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Kirtee Shah: ‘Urban problems are much more complex and difficult now’

‘Make cities inclusive, give them those small houses’

Civil Society News, Gurugram

Published: May. 28, 2024
Updated: Jun. 28, 2024

AS India urbanizes, cities need to prepare to carry their new loads. New beginnings have to be made in injecting finance and expertise into municipal administrations. Mayors and councillors should be better empowered, more accountable and higher up the rungs of the political ladder.
Crucial to improving the status of cities is openly discussing their problems and sharing ideas for making urban spaces inclusive and productive. Kirtee Shah, a veteran architect based in Ahmedabad, has been making a valiant attempt to do just that with a series of webinars. Civil Society spoke to him about what he hopes to be able to do for cities.  


Q: You’ve been holding webinars on the future of cities and talking to a whole lot of people. Why did you undertake this exercise and what is it that you hope to achieve?

We have done 105 webinars in the past three years and heard about 500 experts and activists. Perhaps in all 100,000 people have been reached. We have covered a large number of topics like water, governance, housing, transportation, slums and so on. But essentially there has been one theme, which is rethinking the Indian city.

Our understanding of India’s urban challenge is that it’s very complex. It’s very difficult. And we as people, we as government, we as professionals, we as civil society have not really understood the complexity and the nature of this challenge.

Our cities are not emerging as healthy cities. Their problems are bound to get more difficult and complex unless we look for ways to address them.


Q: What do you propose to do with the insights that have emerged from the webinars?

We have started doing two things. The webinars are in the public domain and can be accessed. But we are converting them into knowledge products. Our first product is in the form of a series of books. We have done a book on cities and conservation. We are also working on a book on the urban economy. How does it work? What is happening? There is the informal sector, and the formal sector. Cities are perceived as centres of economic growth.

The second product from the webinars is the creation of what I call a subject constituency. In order to address the urban challenge, we need a broader societal partnership. The government alone is not going to be able to do it. The private sector alone is also not enough. 


Q: So you feel you’ve been able to collect, in one place, valuable insights, expertise, expert opinions and information which might not have been there before. 

I wouldn’t say not there before, but not in one place. The 105 webinars are all recorded and retrievable. Each is around two hours. And we are converting them into readable material by way of books. But to me that is not as important as a mass of people coming together on this particular idea. If we really want to approach urban issues properly, we require a wider partnership. 


Q: You know, this is not the first time that something voluminous has been put together on cities. There was the Charles Correa report on urbanization, for instance. People have attempted various things. How are you different?

I was part of the National Commission on Urbanization that Rajiv Gandhi had set up under Charles Correa. But more than 30 years have passed and urban challenges need a second national commission for which I have been talking to the Central and state governments. A national commission is not enough and state commissions too are required. Partnerships are needed because urbanization is shooting up and the problems are more intricate now. We don’t seem to know how to address them.


Q: How much luckier do you expect to be with a second commission? The first one didn’t end up anywhere.

That was in the 1980s and some  very interesting ideas came through in those years. There were the 73rd and 74th Amendments and the setting up of a Ministry of Poverty Alleviation. I personally feel urban matters now are much more complex and more difficult. And therefore there is a greater need for governments to respond to them.


Q: The mess is in front of us. But how will your webinars or, for that matter, a second commission on urbanization make a difference?

The first thing is to communicate what is right and what is not. Let me give an example of what we are trying to work on. Under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, 12 million houses have been constructed. It’s a good idea. It’s a good project that has been structured rather well in terms of four silos and all that.

We are asking two major questions: What impact has this project had on slums and the quality of life in cities? What is the quality of houses being built? And, speaking of quality, have the issues of design been adequately addressed? Remember, these are small houses and therefore design is very important. For people to live in them for 50 to 60 years, they must be well designed.

Now we are not stopping at saying they are not well-designed. We have started a process and instituted three seasons of a national competition for improving livability of small houses. And we already have something like 150 people participating in the competition last year. New ideas are emerging.

A national competition in itself is also not enough because it does not necessarily produce ideas which are implementable. So, we have started what we call a studio component of the national housing competition where we are working with four schools of design and four architectural colleges to come together to evolve designs which are relevant.


Q: So, then, these designs together with perhaps sustainable standards, eco-friendly standards, would become the basis for the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana?

Absolutely. You not only deal with the government but the private sector also has a say.


Q: Would it be correct to say that through the webinars you are identifying concerns that need to be immediately addressed, finding solutions and implementing them because time is of the essence?

I personally feel that it is important to keep in mind that this is not only about government. It is also about professionals. It includes civil society. It is, you know, ideas. We are reaching out to educational institutions so that young students look at the whole issue of small houses. Similarly, our partner for the national competition last season was CREDAI, in Pune, a builders body, which was reaching out to a large number of builders to sensitize them that housing is not only about profit-making. Housing is about sustainability. Housing is about people. Housing is about culture, society, and that particular message is very important.

And because Credai are supporting us, there was much better communication with builders. Similarly, in schools and colleges of design the idea is to sensitize the student community. Architects don’t think too much about small houses. Small houses are too small for big architects. But can the young be sensitized to the importance of small houses? That, even if a house is small, you are talking about 12 million houses.


Q: And you’re not just building houses, but also providing shelter.

Yes. As an integral and parallel part of this process, we are working on what you can call sustainable urban livelihoods. It was clear during the pandemic and lockdown that something needs to be done for people in the informal sector. We are in the process of putting together a design for sustainable livelihoods which we will submit to the government sometime in June or July. 


Q: Could you give us an example of what you call sustainable livelihoods?

A large number of people in the urban sector are informal workers. And informal jobs are not secure. Informal jobs are underpaid. Informal jobs are not, I think you know, sustained. We need a systemic arrangement comparable to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme, to ensure that people who are employable are employed, that they get work. This is the way of dealing with poverty. This is the way of dealing with homelessness.


Q: What livelihoods are you looking at?

Just about any livelihood. Cell phone repair, vegetable vending. Giving people access to small finance, access to the market will, I think, improve incomes and productivity. They will probably be able to move out from slums into better housing. Youth could get better jobs. In my understanding, the difference between the rural MGNREGA and such an urban project is that it has a greater potential for productivity. It will create new jobs.


Q: What are the other concerns? Cities are full of concerns. You’ve identified two crucial ones — housing and employment. 

Well, I think, on the whole issue of slums, one understands, for instance, the objective of building formal housing. But it is very difficult to provide formal housing to all the people in a reasonable time. There are strategies tried out all over the world, which involve not necessarily building formal housing but doing in situ improvement of slums where you essentially build on housing that people have created by giving them incentives in the form of land rights.

If people have built these houses and you take away the burden of eviction, they will improve those houses and they will become transit shelters for five years, 10 years, 15 years, while you are able to build new housing. We are talking at length about a strategy for upgrading slums rather than exclusive attention to formal housing, which, though desirable, is not necessarily viable and workable and affordable at this stage.


Q: How do you see the redevelopment of Dharavi? 

It so happens the land is in the middle of the city. Land prices are exorbitant. The government will be willing to make exceptions in terms of, you know, FSI (Floor Space Index) and land use and all that. It’s on a very large scale. It’s a complex situation but if it happens it would improve the lives of those who live there.


Q: Is this a model you endorse? 

I don’t. But as far as the slum situation is concerned, you require multiple strategies. There is no one single way of dealing with it. It depends where it is. It depends what the community is doing. What are the kinds of jobs? What is the land condition? Every slum requires a different approach.


Q: What about water and cities? 

We’ve done not less than six webinars on water. And we are starting a new series called Water and the City. We had one recently on Bengaluru. We had S. Vishwanath who has the Million Wells Programme running in Bengaluru tell us that the city should not be short of water.

A series of ideas is emerging and we are putting them together and making them available to cities. We are more interested in solutions than the problem itself. We are looking at conservation, recycling, improving groundwater levels.

Addressing consumption is important. I grew up in a village where consumption was no more than 20 litres per capita per day. With current technologies, it is possible to reuse 95 percent of our water, which would greatly reduce the water problems our cities are facing.


Q: What about governance and more local authority? Municipal finance?

Governance is an issue which interests us very much and we are planning three webinars in the next two months on municipal finance. 

If we want our cities better managed and planned, we have to get our priorities right with regard to manpower, finance and devolution of authority.

More power needs to flow to the municipal level. We intend working on this at length and producing a White Paper in the next three or four months.

Municipal finance, both in terms of revenue and expenditure, is less than one percent of GDP in India. In Brazil, it is 7.2 percent and in South Africa it’s about 6 percent.

Much greater capacities are needed in terms of resources, management and implementation if we are looking at investing $640 billion in cities. Capacity-building is needed in municipalities.


  • Ananda

    Ananda - June 3, 2024, 4:22 p.m.

    " There are strategies tried out all over the world, which involve not necessarily building formal housing but doing in situ improvement of slums " This seems to be the most doable. Slums appear where they do in a big part on account of the proximity to work opportunities. A lot of resettlement programs dump people to the far-edge of town. Also - small houses seem good because multi-story apartments have not worked out, even in Delhi. Which are model cities in India which have done praiseworthy housing-construction in urban areas?

  • - June 1, 2024, 1:39 p.m.

    Well done, Kirtee!

  • Kirtee shah

    Kirtee shah - June 1, 2024, 7:06 a.m.

    The "Rethinking Cities" Webinar series i mention, under which 110 webinars have been completed, is to create a "subject constituency " and work towards building a "societal partnership" that is needed to address the urban challenge adequately. It needs knowledge and experience resources of all sections of the society as on the one hand it needs everyone behave responsibly in conserving nature's resources and on the other put to creative use technological innovations to make life functional in its is micro and macro. Individual and community. Nature and science. Economics and society.Physical and spiritual. Citizens need both: goods and services.. Also peace and harmony. The slogan economically productive , socially just, cultuturally vibrant, politically participatory , environemntally sustainable, technologically adaptive and people centric sets the goal. There is no overall sustainability without urban sustainibility and the challenge is much more complex with cities having chosen questionable paths to grow and develop.

  • Vijay Jagannathan

    Vijay Jagannathan - May 30, 2024, 5:27 p.m.

    Very informative and impressive

  • Neelima Jerath

    Neelima Jerath - May 30, 2024, 6:07 a.m.

    A great initiative which needs a lot of support. 2 points: 1. MNREGA has its flaws. We need to ensure that these do not creep in the urban equivalent to MNREGA. We do not need a battery of idle people. 2. With water, we also need to look at sanitation. While obtaining environmental clearance no one is looking at whether STP of one housing complex is at the desired distance from the neighbours drinking water supply . (Even though it may be at an ok distance from my own) There are no guidelines on this and no one is taking a comprehensive look.