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Transforming (Urban) India—Bit-By-Bit

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By Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhyay and Dr Arjun Kumar

India is urbanising at a fast pace and is expected to house half of its population in urban areas by 2040. However, the increasing pace of urbanisation hasn’t been met by comparable planning, governance or infrastructure development. It is riddled with serious infrastructural deficits and a high incidence of poverty which undermines the competitiveness of cities and their potential as drivers of economic growth.

The impact of the pandemic has further exposed the shortcomings of Indian cities and has forced us to rethink the narrative or urban sector in the last few decades. The engines for economic growth have been derailed due to major disruptions in economic activities due to the pandemic.

The ‘Reluctant Urbanizer’

India has been described as the ‘reluctant urbanizer’ until ten years ago when the 2011 census burst this bubble and showed that around 2774 total towns had come up in the ten years from 2001 to 2011. It is projected that in 2031, the numbers will rise exponentially, as shown in the graphs. Therefore, the central government must realise the conditions of urbanisation across the countries and acknowledge the problems that it may pose.

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Source: Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Urban India 2011: Evidence

One of the most influential reports in recent history published by McKinsey Global Institute in 2010, entitled India’sUrban Awakening’ created the mythology of urbanisation in India as it described it as being a genie that could be released from the bottle and would thereby bring jobs in urban India. However, some of the fundamental building blocks of sustainable urban living, such as planning, affordable housing, empowering city administration and urban investment were still lacking.

Urbanization In India: Peculiarities And Problems

The Economic Survey 2016-2017 created by IDFC Institute blows up one of the biggest myths that our particular way of measuring demography of urbanisation was a distortion of reality. The nature of the built-up space shows a ‘messy’ and ‘hidden’ urbanization, in a report by the World Bank, citing the country’s inability to deal with pressures on infrastructure, basic civic services, land and housing, due to an increase in urban population. This shows how we don’t have a good measure of how urban is India and begs the question are we essentially looking at large speculative urbanization that is going to be a challenge if we are going to make it sustainable?

Transforming India’s Cities: Policies And Reforms

There has been a shift in our understanding of cities from Jane Jacobs description of cities in the 1960s as “wellsprings of innovation”, thinking of cities as essentially service economies and knowledge economies, where the flow of ideas, people and goods, talent, skills is going to produce economic outcomes. However, this idea has been disrupted by the pandemic.

From the policy perspective, the recognition of Digital India as being the backbone and transformative modes of management and planning of cities and other human settlements came up. This was followed by the opportunity to integrate the overall national infrastructure through the various air links and sea links that could have a multiplier effect. A World Bank report highlighted the economic growth created due to the Golden Quadrilateral and furthered the idea that infrastructure can produce economic outcomes.

Strengthening The Municipality

The municipality in India remains a constitutional travesty in some sense as it is not fully implemented and half-born. The 18 functions described under the 12th schedule of the Constitution remain major challenges and have surfaced again in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of these functions are directly related to public health, access to communities to social protection and disaster management.

However, we do not have adequate financial resources to build the infrastructure that could convert urbanization into an asset. Despite being the third tier of governance, municipalities aren’t empowered enough and do not have funds, functions and functionaries. A federal geographical understanding is needed to acknowledge these challenges in addition to a national plan and mission.

Transforming (Urban) India— bit by bit

Eating The Fruits Of Development: Why We Try And Reform Our Cities

India is performing poorly in most of the SDGs as compared to many other countries. The problem remains that urbanisation has to be linked to outcomes but the challenges posed by other sectors are all linked to this and pose major roadblocks.

It is also important that this urbanisation needs to be sustainable, which was highlighted in the discussion of the New Climate Economy internationally in 2014. A new narrative has to be built with sustainability as being the key goal and the necessary conditions to achieve it has to be discussed.

Smart Cities Mission

The Smart Cities Mission shifted the focus away from only the Urban Ministry to the need for connectivity and communications into the urban narrative. Digital India was about reforming the nature of governance for using technologies. It broke out from the JNNURM and gave cities the freedom to envision their own problems and needs. It changed the behaviour of municipalities and shifted the narrative to the understanding that a city is more than just its flyovers and pipelines but also about the quality of life and safety and security of its citizens and other aspects.

An important focus of the plan was to get neighbourhoods and local areas to be the focus of the interpretation of what is smart. We are yet to witness a replication of successes from one area to another which is a part of the revolutionary movement and produce mixed results.

Why Transformation Is So Tough

Urbanization is not an easy road. The questions we need to ask is can we produce more than one enclave of sustainable city or township? Can we actually deliver sustainable urbanisation to all its citizens? Unless we can leverage some transformative or disruptive methodologies for achieving this, we are not going to be able to achieve these goals.

Some other questions that need to be asked are are we choosing the right models as we do not actually know what a ‘right’ model is. What is it that drives urbanisation? Is it about social mobility or economic mobility? It is more defined by the shift from a hut to a concrete flat than the shift from a concrete flat to a skyscraper.

An important practical problem is that we cannot have sustainable cities if they are divided cities in terms of Balkanisation based on social and economic divisions. This is simply because of the fragmented civic and political interests, and the resulting disagreement or the absence of consensus on the big moves that need to be made. We need to tap into the potentials of cooperation in town planning schemes to build common infrastructure.

The potential of the market also has to be leveraged and has to be opened to global players, which can contribute to the overall market development. Additionally, scientific operations need to be scaled up, along with increased accountability and efficiency. Finally, cities have the potential to be leveraged as ecosystems but informed policymaking needs to take place by consolidating existing resources and orchestrating innovation.

The above is the event excerpts of a webinar organized by the Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi on Transforming (Urban) India—bit by bit.

Acknowledgements: Manoswini Sarkar is a research intern at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI) and Masters Candidate of Development Studies at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, Switzerland.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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