I was asked to speak at a World Habitat Day event here in Chennai on October 5th on the issue of socially inclusive planning.
I decided to use the opportunity to critique the central government’s largest effort at promoting “inclusive growth” in cities – the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), which makes Rs. 50,000 crores of central government money available for partial funding for infrastructure projects to incentivize cities to fund and prioritize more infrastructure creation. The JNNURM has a component specifically directed towards urban poverty, the Basic Services for the Urban Poor (BSUP), for which some Rs. 16,000 crores has already been allocated.
I made three very basic points about the BSUP. Firstly, I argued that the program does not have clear objectives. Although the policy talks about urban poverty, the suggested projects are all targeted at slums. But not all the urban poor live in slums, and slums do not contain only poor people.
Secondly, I pointed out that participatory planning, which the JNNURM emphasizes, is very difficult to implement effectively, and most of the people charged with running and administrating the JNNURM do not have the capacity to do it well. In this situation, I questioned whether using participation to prioritize project selection in cities, without including elected officials, was legitimate.
The third point was that planning should not happen in a vacuum – that programs to improve slum conditions and the lives of slum dwellers have been carried out for years, and we need to look to the past and learn from this history. I expanded this last point in an editorial in the New Indian Express, available here.
The talk went well, although someone in the audience told me that they should name a hurricane after me (“First Nina, then Katrina, and now Nithya!”). I’m not sure whether to be flattered or not.