of it from the textiles, dyes, chemicals and ceramics industries along its banks. Most of these come under the aegis of the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC), a Government of Gujarat enterprise to promote industrial development, and the AMC lacks any planning or monitoring authority over GIDC controlled areas.
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