Rapid buses, air pollution, and schools that no one goes to: urban India's next challenges

Smog over New Delhi last autumn: India's pollution problem at its worst. Image: Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty.

This is the second part of a two-part article. You can read the first part here

The Ahmedabad slums may be engines of prosperity, but every success story draws in another penniless rural migrant. The jobs the cities offer suck in more people, to start at the bottom of the economic escalator: the next generation of slum dwellers and slum builders.

So, for the foreseeable future, India’s cities will continue to grow at a staggering pace, as the nation’s population both expands and urbanises. As with everything in India, the challenge is scale and speed. India’s cities find themselves running to stand still: just as the authorities and NGOs work out how to support development in established slum communities, they have to start all over again, as newcomers occupy fresh land.

But the next crisis facing India’s cities is not a product of poverty, but affluence. The staggering growth in the urban population and the cities’ success in creating new escalators to prosperity has a by-product: the rise of the internal combustion engine. Indian cities are already stymied by congestion and air pollution. But today millions more urban Indians are within touching distance of affording their first scooter, motorbike or car: even modest economic growth will lead to a surge in vehicle ownership.

Cities like Ahmedabad recognise that congestion and air pollution are mortal foes and that a revolution in transportation is required. Indeed, unless they change, India’s cities will be unable to continue as functional economic entities or tolerably healthy communities. Decades before the impacts of global warming become a serious threat, Indian cities must embrace low carbon transportation to meet the present dangers of immobility and respiratory disease.

Ahmedabad is far from being the worst case. It is smaller and more densely populated than cities like Mumbai or Bangalore, so travel times are shorter. But even in this “tier two” city, a revolution is needed; gradual adaptation won’t cut it, not when the pace of change is so rapid. New flyovers here or there fill up instantly, and just create fresh bottle-necks further up the road. More buses serve little purpose, if they can’t move either.

So big-picture, city-wide intervention is essential. And this is exactly what is being attempted, by a cadre of academics and senior administrators with technical skills and global networks that rival those of their European peers. Sometimes that does mean grand projets, for all their human-scale costs. For example, metro systems, despite their huge cost, are quickly turning from expensive luxuries to tools for survival in urban India. But while the solutions need to be grand in scale, they need not all be so expensive: indeed if they were, there would be no hope.

So for example, in the last 15 years, the air quality of Ahmedabad has been greatly improved by paying auto-rickshaw drivers to convert to compressed natural gas. In a country where £100 is enough of an incentive, £4m can change a city. And Ahmedabad has developed a Bus Mass Transit System, which can carry almost as many passengers as a metro for a fraction of the cost. Strictly policed, cordoned bus lanes run down the central reservations of major highways, with intermittent stations near to junctions. It brings the benefits of the modern trams of Manchester, Croydon or Edinburgh with hardly any of the cost. And incredibly, it took under five years from conception to the system coming into in service, despite public consultation and judicial oversight: Indian cities need to act swiftly.

The challenges of transportation are huge. But India has the technical skills, financial resources and democratic pressure to take action. City administrators are now thinking with a 20 year time horizon, working through staged approaches to meeting transport demand: smart technology to use existing roads better, intermediate solutions like the bus-ways, and then on to metros for the long term.

Ahmedebad's bus rapid transit system. Image: PlaneMad/Wikimedia Commons.

When it comes to other forms of carbon emissions, there is less of a burning platform compelling action (although energy security is a strategic concern). Yet, the carbon intensity of India’s cities is set to climb rapidly. For example millions of Indians are on the verge of being able to afford air-conditioning: it is the same story as for motor vehicles, but without the externalities being so obvious or immediate.

It made me reflect on the decarbonising of our own economy. We often think the West should lead the world on climate change, because we consume more than developing countries and can afford to act sooner. But perhaps the real reason we need to sprint in Europe is to make adoption possible and affordable in poorer countries. It is down to us to take-up green technologies at pace and volume, to drive down the costs until the Indian middle classes can afford them. Micro solar generation is perhaps the most immediate example: why should India’s sun-drenched urban homes not sell power into the grid? Before long it will be electric vehicles. When it comes to carbon emissions, India cannot be a late adopter, for the sake of the whole planet.

Major system change will not be easy: after all, India is a delightfully disorderly nation. Change will be organic not regimented, driven by what makes sense for millions of consumers. The role of the authorities is to provide the strategic leadership, make the investments to create capacity and create “nudges” and price signals to shift social norms, in cities facing collective action problems on so great a scale.

But India is a dynamic, fast-moving society. It has governing institutions which are accountable to public pressure and the rule of law. And its technical experts and public leaders have world-class expertise and an appetite to adapt and innovate. There are reasons to be optimistic.

A creaking public realm

However, not all is well with the public realm in Indian cities like Ahmedabad. The expertise and dedication of the city’s elite rivals the best in the world. But we heard how everyday interactions with the public authorities are too often marred by incompetence, corruption and deadening bureaucracy. It is the street-level bureaucrats and the gamesmanship of petty politicians that seems to attract the nation’s scorn.

As a result, bottom-up, endogenous improvement of the kind that works in British public services is very hard. The professional elites instead reach for big-bang system change and apply technology to bring accountability. For example, Ahmedabad’s city council has just introduced sophisticated software that provides a portal to handle every complaint raised about the hundreds of services it provides. The system has forced integration, breaking down silos between services; and it has driven accountability, with unresolved complaints chased with increasing intensity, and any case that is re-opened escalated up the chain.

But still there is a long way to go for public services in the city. A hundred metres away from those new build social housing blocks stood a school built as part of the project. It is mainly empty for much of the day, swelling with children only when it’s time for the free lunch. Within metres, children play in dusty yards, with little to fill the day. The semi-literate parents we spoke to told us the school was terrible, and the local NGO staff seemed inclined to agree. Maybe they were being unfair, but the word had got around. And back in the slums we’d been told how the free municipal schools were shunned in favour of fee-paying establishments, just as soon as parents could afford the switch. The same story applies to free healthcare too.

As a consequence, the number of free schools and clinics is apparently going down, despite the booming population. For an outsider it was hard to disentangle under-investment in supply from declining demand; and genuine concerns about quality from urban myth (in a city with a literacy rate of 90 per cent, the education system cannot be a total failure). But whatever the cause, it seems that essential public services in the city are on a downward spiral towards residualisation – and as the UK has known for many years, “Services for the poor are poor services”.

Indeed, from slum dwellers to business professionals, no one seemed to have a good word to say about municipal public services, despite the broader evidence of powerful public leadership manifestly changing the city. It is a story of macro-level capability and micro-level failure, with the scale of urban India creating huge barriers to standardised consistent provision on each street corner. Middle class Indians find it hard to believe that their London contemporaries opt for NHS hospitals by choice and are happy to use the capital’s rapidly improving state schools.

Students swim across a river to reach their school, in a village about in Sajjanpura village of Chottaudepur district, some 180 kms from Ahmedaba. Image: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty.

For now, in Indian cities, many welfare functions are being taken on by cooperatives and NGOs, which are often seen as more reliable vehicles for public funds than state bureaucracies, though they face their own challenges. On top of that, the private sector is expected to play a role. A 2013 law requires India’s 8,000 largest companies to spend 2 per cent of their profits on Corporate Social Responsibility; while fee-paying schools are supposed to reserve a quarter of their places for disadvantaged children, although this seldom happens in practice.

This patchwork of social welfare feels a lot like the UK before Beveridge, Butler and Bevan. So will India ever have a 1945 moment, where people embrace universal public services? The historic context is not the same, so there is no reason to assume that provision should end up entirely free or state-provided. But as India becomes more prosperous can it edge, in one way or another, towards an inclusive welfare state?

As things stand, it feels like the nation’s evolution may take it towards American self-reliance, not the European social model. India is, after all, a nation of soaring inequality, and although this has always been the case, the gap is widening. If millions continue to be lifted out of poverty then inequality is likely to be tolerated: that was Ireland’s experience when it was the Celtic Tiger.

But India, once a socialist nation, will face a dangerous future if its people forget their rising prosperity is the result of better government, not just the magic of markets. It is the agency of the state – working in partnership with the private and non-profit sectors – that unblocks institutional bottlenecks which thwart aspiration. And it is the public sphere which provides the macro-level leadership Indian cities depend on simply to survive. In time, government can become the organising force behind high quality, universal services too.

In Ahmedabad the power of public action is vital and present, but it is also patchy and flawed. It seems it will be traffic engineers ,not primary school teachers, who will prove to urban Indians the value of the public realm. But as urban India tackles its crisis of mobility, it must also build a social model that can equip every citizen for a bright future.

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society. He visited Ahmedabad in March as part of the UK-India Dishaa programme.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.