The last of the great United Nations conferences is upon us: the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Istanbul, 3-14 June). It follows on the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population and Development, the 1995 World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen, and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing.
As with those other great tamashas, this time, too, the preoccupation of civil servants and NGOs is to get the sponsorship in order to attend. For Istanbul, too, mayors, municipal workers, NGOs and civil servants are doing the rounds of donor agencies. And if the lacklustre South Asian summit of mayors held in Kathmandu in April was any indication, there is not much to be said for South Asian representation in Istanbul.
Perhaps the mayors and NGOs would do better to stay home and mull over the figures. In its March issue, Himal coined the term “The Subcontinent of Sub-Saharan Africa” to refer to the socio-economic tailspin that our region is experiencing. The data presented was stark, and showed that the quality of life in significant areas had begun to trail behind the Sahel—in child mortality, primary education, public health, and so on.
Data provided by the United Nations agency Habitat indicates that in urbanisation, too, South Asia scrapes the bottom. A host of problems pressurise the Subcontinent´s urban dwellers, and it can only get worse: toxic pollution, dust in the lungs, distance from nature, lack of green space, absence of mass transit. The architectural loss of the old cities, be it Lahore, Kathmandu or Gwalior, is a thing to wonder about. All in all, South Asian cities are losing their character to concrete, while migrants from the countryside continue to be attracted by the city lights and jobs.
The cities are bloated. In 1995, only two South Asian cities made it into the top ten cities according to size (Bombay ranking fifth with 15.1 million, and Calcutta ninth with 11.7 million). By 2015, according to the Global Report on Human Settlements, Bombay will move up to second place with 27.4 million, Karachi will be the seventh largest city with 20.6 million, and Dhaka will rank ninth with 19 million. Interestingly, Calcutta does not make the list for 2015, although, of course, it will continue to expand.
With the lack of planning, foresight and civic amenities, it can only be imagined what kind of hellholes the cities will be by 2015—unplanned, congested places where the population lives not a life but a period. According to the same report, a study based on 52 cities worldwide showed the following table in terms of government expenditure on urban infrastructure of water supply, sanitation, drainage, garbage collection, roads and electricity:
Regional Grouping USD
spent per person
The West 656
Eastern Europe, North Africa, Middle East 86
East Asia 72
Latin America and Caribbean 48
Sub-Saharan Africa 17
South Asia 15
As Dr, Mathias Hundsalz, coordinator of the report states, cities have a lot of advantages, and are actually better for the poor than rural areas in terms of life expectancy, lower absolute poverty, and availability of essential services. Given this reality which attracts the poor to cities, it is logical to try to make sure that the cities are able to handle the massive numbers that are involved, in terms of urban transport, open space, housing construction, and public health facilities.
According to one estimate, more than half of South Asia´s population will be city-dwellers by the middle of the next century. The attention paid to the problems of the larger cities also tends to divert attention from the demographic, environmental, cultural and economic dislocations being faced by a cumulatively much larger population in the smaller towns and cities. Who thinks, for example, of Multan, Muzaffarpur, Biratnagar or Sylhet?
The South Asian mayors´ conference that was held in Kathmandu is not the kind of meeting to instil confidence that the municipalities and governments are up to the task of tackling the massive problems that lie ahead. All the right things about decentralisation of power, autonomy to local bodies, formulation of comprehensive policies for development, technical cooperation among developing countries, etc, were said. But there was a pro forma air about the meeting, and a sense that this was an obligatory exercise on the road to Istanbul.
The late President Ranasinghe Premadasa of Sri Lanka was the only national-level leader we can recall who paid any attention to the need for adequate public housing. Were he alive, he should properly have been the chairman of the Istanbul summit.