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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 9, Dated Mar 08, 2008
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Sale! Sale! Sale!

The purge of slums to free up real estate in cities began in 1994, through ‘reforms’ in policy and law, writes ISAAC ARUL SELVA

IN RETROSPECT, 1994 turned out be a watershed year in the history of India’s cities. It was in this year that the National Institute for Urban Affairs (NIUA, an urban development and management research institute supported by the Central government) and USAID launched the Financial Institutions Reform and Expansion (FIRE-D) programme.

The almost silent and yet obvious transformation that we see today in our cities — the series of slum demolitions, the handover of water and sewerage infrastructure to urban local bodies and private companies — was kick-started with the FIRE-D programme. The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) and the Urban Infrastructure Development Scheme for Small and Medium Towns (UIDSSMT) were projects that were initiated subsequent to the extensive research and study carried out under the FIRE-D programme.

Why is it important to recognise the FIRE-D programme as the reason for urban governance changes that we see today? In one word: money. USAID put in more that $125 million at the start of the programme; an equal amount was to be generated from “locally raised funds to municipalities or private sector entities.” The intention was to ensure that cities were transformed into “well-functioning, efficient and equitable land markets” and, under the instruction of the World Bank, to ensure that cities were “investment friendly” and “financially self-sustained”. The NIUA website itself minces no words: FIRE-D was intended to finance “selected commercially viable urban infrastructure projects relating to water supply, sewerage, solid waste management and area development”.

In the case of Bangalore alone, 70 percent of the slum dwellers are Dalits. The Bangalore Development Authority, a government agency, recognised that 51 percent of Bangalore’s population lived in single room dwellings in 2006. (Yet another government agency brought this down to 15 percent.) When private entities seek to generate profits from land spaces, water supply, sewage maintenance and solid waste disposal infrastructure, where will the money come from? What happens to 51 percent of Bangalore’s population that can’t afford this?

At the end of its Phase 2 in 2003, the FIRE-D programme’s report mirrored the New York City Development Programme that was undertaken in the 1980s. New York City was declared a “bankable and credit-worthy city” by the World Bank; the corporations were on their way to making their millions out of the capital invested in the city’s infrastructure. What turned out to be a huge success for the corporations, however, resulted in the denial of basic rights to the city’s poor. There were massive changes in the city’s legislations, and money invested in infrastructure was treated as capital investment.

In India, Phase 2 of FIRE-D saw several experiments being conducted across different cities. The Pune Slum Development Project, the Bangalore Action Task Force and the Tirupur water privatisation project helped the NIUA, USAID and FIRE-D researchers to identify the major challenges. A final report was drawn up in the beginning of 2004 and presented to the NDA government in New Delhi. When the UPA government came to power in May 2004, its Common Minimum Programme committed itself to a “comprehensive programme of urban renewal”.

Policy and legislative amendments carried out since 1994 are ample proof of this. In Karnataka, the Urban Land Ceiling Act was repealed in 1999 on the basis of the Central government’s carrot-stick approach that linked release of funds to policy changes necessary to allow private investment. The justification was that real estate companies and builders were to be invited to develop housing schemes for the urban poor, and land ceilings would only slacken the pace of development.

The policy changes extend further — the House Rent Control Act, the Model Municipal Law which requires states to amend their own corporations and municipalities’ Acts, the Fiscal Responsibility Act — are several that have gone past unnoticed. The lives of the working classes, the Dalits, construction labourers and sweepers are cheap and, according to these policies, easily dispensable. Those who cannot afford to pay for their houses, for water, for sanitation (there’s even a sanitation cess in place now!), for using the drainage systems, have no place in the Indian cities.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 9, Dated Mar 08, 2008

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