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April 2002

Partnerships for Progress?

- by Alan

Panel presentation in the Sri Aurobindo Auditorium of Bharat Nivas

During the last decade, new forms of international cooperation, aid and sustainable development have been experimented with. One of those experiments is Asia Urbs, an initiative of the European Commission. Asia Urbs is based upon the premise that cities and large towns have common or related problems but that often they don't share their experience or accumulated wisdom.

Consequently, the Asia Urbs programme was set up to promote partnerships between cities in Europe and Asia which would lead to long-term cooperation in areas like energy generation, waste management, urban planning, environmental protection and heritage preservation. To date, forty-five partnerships exist between European and South or East Asian cities: ten of these partnerships are with Indian cities.

Many of these partners, both European and Indian, attended the Asia Urbs conference in Auroville, along with a number of other cities and towns which are actively seeking partners.

The European Ambassador (2nd left) meets delegates.

What common themes emerged? One was the inability of governments and State Sector enterprises alone to cope with many of the maladies of modern urbanism - social disintegration, ethnic violence, drugs and crime, pollution, the destruction of the environment etc. A key response here was devolution - devolving power to local communities to allow them to make decisions about the issues which affect them most. This can take many forms. In Vyara, a town in Gujurat, the local citizens group (made up of 80% of the electorate) is represented on all important civic bodies. Under the influence of this participatory local government, only 22% of the total income of the town goes to staff expenses (45% is the norm in India), elected representatives pay for their own travel and upkeep even while on city business, and tax recovery has averaged 95% over the past three years. All this has allowed this small town (population 36,000) to construct a swimming pool and health center open to all citizens, an old peoples' recreation center, and a 70-bed hospital.

Last year, Gujurat was the scene of a massive earthquake. Sandeep Virmani used his presentation to demonstrate how people's power in Kutch has helped make the reconstruction process appropriate to local needs. In many villages, for example, the village committee (containing many women) surveys the housing needs, receives grants from the government, then purchases and distributes construction materials to the inhabitants, many of whom help in the design and construction of their own houses. In one village, 350 families chose five from among themselves to form a judicial 'Panch' which they empowered to settle all disputes.

The process of devolution has been encouraged by the 74th Amendment to the Indian Constitution under which the government created, in 1994, a 'Third Tier' of local government inspired by the old 'Panchayat Raj' system. This has not only allowed municipalities more control over their own development, it also has encouraged some of them to devolve certain responsibilities to their citizens.
Meanwhile, Hans Elemans, mayor of a suburb of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, has initiated a 'bottom-up' approach to solving racial tensions, high unemployment, poor housing and other social problems. The municipality actively elicits ideas from marginalized sections of the population about how their situation can be improved. It then tries to act upon them, like demolishing 30% of the old tenements and building affordable but more varied accommodation. For other European cities represented at the conference devolution was more about transferring State-run projects to the private sector.

The trend towards devolution has been accelerated by the revolution in Information Technology (I.T.). This has vastly increased the possibility of disseminating information and of on-line debate, thus allowing more people than ever before to feel they are 'plugged in'. Anna Lisa Boni from Brussels expanded upon this in her presentation on 'telecities'. This is an open electronic network through which over 120 European cities share experiences and help each other develop practical solutions to problems.

I.T. is also going down big in India where the first step in urban renewal and development is often the computerization of existing records. In towns like Guntur, Ramagundam and Mirzapur this has facilitated the collection of taxes - a major concern for cash-starved urban centers. I.T. is also being used to increase municipal transparency: in the above towns, the progress of complaints, building permissions, municipal projects etc. can be tracked on the municipal website.

Another major theme of the conference was sustainable development, or development which enhances rather than exploits the environment. In this context, Jan Dictus presented the 'Eco-Business Plan for Vienna'. The 240 participating companies learn about environmental audits, about how they can increase productivity and profitability through environmentally-sensitive practices, and they receive subsidies to assist them in the 'greening' of their businesses. So far the saving to Vienna Corporation has been 90,000 kg of non-hazardous waste, over 12,000 kg of carbon dioxide emissions and 27,000 hours of kilowatt energy.

Chennai is Vienna's partner in this project. In Chennai some of the threats to sustainability were listed as high waste and low efficiency in the delivery of electricity, high levels of soil, water and air pollution, poor sanitation, ground water depletion and a high incidence of poverty. An attempt is being made to remedy some of these through energy-efficiency programmes in industry and schools, through promoting renewable energy and water harvesting, through investigating the possibility of 'eco-earnings' - i.e. through using waste products as raw materials or turning organic garbage into compost - and through developing 'eco-enterprises' which will provide training and employment to the poor.

The final thread woven through the conference was that of the necessity to preserve heritage. There was little disagreement that towns like Bruges in Bel-gium or Jaipur in Rajasthan have a unique architectural and social fabric which should be preserved. But how? The usual route so far has been tourism, for this can fund preservation and restoration projects. However, tourism has the capacity to destroy as well as preserve local monuments and traditions. A complementary approach, therefore, focuses upon making the citizens more aware, and therefore more concerned about, their own heritage. In Jaipur this is done through the creation of a 'Heritage Walk' which takes people through some of the oldest and most beautiful parts of the city - the walk begins at a temple and ends at a mosque.

Was the conference a success? On many levels, undoubtedly yes. One purpose was to bring together many different cities in an atmosphere where cross-fertilization and partnerships could evolve, and this, the participants agreed, was triumphantly achieved. Another was to demonstrate a variety of possible responses to the urban challenges of the 21st century. Here, also, many of the presentations embodied both a high degree of creativity and optimism.

However, to the extent that some of the presentations were intended to be examples of 'best practices' in the areas of urban development certain reservations need to be expressed. For example, hardly anybody referred to the actual process by which best practices were implemented in their town. This left huge question marks. How many of the best practice objectives, for example, had actually been implemented? How successful have they been? How did the local work force respond to new approaches and, if there was resistance, how was it overcome? Is it possible to transfer practices that have worked well in the West to Indian towns and cities where the scale and nature of the problems may be quite different? How well, indeed, have the existing Asia Urbs partnerships worked?

In fact, listening to some of the presentations one could be forgiven for concluding that practices like e-governance or the computerization of records or the privatization of public works projects are a magic panacea, universally applicable and universally effective in hastening change. Yet from the only detailed presentation made - Scott Gibbons' explanation of the way in which the Mirzapur project was planned and implemented - it is evident that the magic ingredient, the "x" factor, in many of the successes presented is not I.T., nor even the amount of funding available, but the quality and commitment of the people who are implementing the programme.

But is this transferable? And if key people move on, will the structures and technologies put in place be sufficient to ensure that the momentum of the project is maintained? How far, in other words, can technology change psychology? Can corruption in India really be controlled or even nullified by providing for the possibility of on-line payment for telephone connections and taxes?

Finally there were the big terms that hung over the conference like a banner: "sustainable development", "human unity", "peoples' empowerment". What exactly do they mean? Do they require some fundamental change in the way we act and perceive the world, or are they merely stick-on labels which allow all of us to proceed much as before but with a mollified conscience?

The conference didn't address such fundamentals. No doubt, that was not its immediate goal. But if such questions are not asked at some point along the line, then the danger is that Asia Urbs, for all its idealism regarding strengthening the links between different cultures, will tend to perpetuate the underlying problems associated with modern development rather than offer radically new solutions.

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