Cities of South and South-East Asia – Sustainable Urban Future?

The leading Pakistani urban planner and commentator Arif Hasan (of Urban Resource Centre) wrote this think-piece in June 2007 as a Discussion Document for UN Event on “Sustainable Urban Future: Urbanization in an Era of Globalization and Environmental Change” – New York, July 09 – 10, 2007

The Reality

International capital is desperately looking for a home. Cities of South and South-East Asia are attractive destinations since they have a weak regulatory framework and have undergone structural adjustment. Here, this investment, is increasingly determining not only the shape of the city but also social and economic relations[1].

New terms, such as “world class cities”, “investment friendly infrastructure”, “foreign direct investment” or ”FDI” as it is called, have entered the development vocabulary. All politicians and official planners in the Asian cities I know are using these terms and it is largely because of them that the whole approach to planning has undergone a change. Local governments are obsessed by making cities “beautiful” to visitors and investors. This means building flyovers and elevated expressways as opposed to traffic management and planning; high-rise apartments as opposed to upgraded settlements; malls as opposed to traditional markets (which are being removed); removing poverty from the centre of the city to the periphery to improve the image of the city so as to promote DFI; catering to tourism rather than supporting local commerce; seeking the support of the international corporate sector (developers, banks, suppliers of technologies and the IFIs) for the above.

The above agenda is an expensive one. For this, sizeable loans have been negotiated with the IFIs on a scale unthinkable before[2]. Projects designed and funded through previous loans have not met their objectives and there is evidence to show that they will again not meet their objectives. Many of the projects are being floated on a BOT process. Projects have replaced planning. This is especially true of transport related projects[3]. In addition, there has never been more liquidity in banks and leasing companies. However, due to the freedom that these loan giving institutions have today, this liquidity is used to provide short-term high interest loans which do not bring any benefit to the city or to the majority of its residents[4].

The nature of investments being made in many of the Asian cities and the mindset behind them, are increasing land hording; evictions[5] of settlements, hawkers and informal businesses; informal settlements far away from the city and from social sector facilities; exclusion ( due to gentrification) of poorer communities from public spaces of recreation and entertainment; and the ad-hoc urbanization of ecologically sensitive and agriculturally productive land. The current master and/or strategic plans are not giving priority (unlike in the decade of the eighties) to the socio-economic issues arising out of these trends.

The rich-poor divide has increased as a result of these policies. Subsidies for the social sectors and increase in inflation and price of utilities, especially in countries which have undergone structural adjustment, has multiplied this divide[6]. However, the most serious repercussion of this new development paradigm is that the overwhelming power of international capital and consultants and their local partners has weakened government institutions and the democratic political process. Governments have become deaf to the concerns of the environmental and dissenting academic lobbies. And all this in an age where the media is freer than ever before and “consultations” are the order of the day[7]. Meanwhile, successful NGO projects, the result of the populism of the 80’s, have now in many cases become “respectable” and are in partnership with governments. Also, the NGO movement has undergone a change. It is increasingly an industry manned by “development professionals” and no longer by populist altruism.

If this Trend Continues
If the present trend continues then the rich-poor divide, evictions, informal settlements and exclusion will increase with not only the poor but also the rich living in ghettos surrounded by armed guards and security systems (this is already happening). Governance issues will increasingly become law and order related and not justice and equity related. This will increase fragmentation for the only thing that will hold the city together will be an aggressively upwardly mobile middle class. In addition, development will take place where the investor is happy and so the other regions will become the backwaters (again this is also happening)[8]. The continuation of the current process is a recipe for conflict.

How can this be changed?

Foreign capital (and local liquidity) has its benefits and must be encouraged. However, it has to fit into a larger development plan based on development principles so that an inclusive and an environmentally-friendly urban environment can be created. These principles could be: i) planning should respect the ecology of the areas in which the urban centres are located; ii) landuse should be determined on the basis of social and environmental considerations and not on the basis of land value or potential land value alone; iii) planning should give priority to the needs of the majority population which in the case of Asia are low and lower-middle income communities, hawkers, informal businesses, pedestrians and commuters; and iv) planning must respect and promote the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of the communities that live in the city. Zoning byelaws should be developed on the basis of these principles so that they are pedestrian and street friendly, pro-dissolved space and pro-mixed landuse.

If South-Asian cities are to be taken as examples, then what is required is: i) a heavy non-utilisation fee on land so as to bring horded land into the market; ii) a cut-off date for the regularisation of informal settlements and an end to evictions (where relocation is required, market rate compensation should be paid); iii) planned squatting for five years during which programmes for closing the demand-supply gap for low income housing takes place; iv) initiation of programmes for built units and plots which successfully solve the issues related to targeting and speculation[9]; v) development of rules, regulations and procedures to guarantee that the natural, entertainment and recreational assets of the city will not be in the exclusive use of the elite or the middle classes; vi) a regime for privatisation backed by institutional arrangements that guarantees provision of sustainable employment and development; and vii) an understanding that all programmes and projects will be advertised at their conceptual stage, subject to public hearings before finalisation, supervised by a steering committee of interest groups, have their accounts published regularly, and overseen by one government official from the beginning to the end.

The major question is how can the above agenda be achieved in an age where social and political evolution is in a flux and the economy is controlled globally by undemocratic internationa l organisations?[10] Can local “civil society” organisations (funded by bilateral agencies and international NGOs) do this by coming together as a large network? Or can this be achieved more successfully through the national political process or by an international movement seeking to modify the current paradigm in the interests of the poorer sections of the population?

Five Books

1. Globalization: Capitalism and its Alternatives: Leshie Sklair, 2000

2. The Age of Consent: George Monbiot, 2003

3. The Challenge of Sustainable Cities: Rod Burgess et al, 1997

4. Empowering Squatter Citizen: David Satterthwaite and Diana Mitlin, 2004

5. Understanding Asian Cities: David Satterthwaite, 2003

Five Films / Poems / Architecture

1. In This World (feature film): Director Micheal Winterbottom

2. Khosla Ka Ghonsla (Hindi feature film): Director Dibakar Banerjee

3. Rehabilitation of Hebron Old Town (Project) by the Engineering office of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee

4. Lyari: Highway of Tears (Documentary film) produced by COHRE

5. Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching (Book): Ursula K Le Guin, 1997


[1]. David Satterthwaite; Understanding Asian Cities, ACHR, October 2005

[2]. Between 1976 and 1993, the Sindh province in which Karachi is located borrowed US$ 799.64 million for urban development. Almost all of this was for Karachi. Recently, the government has arranged to borrow US$ 800 million for the Karachi Mega City Project. Of this, US$ 5.33 million is being spent on technical assistance being provided by foreign consultants.

[3]. Cities such as Bangkok, Manila, Calcutta have made major investments in light rail and metro systems. Other Asian cities are following their example. However, these systems are far too expensive to be developed on a large enough scale to make a difference. Manila’s light rail caters to only 8 percent of trips and Bangkok’s sky train and metro to only 3 percent of trips and Calcutta’s metro to even less. The light rail and metro fares are 3 to 4 times more expensive than bus fares. As a result, the vast majority of commuters travel by run down bus system (for details, see Geetam Tiwari; Urban Transport for Growing Cities ; Macmillan India Ltd., 2002 and Arif Hasan; Understanding Karachi’s Traffic Problems; Daily Dawn, January 29, 2004.)

[4]. For example, 502 vehicles have been added to Karachi per day during the last financial year. It is estimated that about 50 percent of these have been financed through loans from banks and leasing companies. This means that loans worth US$ 1.8 billion were issued for this investment which could easily has been utilised for impr oving public transport systems or for social housing.

[5]. ACHR Monitoring of Evictions in seven Asian countries (Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines) sho ws that evictions are increasing dramatically. Between January to June 2004, 334,593 people were evicted in the urban areas of these countries. In January to June 2005, 2,084,388 people were evicted. The major reason for these evictions was the beautification of the city. In the majority of cases, people did not receive any compensation for the losses they incurred and where resettlement did take place it was 25 to 60 kilometres from the city centre. (Ken Fernandes; Some Trends in Evictions in Asia; ACHR, March 2006)

[6]. David Satterthwaite; Understanding Asian Cities, ACHR, October 2005. Also, the economic survey of Pakistan< /SPAN> 2006-07 concedes that the gap between the rich and poor is widening and quoting gini coefficient and consumption share of quintile the survey states that the share of consumption of the richest 20 percent stands at 39.4 while it is 9.5 for the bottom 20 percent population. It further states that the gap is growing in spite of a 7 percent GDP growth.

[7]. NGOs and community activists and academics in Delhi, Karachi, Phnom Pehn, Calcutta, Lahore all have the same complaint. They claim that consultations are an eye wash and environmental assessments are rubber stamps.

[8]. Urban settlements that have been bypassed by the communications revolution are dieing economically while small towns are loosing their elite and skilled persons to large towns and becoming politically irrelevant. For details see Arif Hasan; The Scale and Causes of Urban Change in Pakistan; Ushba Publishing International, Karachi 2007.

[9]. There are various ways of doing this that have been successful as pilot projects, but the land hunger of a powerful nexus of developers, bureaucrats and politicians is the biggest hurdle in implementation.

[10]. The UN is controlled by five members who won the Second World War. The IMF and World Bank function on the principle of one dollar one vote. The WTO was created out of the green room negotiations that produced GATT.


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Filed under capitalism, Development, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Urban

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