Contribution for ACHR Newsletter – Habitat Issue

Twenty years ago the Habitat Conference accepted that the major problem in Asian cities was shelter for the poor who constitute over sixty five per cent of the population in urban Third World Asia. It was acknowledged that this problem could not be solved by conventional means and that innovative strategies were required. It was recommended with great passion that there should be no eviction and demolition of squatter settlements. Instead they should be upgraded and regularised. Sites and services programmes were promoted and technical advice and loans of both materials and money were proposed for low income communities. A lot of emphasis was laid on lowering infrastructure standards and on participation of communities in project planning, implementation, management and subsequent O&M.

Many of these concepts led to the creation of projects at great expense. However, very few of these became effective national programmes and even those that did made little difference to the scale of the problem. This scale has increased over time, both in terms of absolute numbers and in percentage terms, and the bulldozing of squatter settlements has not only increased, but has acquired a sophistication that did not exist twenty years ago.

In recent years, liberalization of the economies of Asian countries and structural re-adjustment have given these countries First World economies with a Third World wage structure. The poor have become poorer, requirements have increased, and the new economic policies have created a boom in the real estate market. This has increased the value of land and made it impossible for the poor to have access to it in appropriate locations. They are being pushed out of the cities and their current places of residence are being turned into commercial and residential plazas for the rich. Asian planners have failed to protect land for housing the poor or for the environmental benefit of their cities.

Meanwhile, due to conventional land-use planning, the formal city is being divided into commercial, industrial and residential areas. This increases distances to and from work; emphasises class divisions; creates rich and poor ghettos; and promotes crime and violence. The poor are the major victims of these trends.

A democratic political culture that could help in tackling these issues has yet to emerge. The politician – real estate developer – police – city administration nexus makes a mockery of democratic institutions and of the planning and implementation processes. Twenty years of massive technical assistance, loans and numerous experts have certainly not helped the poor. Nor have they been able to produce planners, architects and administrators who can deliver “community participation” and “innovative strategies”.

However, there have been positive changes as well which are going to lead to a better future. Where people have been able to develop to negotiate successfully with government and to effect decision’ making, things have improved. Similarly, there are indications to show that through collective savings, poor communities can access what the formal sector has to offer. And again, some professional institutions are struggling to develop professionals who can plan in a manner that the poor can benefit. These are foundations on which one can build.

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