The challenges of creating new visions for sustainable urbanisation in India

People riding motorbikes in Chennai

by Poonam Pandey, from the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

two-day conference organised at Jawaharlal Nehru University, in collaboration with the STEPS centre, raised questions about how to bring about critical new thinking on sustainable urbanisation in India.

For the creation of new visions for a sustainable city the foremost questions to be asked are – whose city and sustainability for whom? When non-governmental organisations (NGOs) first emerged in India, they were seen as a ray of new hope for marginalized, unheard, and suppressed voices of the people. NGOs grew and multiplied as a space to support and nurture diverse, and often officially sidelined visions of development and progress in India. However, over the years many of these organizations have turned into a one man (or rather a one woman) show. Even though the topics being debated keep changing, the leaders remain the same year after year. Despite much needed interventions at many fronts, over the past few decades, there have been very few new leaders in the Indian NGO scene. Academia has suffered from the same trend. In the current scenario of a lacunae of new leaders and scholars what is the scope for new visions and alternative imaginations? 

The recent establishment of the South Asia Sustainability Hub and Knowledge Network (SAH&KN) could aim to surpass this trend. The network is a platform where different actors, in different positions, can come together to share knowledge and learn. It proposes to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and dialogue and to bring about training and capacity building between academic and non-academic actors from different social and economic classes and hierarchies.

The South Asian Hub Network’s first step was a recent two-day conference organized at Jawaharlal Nehru University, in collaboration with the STEPS centre on ‘Pathways to Sustainable Urbanization’. The conference aimed to identify themes, issues, cases, plans of action and actors for creating alternative visions for more sustainable Indian cities. While the conference was an important first step, there are certain factors that should be carefully considered in order for alternative visions to take shape and materialize in the future.

Are there dangers in sidelining top-down urban planning approaches?

When we discuss ‘pathways to sustainable urbanization’, it’s important to ensure we don’t neglect hearing and considering a diversity of alternative visions. The key here is to have multiple and diverse alternative visions and for people to talk about them. It is also important to see how the alternative visions interact and talk to the dominant narratives and how they allow a constructive imagination of a city which emphasises collective sense-making. Unfortunately, most of the conference discussions centered on criticizing top-down, expert-led, corporate and government-supported modes of city planning and urbanisation, which are generally seen to be supporting the endless consumer demands of the rich and aspiring middle class. These assumptions are as guilty of over-simplification and homogenisation as those made about marginalised and grassroots communities in India.

Except when discussing the urban waste management project in Delhi, most conference discussions failed to acknowledge the role of the dominant actors and methods in developing sustainable alternative visions for the future. Can a dialogue on alternative pathways to sustainable urbanization afford to exclude administrators, planners, technology experts and industrial actors from the debate? Surely if we don’t involve them in discussions there is a risk we’ll develop myopic alternative visions which might fail to lead to concrete solutions.

The long history of disconnection between academia and policymakers, planners, and business and industry representatives in India suggests that new modes of dialogue other than policy advice and research papers need to be explored. When looking for alternatives to a sustainable future, we need to hear and consider the rich and the poor, the rural and the urban, and the formal and the informal in a continuum rather than as separate individual categories.

Acknowledging and assimilating failure

Most of the case studies shared and discussed at the conference were success stories of the alternative visions. Although, as Ian Scoones suggested, it is important to appraise the positive cases given their fragility, small-scale, and context specificity, it is also essential to talk about their limitations and how to move forward along with these limitations. This was a missed opportunity for self-reflection on some of the failures that might have been observed in the unfolding of alternative visions and practices for a sustainable city. While a deep-seated fear to acknowledge failure is commonly presented as a cultural problem hampering development and growth in India, it is crucial to learn from the failures in order to avoid repeating the same mistakes and re-inventing the (same) wheel. Other than acknowledging and reflecting on the failure, there is a need to look at, as Brian Wynne suggested, the omissions, the deletions and what ceased to exist and why, when new plans and visions are actualized.

Connecting vision and action

An important feature of establishing the network and holding the conference was to create an urban sustainability action plan. The rich discussions in the conference on political economy, class, interactions with data and knowledge and the processes of political mobilization has provided a good background for an action oriented research. The challenge now is to assign tasks and responsibilities and establish timelines to transform visions into actions. Emerging leaders and scholars who could be trained and supported through the hub becomes the most important asset of such an action plan. Other than traditional mechanisms of mobilizations for social transformation, there is a need to constructively engage with new media for the processes of alliance building.

Ensuring participation

The most significant aspect of a forum is that people from different walks of life with different expertise join in to understand and act on a real world situation. In such a forum the method of engagement becomes absolutely crucial to ensure all actors are included who could help create alternative visions for a sustainable future.

The expert-comment, presentation-based round table discussions are extremely helpful in communicating ideas between peers who share the same language, training and vocabulary. But in hybrid forums like these, closed room, podium presentations could severely limit inclusion. Different methods, such as games, plays, documentaries and ‘walkshops,’ are being experimented with all over the world, and it is important that Indian academia also explore new methods to ensure participation.

Engaging the experts

The conference successfully brought together many participants and speakers from different high-profile academic, government and non-governmental organizations. However, the ‘big names’ of many of these organizations had little or no time to engage with other participants in discussion sessions. A huge responsibility lies in the hands of forums like the South-Asian hub to identify and train new generations of experts who are available for a sustained engagement. Could these experts participate more meaningfully and help train and build capacity?

The challenges of co-option

Co-option is another risk which could emerge from the forums. Bigger, more established organizations could provide access to networks, funding and other support (such as training) to sustain an alternative vision. The challenge is whether the bigger organizations are too pre-occupied with their own agenda and work to provide any tangible support to the network, other than their name. At the same time, the small, grassroots level initiatives risk being sidelined. These aren’t new challenges, but could pose a risk to the new vision the forum aims to help bring about.

Poonam Pandey is a guest blogger and Ph.D student from the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University.