For the second in our series of STEPS Centre panel sessions we have Cecilia Tacoli of the International Institute of Environment and Development, Prof. Ian Douglas, Emeritus Professor at the School of Environment and Development at the University of Manchester and Usha Ramanathan of the International Environmental Law Research Centre in New Delhi. Joining them are STEPS members Linda Waldman, Hayley McGregor and Lyla Mehta. (Photo: Usha Ramanathan)

The peri-urban issue is a very challenging area and a grey-area for policy-makers, says Lyla Mehta opening the session, and the STEPS peri-urban project based in Delhi hopes to explore the juxtaposition of urban and rural activities and institutions and the challenges for health and livelihood security of the marginalised and the poorest.

And to our first guest speaker, Ian Douglas, to talk now on environmental change at the peri-urban interface. Douglas has worked for the past 10 years with another STEPS member, Fiona Marshall, on the peri-urban environment. Peri-urban sprawl is a big driver in Asian cities right now – in China, in Borneo – and changes that affect the peri-urban area, such as climate change, happen very rapidly. “So we have a rapid change in space and one of the dynamics of the peri-urban environment is that the peri-urban area itself is changing at the same time – what is peri-urban now might be urban soon. So if you put in infrastructure now, you have to think of what the consequences are for that area in the future,” says Douglas.

Peri-urban areas are important to different people in multiple ways – the area means different things to different people and is used in different ways, says Douglas, showing examples of Rosario in Argentina where the peri-urban space varies from hand-built shelters, to smart housing and massive motorways. So the multiple uses of the peri-urban environment produce plenty of opportunity for conflict.
One of the big issues for planning and managing peri-urban agriculture is how to get participation of stakeholders in the planning process. Key issues for policy-makers and communities include local decision making, access to urban services for the poor, security of peri-urban land tenure, the just application of existing laws and rural action to prevent migration to cities.

“We need to get integrated approach for poverty, waste and agriculture,” says Douglas, and take in to account the formal and informal ways administration, decision-making and political power work in the peri-urban environment. “So we possibly have to think about the peri-urban landscape as a hybrid landscape…so it is a scientific, social and political challenge.”

Linda Waldman now talks about her research on asbestos-related diseases in South Africa and the UK, in which she has explored the interface between medical and legal categories and how people think about their bodies and the disease they have. In India, it is asbestos cement factories that create hazardous zones but the Indian government does not recognise that there is a risk, so the debate is framed in a different way.

In India a new approach to disease and disaster-management has been put forward that uses spiritual knowledge to ward off disease – so as a result workers are therefore to blame for disease and they should seek to rectify the situation by seeking spiritual guidance. “My point is how we frame understandings of diseases – how people and institutions – will affect process and whether things will benefit or penalise the poor,” Waldman concludes.

Medical anthropologist Hayley MacGregor takes the floor now and talks about her work in South Africa’s informal shack settlements, where no national healthcare provision, high infant mortality, high unemployment and violence. She was interested to find out how people thought the environment impacted on their health, and especially on mental health. She argues that living in informal settlements epitomised a sense of marginalisation, of failed expectations and of being forgotten in a new political era as the government of South Africa changed.

“How do we make sense of the peri-urban area?” asks Cecilia Tacoli. She says that starting from an urban perspective helps because the urban area is the driver for changes in its immediate area. “Ofcourse the peri-urban areas are extremely diverse and the only generalisation you can really make is that upstream areas are more desirable than downstream areas,” says Tacoli.

Talking of south east Asia, Tacoli says there is a radical change of occupation as people move into peri-urban areas and move away from agriculture. But peri-urban villages are still villages and they do not have the capacity to deal with urban issues – this is where the question of governance comes into play, she says.

“We need to deal with urbanisation, as urbanisation is going to happen,” concludes Tacoli. “The decisions of cities are largely undemocratic process with decisions and poor people have little say.”

Usha Ramanathan now focuses on the legal aspects of slums in Delhi. The Delhi development masterplan in 1962 included space for ‘economically weaker sections’ and therefore poorer people were a part of development. But at the same time the estate agencies were given power to buy up land for development but were hopelessly inefficient at turning out housing stock, plus there has been a lot of corruption, says Ramanathan.

Although later on the government acknowledged the underperformance in lower cost housing, the law is often forgotten when looking at how people move around. And in Delhi demolition is as much a part of the city’s life as the beautification of it – the building of elegant skyscrapers, for instance. And it is the language of encroachment has made it very easy to demolish the homes of the poor, sometimes with a day’s notice and sometimes none.

The use of peri-urban areas for landfills and waste disposal is something we’ve seen a lot of, says Ramanathan, and the courts have been at the forefront of this issue to decide what is in the public interest. And often the courts say “give unto garbage what you cannot give unto the poor.”