Dr. Ramya Ramanath,
Associate Professor and Chair of
the International Public Service degree at
DePaul’s School of Public Service.
The unplanned growth and unbridled expansion of city boundaries has adversely influenced the quality of life of all of those living in them points out Dr. Ramya Ramanath an interview with Renjini Liza Varghese.
What do you think is the best model for Indian cities when it comes to urbanisation?
I am not sure if there is a model per se, but the model I think needs to be based on one key tenant, and that is creating deliberate spaces for greater, more authentic citizen participation in urban local self-governance.
Explain the significant points that are to be part of the urban redevelopment in India?
I think they are best summarised under the umbrella of what plagues several cities in India, i.e., unplanned urbanisation. Cities like Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, Delhi, to name just a few of the country’s rapidly growing urban centres are all under enormous stress. Their unplanned growth and unbridled expansion have adversely influenced the quality of life of all of those living in them, especially the poor and even the not-so-poor who voyage to these spaces for a better life. These challenges exist despite the “big city” bias that plagues much of the fund allocation in the more recent urban redevelopment and renewal programs. The ability of cities, big and small, to lift people out of poverty and to provide quality life to all its residents dissolves when cities do not work.
What is needed is to put urban decentralisation (local self-governance) to work on an urgent footing. Doing so requires strengthening the capacity of urban local bodies to create plans and manage these plans in a flexible, transparent and accountable manner. The need is most in economically backward states and in secondary and intermediate urban centres in all states.
Can you draw an example of how it is done in a developed country?
One does not have to travel to a developed country to see this in action. Some noteworthy examples exist within India. They are far from perfect examples but are based on the principles of authentic local initiatives. Alandur (near Chennai) is a classic example of how a local governance body can seek to work. Here the municipality took the lead in implementing underground sewage system and treatment plant by securing funds from the government and other sources along with technical assistance. The funding actually came from multiple sources, including financial contributions from the homeowners. It was a cumulative effort of public and private players with each
putting in money, time and their political capital to make the partnership work for the
Is urban redevelopment the job of only a town planner/ local body/ state / the officials involved in the process?
Most certainly not. Urban redevelopment is the task of all the above-listed players and more. It involves cost-effective methods like public-private partnerships and community participation to help overcome resource constraints. Reference to community participation means the participation of those being redeveloped and not simply community consultation. There should be active engagement of citizens in all stages of their redevelopment. In this process, the individual (in all their complexity of age, caste, class, gender, marital or employment status and all other characteristics) must not lose his or her capacity to bargain for what s/he needs.
All that said, the key is setting the right government rules. No market mechanism can ever create a road network for all or housing for all. It is the government that must do that first.
How important is the participation of other stakeholders like the people who are being resettled?
It is undoubtedly critical for both parties to be involved in the resettlement process. But I will speak about the need to engage those who are being resettled. Implicit in all conversations about “involving” the resettled populations and the people whose “spaces” they occupy is the belief that everything needs to be led by an “organised” entity like say an NGO.
Much of my work in resettlement and rehabilitation of slum populations has demonstrated that these “organised” stakeholders like NGOs, government agencies or private developers, often have limitations and are yet to refine their methods to solicit feedback, listen and develop their designs based on what the resettled need and want. It may be worthwhile instead to keenly observe and involve citizens “before” they are relocated. How resettled communities build lives and livelihoods in the slums and modify their resettlement homes and adapt to life in the resettled colonies tell us a whole lot about how to better design future resettlement sites. Knowing this is crucial if we do not want these new resettlement sites, all of which are made of high-rise apartment housing, turning into vertical slums!
The resettled populations also need to be involved as well. Location of the new settlement is critical in restoring lives and livelihoods after displacement. However, determining a site for resettlement poses a massive challenge in cites because of the paucity of land and housing available for the poor, the burden on municipal finances, and land-use restrictions. It is for this reason that cities often overcome these obstacles by moving slum dwellers to undeveloped sites in rural-urban fringes far from the city centre where they formerly lived and worked. Moreover, relocating them to the city centre is heightened in no small part by host communities who aren’t too happy about having to share space with “slum” dwellers. The irony of this is not lost to the resettled population, many of who service the homes of these host communities!
Climate change is being talked about in a big way. Do you think this is being accounted when Urban redevelopment happens in India?
I would note that as of now, it is not being accounted for. What is happening instead is the elite fortification of the types you see in “privatised green enclaves” like Lavasa near Pune where elites get to enclose themselves in ideal habitats at the cost of those that are most in need of greater protection from environmental hazards.
What according to you are the 5 significant challenges a city like Mumbai/ Delhi faces when it comes to urban redevelopment?
I will take Mumbai as a case, a city where a large portion of my research is based, and of course, it is a city that the subjects of my recently published book call home. The book is titled ‘A
Place to Call Home: Women as Agents of Change in Mumbai’. The below list could well apply to any Indian city and arguably to any city in the global South.
- A city like Mumbai faces an ‘affordability crisis’ in its housing sector and I include rental housing and not just homeownership in this.
- A crisis caused by gender-insensitive urban planning. The voices of affected residents and those of women is entirely missing from planning practice.
- A crisis of lack of transparency in urban governance. For example, in processes like slum redevelopment and resettlement, it remains woefully unclear, almost by design, as to who truly benefits from these projects and to what extent.
- A crisis of citizen participation and apathy where the prevailing structures actively discourage engagement.
- A crisis caused by a conflict between housing requirements on the one hand and preserving green spaces on the other.
Ramya Ramanath is Associate Professor and Chair of the
International Public Service degree at DePaul’s School of Public Service, teaches graduate courses on cross-sector relations, sustainable international development, the management of international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and public policy implementation.
Her research, spread over three continents, draws on disciplinary perspectives in organizational behavior, urban sociology, planning, anthropology, and political science. Her projects are situated in the very organizations that seek her advice in their continuous improvement efforts. In particular, she analyzes the behavior of international and domestic NGOs/nonprofit organizations in the context of their interactions with three key stakeholders: 1) government agencies;
2) other NGOs/nonprofits; and, 3) intended beneficiaries.
Dr Ramya Ramanath has recently published a book: ‘A Place to Call Home: Women as Agents of Change in Mumbai’ depicts the struggles of women especially those who are evicted from their habitat for urban development.This book is the product of an ethnographic field study in which Ramanath examines the lives of women displaced by slum clearance and relocated to the largest slum resettlement site in Asia.
In the years prior to her academic career in the U.S., Ramanath helped start a micro-finance institution in Southern India and worked in housing finance and development agencies in both urban and rural India.