Right to the City: Issues and Concerns

The real challenge for the political system is how to spur economic growth and how to restore city to the people.

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Cities by virtue of concentration of people, firms and economic activities produce agglomeration economies conducive for production and economic efficiency. This is the reason why investment accrues to cities compared to rural areas. Returns are not only higher in cities, but also increase with increasing size of the city. The agglomeration economies not only increase production efficiency, but also keep the production cost low. Matching, sharing and learning are other advantages in cities where demand meets supply and people and firms may share information and learn from each other. Availability of skilled manpower, transportation, trade opportunities, banking and credit facilities are easily accessible in cities. In a market-driven economy, cities seem to be indispensable for economic growth. As cities are spatial organisations, one can also look at them from the perspectives of density, distance and division. Density is associated with larger markets, distance relates to the transportation costs and division stands for barriers that inhibit production, consumption and economic growth. In all the three spheres, cities have distinct advantages and potential. Therefore, cities, economic growth, wealth and capital accumulation exist cheek by jowl.

It is a misnomer that bigger cities are not better as far as economic returns are concerned. In fact, increasing city size provides increasing economies of scale and also increasing per capita income. Empirical studies show that when city size doubles the per capita income increases by 15 per cent. So, with increasing size and increasing economic growth, the city is bound to have migration. There is hardly any city in the world which has not grown due to migration. But the question is what happens to the migrants who constitute people of the city? Are they equally benefitted? Is city inclusive and sustainable? These are some larger issues that Right to the City addresses.

Cities and Migration

Migration is central to the formation and evolution of a city, and diversity is a natural outcome. A city is known not only for economic and occupational diversity, but also for its social and cultural diversity. Diversity is also closely related with creativity and innovations and vice-versa. Thus, diversity as an outcome of migration should be looked upon as strength of a city, not its weakness. However, sometimes diversity may lead to conflict due to political reasons, which is an anathema to the nature of city and economic growth.  On the other hand, suppose if we want to have a homogenous city it is neither desirable nor possible because homogenisation means erasing of diversity and disappearance of creativity and innovations. This is the historical experience with respect to the growth of creativity, innovation and economic growth related to the city.  So, these are some of the positive sides of the city which shows how they have shaped our political, economic and social system historically in different phases of history.

While cities have many positive sides, it must not be construed that cities do not have any problems. Most importantly, inequality within the city is glaring in India and many other developing countries; there is a huge presence of slums and poverty and environmental degradation is conspicuous. Cities not only entail inequality within the city, but also create regional inequality. The backwash effect of the city is greater than the trickle down in most of the parts of developing countries. Cities are also dependent on resources from its hinterland. Hence, the negative aspects of a city are larger issues when we observe from the perspective of underclass and migrants.

It is also evident that those who have made the city are the people who are not able to enjoy its benefits.

Also Read : In Pursuit of Equity: Human-Centric Smart Cities

Right to the City

Right to the city means who participates in the city, who are included in the city, who owns the city and who controls the city. The idea of Right to the City was proposed by Henry Lefebvre, a French Social Scientist, in 1968 in a writing in French entitled Le Droit à la ville, which means Right to the City. During 1967-68, there were some students’ uprising accompanied by workers’ protest in Paris. Lefebvre wrote this book during that time.

The main argument of Lefebvre was premised on the fact that cities have been turned into a commodity, and the use value has overtaken exchange value. The commodification of cities has transformed them from a place to a space. Cities have been converted into a consumer good. It is the consumption of space and not the consumption in space. The former is the real tragedy. This has created alienation of people from the place and urbanisation is serving the interest of capital accumulation. The outcome is increasing inequality, poverty and environmental degradation. The philosophy of right to the city addresses these problems in a larger framework of how to reconnect people with place that has been hijacked by the process of urbanisation at a particular juncture of history. Right to the City means participating in the decision of making and remaking the city.

This concept of Right to the City has been further elaborated by David Harvey—a leading urban expert and social scientist. He remarked that city generates capital and wealth which is moving in various circuits like manufacturing, built environment cum real estate and financial market leading to continuous accumulation of capital. When manufacturing is not profitable, capital leaves and moves to the built environment; it may also create deindustrialisation. Urbanisation means continuous expansion of built environment. It is not only construction, but also reconstruction which is also known as redevelopment that is becoming more and more profitable. The built environment is not only the area of wealth creation, but also a place of hiding the wealth. Such movement of capital is associated with rising consumption of urban space and increasing importance of service sector is creating a simultaneous condition of labour based on informalisation, precarity and insecurity. Informality means there is no social security, no job contract; jobs are also precarious, which means they are not of regular nature, i.e., casual and temporary;anybody can be fired any time. With this type of informality, precarity and insecurity, migrant workers are invisible. So, it was only when migrants came on the road due to lockdown in the wake of pandemic, they became visible to the nation.

Thus, the capital through the production of urban space creates its own ally of migrant labourers to survive and prosper. Migrant labourers are treated as an input in production that performs 3D works (dangerous, difficult and demeaning). They are not only workers in the informal sector, but also invisible as they do not have an identity and majority of them keep circulating between rural and urban areas. They are also insignificant so far as the vote bank politics is concerned as their names either do not figure in voter list or they are unable to go to their respective electoral constituency on the day of voting. City is not only moving from manufacturing to the built-environment, but also experiences the dominance of financial market that is manifested through speculative stock market, insurance market and credit market. Financialisation and urbanisation of city create a situation where money makes money without producing goods and services. This is why we see various financial crisis occurring which are not always explained in terms of what is happening in the city from the perspective of space and place. It is to be recognised that cities are central to the understanding of development and the occurrence of various crises. The recent migration crisis due to lockdown and pandemic must be located in the nature of production of urban space and solution must be sought in relation to the inclusive and sustainable cities and urbanisation. The real challenge for the political system is how to spur economic growth and how to restore city to the people. Right to the City provides a philosophical and theoretical framework to achieve this objective.

Making Cities Inclusive and Sustainable

How to make our cities inclusive and sustainable and ensure that urbanization is regionally balanced which can protect environment and ensure livelihood of the people?  We have to stop the commodification of urban space in the built form leading to environmental destruction. However, urbanisation should not be viewed only as a problem, but as one can provide solution as well. This requires structural and institutional changes in our policy framework. The issue is often trivialised attributing to unplanned urbanisation, unregulated urban sprawl and encroachment. As a result, the entire urban problem is being looked through the lens of governance and is seen as a failure of planning.

The deeper structure of the production of urban space in the interest of capital accumulation, alienation of people from place and exclusion of migrant workers as city makers are ignored which need to be addressed through economic reforms.

Also Read : Justice to Migrants: Ensure Ethical Recruitment Policies

However, it is to be noted that any economic reform must be people centric in the long run to achieve the goal of a prosperous and a happy nation. There is a need to have political reforms as well because local democracy, sustainability and urban inclusion need to be vocal on local. Who owns the city also needs to be clearly defined?  At the moment, there are multiple agencies owning and governing the city without a control and command under a single body. Role of mayor and elected representatives should be redefined; they should be made responsible and accountable like the city of New York and London. The Indian Constitution made provisions to strengthen local democracy through the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution for the rural and urban areas, respectively. However, in reality, it is implemented half-heartedly.

Urbanisation and Rural Development

We do not see rural–urban interdependence and consider rural and urban development separately.  We have different ministries at the central level to look after the rural and urban development separately. However, there is a need to look into the rural and urban development in an integrated way. The schemes like Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas (PURA) which India’s former president Dr. Abdul Kalam had envisioned and also its present form known as Rurban Mission could be helpful in planned urbanisation of rural areas. Urbanisation can play an important role in bridging the rural and urban divide and fulfil the imagination of Right to the City. In such situation, rural people would not have to migrate to urban areas, rather, the urban will reach out to rural areas. This approach of place and space will help in understanding our policy programmes; going beyond the populist beneficiary and household approach in connecting people with place.

Recently, the Government has come up with a massive Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) programme to boost economic activities. In order to have MSME start working in rural areas, we must have adequate and good rural infrastructure. So the integration of the Rurban Mission with development programmes like PURA, MGNREGA and MSME requires a good planning and strategy for planned urbanisation of rural areas. This integrated approach of development will help to restore migrants not only as formal citizens of the country, but also as substantive citizens, whose political, social and economic rights are protected. Hence, the Right to the City is a theoretical framework which enables us to examine development through the lens of space and place, which is epitomised in the form of urbanisation. It requires a collective action, mobilisation of people and a functional urban democracy as a prelude to inclusive, equitable and sustainable development.

(Note: This is the second part of the excerpts of the Special Lecture delivered by Prof R.B. Bhagat at the Centre for Work and Welfare (CWW), Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi).