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Waiting to Exhale:The Unending Wait for Urban Renewal

Pravesh Sharma

By I.S.A. Band & J. De Wit
Sage, Delhi, 2008, pp. 402, Rs. 850.00


Mahatma Gandhi once said that India’s soul lives in its villages. That may well be so, but there is increasing evidence that its brain has developed in towns and cities. Unfortunately, while this could never have been the Mahatma’s intention, a curious guilt complex has gripped India’s policy makers as far as the development of towns and cities is concerned. We must probably rank among the top of the list of nations with ugly urban centres. The legacy of planned cities dating back 3000 years to the Indus Valley Civilization lies in the overflowing filth and unplanned sprawl of our urban spaces. Far from creating an Asian model of urban planning, we have instead surprised even ourselves with the extent of our rigidity and inability to anticipate a tectonic shift in managing the changing habitat profile of our citizens. Among the many shortcomings of our urban planning and development process—too numerous to be even listed in the course of a review—is the absence of quality research and thinking on issues of the urban environment. While poverty, especially rural poverty, is awash with world-renowned experts and literature, urban development does not seem to deserve academic attention. The Indo-Dutch Research Programme on Alternatives in Development merit our special gratitude for supporting this project in a highly under-researched field. The product is a book of 13 essays on facets of urban management and governance following the 74th Constitutional Amendment. This landmark legislation was supposed to have been a watershed in the delegation of powers and duties to urban local bodies and the various essays test this hypothesis in some detail. Three major conclusions emerge from a reading of this book. Firstly, the process of economic liberalization which commenced in 1991 has profoundly impacted the mindset of policy planners, right down to the level of local municipalities. From being the sole or at least dominant player in determining the nature of urban development, the state has opened the gates for a range of new stakeholders to enter the planning arena. However, let us not mistake this for decentralization, as the mantra seems more in the nature of whittling down the core area of urban management to the bare minimum. This attitude is manifested most starkly in the almost desperate rush to outsource basic services (ranging from garbage collection to power and water supply) as also the provision of housing to private players. ...

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