There’s a moment in Danny Boyle’s rags-to-riches movie hit Slumdog Millionaire when two of the central characters – the grown-up brothers Jamal and Salim – look out across an urban skyline punctuated by cranes. They are in awe: it’s as if the new India involves plans to bring shiny, modern new buildings, prosperity and ‘progress’ to replace the poor shanty towns of the past.
Well, like the film’s portrayal of modern-day India, that may be highly fictionalised – certainly in terms of the abject poverty that still exists in many of India’s biggest metropolises, such as Mumbai or Delhi. But the portmanteau does speak a little of the rapid urban regeneration programmes that are taking hold of the country in the wake of a new Congress government taking the reins.
Voted into power in May, that government has already acted quickly to try to rid itself of one image – as a major polluter in an era of global crackdowns on greenhouse gas emissions. But at the same time it has refused to set binding conditions in the run up to the crucial Copenhagen summit this December on the grounds that it would hinder its rapid economic progress. India has, however, pledged not to let its per capita emissions exceed those of developed countries. Moreover, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has identified the need to revive the economy, create jobs and ensure that the benefits of growth reached the underprivileged, as well as attend to rickety infrastructure and poor health facilities.
But it is in clearing the slums that the government hopes to make even more of a highly emblematic initial impact. Last month, the centre asked states to earmark land for housing projects in order that India might be slum-free in the next five years. Lofty ambitions indeed – especially given that India currently has some 62 million slum-dwellers. It aims to get there by earmarking 20 per cent of developed land in all housing projects and offering slum dwellers property rights. So far, 16 states have issued directives to reserve more than 20 per cent of developed
land in both public and private housing projects for the urban poor, and the ministry for housing and urban poverty alleviation has launched a new scheme of affordable housing, with funding to build one million houses as part of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). Launched in 2005, the JNNURM aims to address shortages in infrastructure and basic amenities among the urban poor.
India has also managed to garner the maximum number of grants from the United Nations-Habitat to fund youth-led development projects in urban cities. Backed by Barack Obama, the UN Initiative was publicised on World Habitat Day, October 6, which has been organised to show how cities and towns around the world have fared since 1986. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said that evidence suggested that governments at all levels were largely failing to address the challenges of the 21st century as they related to rapid growth of many cities and decline of others, the expansion of the informal sector and the role of the cities in causing or mitigating climate change. Again, the slums are under the microscope.
In New Delhi, construction projects of a different sort are taking shape, but which are also aimed at upping residential capacity in one of the most populous corners of the world. The city is finally gearing up for the Commonwealth Games (after many concerns about programmes and labour running late), to be held in October 2010 – the first time the country has hosted the event. Developers Emaar MGF needed a bailout from the government to complete the Games Village, but the 34 towers that form part of the project will be ready for use by March 2010, well in time for the Games’ starting pistol. The flats for athletes and delegates in the towers will be sold on to the public from October 2011. The village sits on a site of over 118 acres near the Akshardham Temple in East Delhi and also includes a main stadium. Some US$ 1.6 billion is being spent on the games, not including non-sports related infrastructure development in the city such as an expansion of the Indira Ghandi airport, roads and other transport improvements.
Other projects are at a far larger scale, including city-sized masterplans, which the government now wants – according to urban development secretary M Ramachandran to be more ‘linked and synergised with various plans like environmental management plans, mobility plans, sanitation, utility and infrastructural plans to make it inclusive and comprehensive.’ Furthermore, with around 30 per cent of the total population of India living in urban areas, and with 310 million people and 5161 cities and towns, moves are also being made to make such masterplans more ‘citizen centric’ in future.
Some of the larger projects
include IEC Operations Management Company PVT’s $400 million, 400 acre Entertainment City complex in Mumbai. Surat near Gujurat is set to get its own hi-tech ‘Helicopter City’ – a one-stop-shop for all chopper-related services, while smaller projects include Mumbai a 100,000sqm corporate office development by Andy Fisher workshop, and Godrej Garden City, a 10-tower project in the central Mumbai suburb of Vikhroli which demonstrates growth in a climate positive way.
Back in Mumbai, and the concern is again in ridding India of its slums, with a major focus on Dharavi, the setting of Slumdog Millionaire. Dharavi is one of some 52,000 slums in the country, and, embarrassingly for the government, is sited next to the city’s business district and airport. Perhaps consequently even here plans are afoot to turn the place around – albeit with a scheme that has caused consternation that its inhabitants will be priced out of the market or that the project may be clouded in none-too transparent deals. The scheme – overseen by the government’s Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA) – is called the Dharavi Redevelopment Project, and involves bulldozing the site and rehousing inhabitants in 30m2 apartments.
So what of the rest of the Indian economy, and what lies ahead? Many now believe that growth – if not the size of economy as a whole – in India will soon outstrip even China, beginning in 2010. The World Bank now predicts that India’s GDP will grow 8 per cent next year, compared to 7.7 per cent in China, although China’s economy will still be three-and-a-half times larger than India’s. And India is not so reliant on exports as China. Together, the two nation’s populations account for some 40 per cent of the planet’s 6.5 billion people.
The 140th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth fell on 2nd October 2009 – a fitting time for India to face up to its future as one of the world’s industrial and demographic powerhouses, albeit one undermined by widespread malnutrition. The balance to be struck with those cranes and a new wave of development, however, is between making real progress, creating sustainable new communities and the alleviation of the poor.
As they say in Slumdog Millionaire, it is written.
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