Home to colossal urban population, India is ignoring Habitat III

The Modi government has unveiled an unprecedented focus on cities, but it has barely engaged in discussions over the New Urban Agenda.

Early morning in Old Delhi, 2013. The country's engagement on the global urbanization discussion leading to Habitat III has been mixed. (Alexandra Lande/Shutterstock)

This report is part of an ongoing series looking at the issues and actions that characterize select countries’ engagement in the Habitat III process; read more in this series here. See also Citiscope’s explainer “Who are the Habitat III major players?

NEW DELHI — Mohandas K. Gandhi, revered by Indians as the father of the nation, famously said, “The soul of India lives in its villages.” Yet for decades, the “city” was almost invisible in the country’s policy discourse.

Today, the situation has changed dramatically. India can no longer ignore the city — even if it wanted to do so.

India has entered the urban age. In a country of more than 1.2 billion people, more than 377 million are city dwellers, according to the last official census, in 2011. That’s actually a relatively low rate of urbanization, but it still translates into one of the highest urban populations anywhere in the world. “Urbanization is one of the important realities of recent decades in India,” according to India’s recently released national report for Habitat III, the global summit on cities scheduled to take place next month.

India now explicitly recognizes the role and importance of urbanization and cities in the process of its socio-economic transformation. The country’s urban areas contribute close to 60 percent of gross domestic product, and the federal government envisions the “smart city” as one of the prime drivers of future growth.

India’s massive urban population provides outsize influence at the global scale, too. The country can skew international urban statistics with the sheer weight of its numbers, even as its urban strategies have to factor in staggering contrasts of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. For instance, the number of households living in slums increased from 10.15 million in 2001 to 13.75 million a decade later — a number higher than the entire population of many countries.

[See: How a generation of young leaders is emerging from India’s slums]

For all of this numerical influence, however, India does not appear to be playing a strong proactive role in the preeminent global discussion on urbanization today — the Habitat III process.

‘Fits and starts’

The mind-boggling urbanization trends that India is wrestling with, after all, offer a microcosm of the concerns playing out across the globe, particularly in fast-developing “middle income” economies. In turn, strategies for dealing with those trends are being debated and sharpened in the lead-up to Habitat III, which is to result in a 20-year vision document on sustainable urban development known as the New Urban Agenda.

“Official India has engaged in the process in fits and starts. … [Mostly] confined to reading pre-prepared statements in plenary sessions rather than engaging in any active negotiations.”

Shipra Narang Suri
Habitat III General Assembly of Partners

The conference, the third in a series that began in 1976, is expected to rejuvenate global political commitment toward the sustainable development of towns, cities and other human settlements, in both rural and urban areas. The outcome from that process, along with pledges and new obligations, could shape the global strategy around urbanization for the next two decades.

[See: How street art is rejuvenating Indian cities and rebuilding lives]

As yet, however, India’s engagement in this process is decidedly mixed.

“Official India has engaged in the process in fits and starts,” said Shipra Narang Suri, vice-president of the Habitat III General Assembly of Partners, a key umbrella group of stakeholders.

After a year of broad discussion and input, the Habitat III political negotiations began on the details of the New Urban Agenda in May. Suri said the Indian delegation was “relatively quiet” through special Habitat III consultations with local authorities and civil society groups in May and June, respectively. That was followed by “some engagement” during subsequent key talks that took place at the end of July.

“Mostly, however, India’s engagement is confined to reading pre-prepared statements in plenary sessions rather than engaging in any active negotiations,” she said. Citiscope contacted the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation for a comment on India’s urban agenda and the country’s engagement with the Habitat III process but had received no response at deadline.

This lack of engagement wasn’t always the case. India has played important parts in the urban discussion, in the distant past and more recently.

“The government of India played a pivotal role in establishing the U. N. Human Settlements Programme [UN-Habitat]. The first head of UN-Habitat was an Indian, Dr. Arcot Ramachandran,” said Srinivasa Popuri, a senior officer with UN-Habitat’s regional office for Asia and the Pacific.

India also was very active in advocating for last year’s establishment of a new global goal on cities, one of the U. N.’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are currently guiding anti-poverty and sustainability efforts around the world, Popuri said. Many are now hoping that the New Urban Agenda will offer guidance on how to implement this goal — SDG 11, which aims to make cities “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.

[See: Cities turn to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals]

Aromar Revi, director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, agreed that India has been “low-key in the Habitat process at the official level”. Yet he too noted that the country was much more active during last year’s framing of the SDGs as well as the Paris Agreement on climate change. But in this regard, Revi cautions, India is not unique.

Popuri, meanwhile, suggests that the Habitat process has been useful in focusing the country’s official urban conversation — and offers an opportunity to showcase that conversation for the world.

“This is the first time that the government of India has come out with a clear and candid picture of housing, human settlements and urbanization issues in the country,” Popuri said. “There is a National Habitat Committee. There have been consultations with the civil society, industry groups, academics and others. This is the perfect time for India to be more proactive in sharing lessons from these missions not only in India but also with the outside world.”

‘Unprecedented’ initiatives

So what characterizes India’s urbanization strategy today?

“This is the first time that the government of India has come out with a clear and candid picture of housing, human settlements and urbanization issues in the country. … This is the perfect time for India to be more proactive in sharing lessons from these missions not only in India but also with the outside world.”

Srinivasa Popuri

A key initiative in the country’s urban approach began in 2005, under the previous government. That project, called the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, was among the first to bring a national focus to issues of urban renewal and urban development. Yet while the programme highlighted the importance of reforms — around governance, municipal accounting and more — analysts say the mission’s implementation could have been better.

A decade later, the country is now two years into a new government headed by a different party. Under the new administration, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, this urban focus has strengthened dramatically. The past two years have seen an “unprecedented” number of urban projects launched in India, Popuri said.

[See: Street food vendors fight for their place in India’s urban future]

As preparation for Habitat III, each country is expected to put together a national report, outlining urban development processes and initiatives that have taken place since the last Habitat conference, in 1996. India’s 128-page report suggests that its current approach to urbanization is focused on four main objectives: Urbanization must generate growth and enhance economic productivity and competitiveness; it should be inclusive and sustainable; it should aim at preservation and revitalization of culture and heritage; and it should contribute to the development of rural areas and strengthen rural-urban interdependencies.

The new government has launched a slew of ambitious urban development initiatives aimed to change the look and feel of big and small cities. The Smart Cities Mission is the best-known among these. The programme aims to develop 100 “smart cities”, with the goal of enhancing the quality of urban life and providing a clean environment. Strategies include employing new, technology-heavy solutions aimed at the efficient use of available resources and the available infrastructure.

But the Modi government also has launched several other major urban programmes, aimed at tackling various challenges facing Indian cities. Some of the most notable are the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation of Urban Transformation, the Swachh Bharat (Clean India) Mission, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana on “Housing for All”, Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana, and the Rurban Mission. Work has started on all of these, although they are in different stages of implementation.

From not talking about the city, then, India has taken a giant leap to a stage where it can’t stop talking about cities. But here’s the catch: As in many other countries, how the new missions fare during implementation will vary tremendously. “There are many continuing challenges on the ground,” UN-Habitat’s Popuri said, pointing in particular to “the lack of empowerment of local administrative bodies of towns and cities despite statutory provisions” in the constitution.

Smart approach?

What is new about the Modi administration’s approach on urban issues? Certainly one of the most notable characteristics is its focus on “smart cities”, prioritizing a digitized, networked urban reality, as in Singapore. Modi defines the smart city as “as one which is one or two steps ahead of the aspirations of the people”.

“Because of Habitat III, there have been lots of events relating to urbanization over the past year. This has helped us brainstorm on many critical issues.”

Mukta Naik
Centre for Policy Research

In 2014, the prime minister unveiled some USD 1.2 billion in financing for the project. Yet his government also sees the Smart City Mission as an instrument to attract foreign investment in urban infrastructure. And while countries across the world have shown interest in the initiative, it remains too early to say how this or any of the other new missions will ultimately play out on the ground — and to what extent they would help improve the lives of ordinary people.

[See: Can Habitat III contribute to a ‘smart shift’ in urban planning?]

Meanwhile, many urban experts in India who work at the grass-roots level say the government’s urban agenda fails to factor in the real problems facing India’s teeming cities. Advocates point to, for instance, lack of access to basic services, burgeoning informal sector, the continued growth of slums, unsafe public spaces, lack of streetlights and well-located public transportation, and so on.

“The conceptualization of ‘smart cities’ is weak and does not take into account the problems and realities of most Indian cities,” the GAP’s Suri said. “For example, the first concept note of [this programme] talked about all services going online. But my question is, what impact will water bills going online have when every household is yet to get piped water? What use are geo-coded garbage bins when most cities don’t have proper solid-waste management in place?”

Urban experts say that if the government’s new missions succeed, there will be an impetus for growth and greater use of technology in design and planning of the Indian city. But whether the digital path and e-governance will widen the chasm between the “haves” and the “have-nots” and lead to further fragmentation of the city remains to be seen.

For her part, Suri expresses concern that India’s recent Habitat III report underscores the number of actions that the Indian government is currently undertaking on the issue of urbanization but without offering much on the overarching strategy holding those action together.

“The national report may be a useful compilation of initiatives and programmes, but there is little analysis or insight, no new ideas or vision for the future,” she said. India still does not demonstrate “strategic thinking on where urbanization patterns are going,” she said.

[See: Habitat III must institutionalize participatory urban development]

Others too are expressing concern over the scope of the country’s Habitat III report and whose vision it reflects.

“Many of us believe that it does not reflect the urban conditions as they really are,” said Varghese Theckanath, the founder of the Campaign for Housing and Tenurial Rights and an activist who has been involved in Right to Housing-related issues for a decade.

“The report is more an account of what the corporate investors want, but depicted in a language that sounds inclusive and sustainable,” Theckanath said. “A larger involvement of the civil society representatives who struggle alongside the ordinary citizens of the cities to raise fundamental issues and find ways to resolve them could have created a more credible report.”

Invigorated discussion

As Theckanath indicates, Indian civil society has been actively engaged in the Habitat process. The country hosted several events aimed at gathering public input for the New Urban Agenda, sessions known as Urban Thinkers Campuses. And many urban experts and academics have attended preparatory meetings in the run-up to the Quito summit.

[See: The right to pee: An integral part of the right to the city?]

Indeed, regardless of the intensity of the Indian government’s engagement in negotiations on the New Urban Agenda, observers suggest that the Habitat process has contributed to invigorating Indian internal policy discussion on urbanization.

“Because of Habitat III, there have been lots of events relating to urbanization over the past year. This has helped us brainstorm on many critical issues,” said Mukta Naik, an architect and urban planner with the Centre for Policy Research.

Naik points particularly to the “right to the city”, which remains one of the most contentious issues being discussed at the New Urban Agenda negotiations.

“In the run-up to Habitat III, India has opposed the inclusion of the right to the city in the draft New Urban Agenda,” noted a recent article in the Indian Express newspaper. Other prominent opponents of the proposal have been the United States, Japan and the European Union. As countries take part in final negotiations this week, it remains up in the air as to how or whether the New Urban Agenda draft will include reference to the right to the city.

At Quito, Indian activists will look to prioritize discussions on the right to the city as well as on several other key issues — gender, children’s rights, housing and basic services, transportation, labour rights and safety.

[See: Informal economy offers opportunity, not just survival, Indian Habitat III sessions urge]

It is not that official India is not aware of the various problems plaguing Indian cities, nor that it is inactive. As Naik points out, “The government has held consultations with civil society” on Habitat III, “but it sees the urban challenges in the country primarily as a domestic issue.”

Stay up to date on all Habitat III news! Sign up here for Citiscope’s weekly newsletter. Citiscope is a member of the Habitat III Journalism Project; read more here.

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary

Patralekha Chatterjee

Patralekha Chatterjee is a correspondent for Citiscope based in Delhi. She is an award-winning journalist and columnist who has written extensively on Asian cities.