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A purge for choking cities


By M P Mathur
Published: Tuesday 15 November 1994

-- TODAY, the gloomy scenario of blurred faces framed in countless tenement windows seems to have wafted right out of an Eliotsian elegy into the equally foggy reality of urban existence in the developing world. As the concrete jungle raises its teeming head, so does the clamour for its attendant needs: water supply, sanitation, public health, roads and street lighting. Inevitably, local administrations are left in a stupefying lurch, eminently unequal to the task of catching up with the runaway demands of their charges.

Urbanisation, and its manifold effects, was the fulcrum of deliberations at an international conference organised by the Institute of Social Sciences in New Delhi in November, 1991, attended by experts on urban development, planning and management from various countries including India, Pakistan, Brazil, Mexico, the us and the uk. The book under review brings together some of the papers presented there, with special emphasis on urban basic services and community participation. Its 2 parts throw light upon, respectively, experiences from developing countries and India.

How can urban services benefit from technological advances in developing countries? And how can community needs be dovetailed with resource mobilisation and effective management systems? The point is that when services are designed according to peoples' needs and resources, they are quite ready to part with hard-earned money. The corollary is that government agencies must put their idiosyncracies on the backburner.

The Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi, set up to solve the sewage disposal problems of the Orangi community, provides a good example of bumbling beadledom. Here, local drains and sewers needed to be connected to a main disposal system, the kind of task only an urban development agency could undertake. There was certainly a strong case for coordination between public agencies and groups working at local levels. But the agency stuck to its blinkered approach, and the project ended in a stink: the sewage was now dumped on the heads of the adjoining neighbourhood! But not all governments go the Orangi way: Nepal has promoted a legislation which makes institutions more people-friendly, especially the poor, and promises greater autonomy to local administrative bodies.

In India, a wasteland of ineptitude keeps autonomy and urban services at opposite poles. With state governments becoming increasingly somnolent, municipal bodies have become prolific snoozers: the belches of rapid urbanisation merely augment the snores.

Most of the papers carry the conviction that success in urban development and civic service management is contingent upon the cooperation of people, especially the poorer strata. Community involvement considerably ameliorates the physical and social environment of a locality. Psycho-social benefits, in terms of organisational discipline and community self-reliance, also become part of the pickings. Of course, infrastructural assistance is a necessity, but only after notes are compared.

When people find their money transformed into well-maintained civic amenities, they evince keener interest in the whole developmental process; this, in turn, furthers proper use and maintenance. Sulabh International's pay-and-use community toilet scheme, where people of the lower income category share common ablution facilities by paying a minimum amount for usage, is a good example of participatory civic development. The scheme has gone a long way in alleviating the sanitation problems of an economically disadvantaged population which cannot afford independent toilet facilities in an urban environment where land never goes for free.

Community participation as a development technique is perfectly pitched towards decentralised planning and delivery of selected community services at relatively low costs. In the book, the index of urban achievement is nothing but the cooperation between various groups and communities along with the revenue generated in the form of resources. As a physic for the ills of urbanisation, the book's recommendations are worth subscribing to.

This book thus provides useful documentation on the issues related to urbanisation, urban services management, community participation and such other related aspects. It thus fulfills the yawning chasm in this sphere. Although the analytical edge is not very much in evidence, this publication is a valuable contribution in the urban sector and will prove useful to policy makers, planners, academicians, practitioners and students.

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