South Asians are seeing more work on the ground and hearing more policy announcements about urban development than ever before. For many who live in and around towns and cities in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India (where South Asia’s biggest cities lie) this could be a good thing. The trouble is: national governments and planning authorities in Dhaka, Islamabad and New Delhi are tending more and more to follow a single ideology – economic growth will drive down poverty – and a primary route to that misplaced objective, which is greater urbanisation.

These governments are therefore commissioning a welter of studies and reports, from within and without, to show their citizens why more cities and towns are a good thing (jobs and citizen services, they say) and why mobilising a great deal of money to build infrastructure for these settlements is a good thing (more jobs, more ‘development’). The cleverer authorities are linking South Asia’s rising urban trendline to a variety of socio-economic goods, such as product and monetary innovation, such as cities being the wellsprings of social entrepreneurship, such as greater tax receipts which will help accumulate funds for social sector spending on the poor and marginalised. For companies and banks that deal with the building of big infrastructure, its engineering, its operation and its financing, this is a persistent swell of good news, and this group is doing everything it can to sustain the urbanisation wave.

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Courtesy UN-Habitat: Floods in the Philippines. Flooding in coastal cities will endanger ever larger slum populations, wiping out income gains and bringing the threat of water-borne diseases

The raw numbers are on the side of the powerful urban-centric cabal. Among the world’s cities ranked by average population growth rate per year (in per cent) for 2006-2020, there are 37 South Asian cities (Afghanistan 1, Bangladesh 3, India 25, Pakistan 8) and 8 in China in the top 100. In the next 100, there are 20 cities in China and 11 in India. Asia’s two biggest countries have between them 64 of the top 200 cities that are projected, by the global group of city mayors, to grow the fastest in the next decade. This extraordinary prognosis for the two most populous countries – both of which have become economic powers – has enormous implications for global energy, food and resource flows.

When China and India buy material (as they have been doing, with China’s headstart over the rest of the BRIC/BASIC group placing it in a league of resource acquisition by itself), entire populations of supplier countries will face the consequences. Moreover, much of the material the two countries will commandeer will be directed towards their cities. China’s urban population is already 45% of its total population, while India’s is 30% and set to grow faster than it has at any period until now. There are combined numbers so large in the cities of China and India that the implications of the consumption by this grouping alone have become too profound to internalise for planners and administrators. Amongst the 300 most populous cities in the world, 97 are in China and these 97 are home to 243.98 million people (2010 estimate); 26 are in India and these 26 are home to 90.38 million people (2010 estimate).

What will city dwellers and rural folk alike need as nourishment? To attempt to answer this question we must first deal with how this need is described by official India. For much of developing Asia, data at the national level is available but laden with several caveats: it is produced by government with little or no independent validation; it is collected through systems that may be unrepresentative of the purchasing and consumption patterns of the population; it lacks reliable and deep time series records for major and minor crops, for both rural and urban consumption, and for economic strata of society. It is for any national and sub-national economy a vital investment and a critical part of governance, for this is the data that the consumer price and wholesale price indices are dependent upon, which in turn are important components with which to determine inflation.

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Courtesy UN-Habitat: Waterside shanties in the Philippines. Planning and zoning exist in theory for most Asian cities. The pressures of in-migration mean that local politics and the strength of networks determines where new settlements take root

In this respect the Indian system is conceptually strong and an excellent indicator of the state of the country’s food security, despite its operational deficiencies. The system relies on India’s National Sample Survey Organisation, which is administered by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, the central ministry entrusted with monitoring all development aspects of the vast land and its population. Coupled with India’s National Agricultural Research System, the price monitoring mechanisms of the Department of Consumer Affairs and of the economics cell of the Department of Agriculture, India has the framework to deliver continuous, reliable, highly granular data on every aspect of food security. It is not able to consistently do so only because of persistent under-investment and a political unwillingness to let data help direct policy. Even so, India’s food, population and consumption data is much superior to that of China, other South Asia and other South-East Asia (Vietnam excluded).

What does this system tell us about India’s food consumption patterns? It tells us how much households have spent on food per month and what they were able to buy with the money they have spent. Let’s look at some numbers to illustrate this. India’s most admirable National Sample Survey Organisation has just begun releasing summary data from its 2007-08 survey of household consumption (the earlier such ’round’, as it is called, pertained to the 2004-05 period). In rural India, average monthly per capita cereal consumption was around 10.3 kg for the poorest 10% of the population. (The survey distributes both rural and urban populations by ten ‘deciles’ – bands of 10% – which correspond to level of consumption expenditure.) It was between 11 and 12 kg for each of the next six decile classes, and was above 12 kg for the top three decile groups.

This means that for rural India, there is a strong positive correlation between ability to spend on food and quantum of consumption of cereals – the greater the household income, they more it is able to spend on staple foodgrain. In urban India, per capita cereal consumption increased from under 9.5 kg to about 10 kg per month over the first four decile classes but then showed a tendency to fall slightly rather than to rise in parallel with further increases in total expenditure. This indicates the fulfilment of staple foodgrain needs and that expenditure on food thereafter is on cereal substitutes, processed food or eating out (what the surveys call ‘purchased cooked meals’), and fruit. Average cereal consumption per person per month was 11.7 kg in rural India and 9.7 in urban India. From this it would appear that the average urban person’s monthly cereal intake was about 2 kg less (a difference of 67 gm per day) than that of the average rural person. But it needs to be factored in that in urban areas the cereal content of processed foods and eating out (‘purchased cooked meals’) gets left out in the estimation of cereal consumption, which is why the difference in cereal consumption between the two may be less than it appears.

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The FAO food price index plotted from 2000 to early 2010

India’s urban national average of per capita daily cereal consumption is 9.7 kg. At this average, we are able to gauge the cereal supply needs of cities with populations of over a million. Using population estimates for 2010 (from the City Mayors website database) we find: Pimpri-Chinchwad (in Maharashtra state, western India) with a metro population of 1.515 million consumes 483 tons of cereals a day; Nagpur (in Maharashtra state, central India) with a metro population of 2.42 million consumes 772 tons of cereals a day; Varanasi (in Bihar state, eastern India) with a metro population of 3.15 million consumes 1,005 tons of cereals a day; Ludhiana (in Punjab state, northern India) with a metro population of 4.40 million consumes 1,403 tons of cereals a day; Hyderabad (in Andhra Pradesh state, south-central India) with a metro population of 6.29 million consumes 2,006 tons of cereals a day; Kolkata (in West Bengal state, eastern india) with a metro population of 15.42 million consumes 4,918 tons of cereals a day; Mumbai (in Maharashtra state, western India) with a metro population of 21.2 million consumes 6,761 tons of cereals a day. These daily consumption demands mean movement, by road and rail, of food produce citywards at prodigious scales. In Navi Mumbai, an urban satellite of Mumbai which is a fair-sized city by itself today, lies the food wholesale depot that marshals and redirects the daily procession of trucks, lorries, light commercial vehicles and pick-ups bringing food for Mumbai’s millions. The number of vehicular movements in this yard are reckoned to be over 2,000 every day which indicates the vast physical reach of the giant city’s food gathering subsystem, one that holds in its thrall a region that could comfortably encompass western Europe.

Asian cities are sinks for agri-produce, their planned and unplanned wards and neighbourhoods exerting a powerful pull on district agriculture markets and prices many hundreds of kilometres away. Just as it is worrying at the global scale to see evidence of capital flowing from Asian and Pacific developing countries to finance consumption and investment in rich countries, so too is it worrying to see the flow of agricultural produce from resource-poor provisioning regions to the capital-rich cities of India. While rural subregions run the equivalent of natural resource current account deficits in order to supply the growing ranks of cities, metropolitan administrations ignore entirely their role in impeding the productive deployment of those resources within their regions of origin. The result of such an absence of recognition, and of an absence of true cost accounting for agricultural produce flows, is that the rural poor (representing the vast number of farming households supplying the cities and themselves) move only very slowly out of poverty and at the same time the urban poor (representing many rural households dispossessed of their capacities to farm) exist in a service-rich poverty trap.

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In the state of Goa, western India, new residential blocks loom over shrinking fields. The produce from such fields once fed the capital city of Panaji, which now imports food 130 kilometres from the neighbouring state of Karnataka

It is the wilful suppression of these linked conditions that allows central and state governments in Asia (India and China foremost) and their collaborators in the form of the infrastructure cabal (pan-Asian, with global links) and their financial compradors (national banks, investment funds, the international consultancies, multilateral lending agencies) to see continued urbanisation as a good thing. It is this contrived blind spot that permits a McKinsey Global Institute to state: “Handled well, India can reap significant benefits from urbanisation. MGI offers a range of recommendations, the vast majority of which India could implement within five to ten years. If India were to follow the recommendations, it could add 1 to 1.5% to annual GDP growth, bringing the economy near to the double-digit growth to which the government aspires. Surging growth and employment in cities will be a powerful magnet. MGI projections show India’s urban population soaring from 340 million in 2008 to 590 million in 2030. And this urban expansion will happen at a speed quite unlike anything India has seen before. It took India nearly 40 years (between 1971 and 2008) for the urban population to rise by nearly 230 million. It will take only half the time to add the next 250 million.” (From ‘India’s urban awakening: building inclusive cities, sustaining economic growth’, McKinsey Global Institute, April 2010.)

The timing of the McKinsey report is not unconnected with government calculations. On 23 March 2010 the prime minister of India, Dr Manmohan Singh, delivered a short address to a conference on building infrastructure in India. He said that India expects to achieve 8.5% growth in 2010-11 and 9% in 2011-12. “I believe that we need to do even better. For eliminating poverty and providing productive employment for our young population in the near future, we must aim at accelerating the pace of growth to about 10%. This is the growth target which we should work towards for the Twelfth Plan [2012-17]. A growth rate of 10% looks ambitious but it is not impossible. It has been achieved by other emerging economies in Asia.” That was a reference to China, which is an automatic measure of comparison for official India to the point of obsession. Singh added, “I do not mean only infrastructure for the modern part of the economy. For truly inclusive growth, we need to meet the infrastructure needs of the whole country. Infrastructure must therefore be defined broadly to include highways and roads of all kinds including rural roads, railways, air and water transport, irrigation, electric power, telecommunications, water supply and sewerage.” How much money will this need, in the view of the central government of India? At current rates of exchange, USD $ 514 billion! (That’s about twice the current GDP of Portugal or Colombia or the United Arab Emirates.) Hence the vulpine interest of every single player at every level and in every sector of the global infrastructure industry in India. And because the dollar or euro, yen or SDR (special drawing right) spent on infrastructure can be leveraged for profit far more easily in an urban setting, channel India’s infrastructure needs into city-sized chunks of opportunity.

If this is the view for another ten years, what is to become of those invisibles in the agricultural produce chain, the rural farm household? For the GDP growth-led section of central government, its large assembly of private sector favourites and their army of suppliers, the problem is easily defined as a clear and absolute overlap between the agenda of improving cities (business) and boosting rural incomes (socio-political). For critical consumption this powerful grouping is already saying that urbanisation is not a substitute for programmes aimed at improving agricultural incomes – that would be politically dangerous in a democracy. Instead, they are saying that urbanisation complements efforts to improve rural incomes. “Improved agricultural productivity and resulting higher incomes are possible only if India creates substantial non-agricultural jobs to absorb the surplus labour force in agriculture,” suggests the McKinsey report which, to be fair, is not an original thought, for such social engineering solutions had fermented at least a decade earlier in the minds of policy specialists at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The resulting equation is crude and startling: increase agricultural productivity through improved yields and mechanisation, push an estimated 50 million to 130 million agricultural workers out of a sector that is anyway contributing less and less to national GDP, send them to old and new cities to find alternative jobs.

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Courtesy ‘Developing Asia’ journal, Asian Development Bank. Asia’s growing urban populations

What will happen when the steady flow of rural-to-urban migration – so conspicuous already in developing Asia, Africa and South America – is turned into a national project on the lines of the description from India? To begin with, there are the projections of the current trend, available from a variety of agencies (United Nations, country planning authorities) which point to more than 2.2 billion Asians living in urban areas by 2020. Already, six of the world’s 10 largest megacities – defined as having a population of more than 10 million – and 8 out of 10 of the world’s most densely populated cities are in Asia. For the globally active pro-city grouping, the next step in the campaign is to reinforce the dominant trend and perspective. Quoted in the journal ‘Developing Asia’ (published by the Asian Development Bank), is that lending institution’s senior urban development specialist with the Southeast Asia Department, Florian Steinberg. “There’s a view that urbanisation is negative, but others feel there is a need for more urbanisation. Sustainable urbanisation will be essential for growth and to advance the economies. India, for example, needs much more urbanisation to perform economically at the rate that it wants to perform,” he said.

The bank’s journal (March 2010) has also quoted Torsten Kleiss, described as “an urban development expert” and (more significantly) senior consultant for Holcim, the international cement supplier. “Urbanisation is something good. It’s a driver and result of economic and social development. Look at America and Europe. Development took place with urbanisation that started around 100 years ago.” Such a view may be expected from a company whose business is infrastructure, but it is given weight when endorsed by academics and planners such as Dinesh Mehta, professor emeritus at the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology University (CEPT) in Ahmedabad (Gujarat state), India. Mehta said that “urbanisation is an effect of economic growth, not a cause of it” which appears to be a more considered view of the economic roots of rural-to-urban migration. But he has qualified his meaning: “Lagging urbanisation in some sense is a reflection of the poor capacity of cities to absorb economic growth. That is true of Indian cities. Infrastructure services are much lower than the level of economic activities would demand. It [economic growth] will take place in cities that have infrastructure. That is why there is massive growth in the PRC, because of the infrastructure.”

What will happen to household incomes, access to services which matter to families and to urban society when Asia collectively passes the level of population urbanisation that already exists in China, which is 45%? There is an opposition of views on this matter, with NGOs and academic institutions that have conducted fieldwork in both rural and urban settings disagreeing directly with the contention that urbanisation boosts economic growth and therefore “lifts populations out of poverty”, a picturesque but quite incorrect homily in vogue with the world’s urban evangelists. Pressured by their major donors and politically weighty members states to warp reality, UN agencies that work in areas which have much to do with social justice and inequality sound confused at best. Take ‘The 2010 Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific’, a UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN-Escap) document which is otherwise a valuable body of work.

On the one hand it said: “As a consequence of the fast economic growth and increase in standards of living, developing countries in Asia and the Pacific made significant progress in reducing poverty. Fifteen countries representing 93% of the population had their headcount poverty rates reduced from 52.1% around 1990 to 25.2% in the mid-2000s.” And on the other it said: “Rising inequality can adversely affect the speed of poverty reduction with growth… the Gini coefficient increased between 1990 and the mid-2000s in 9 of 15 countries examined; the increase was higher in urban than in rural areas. The median per-capita household consumption for the 15 countries increased 20 percentage points less than the median GDP (58% against 78%), which is still a significant difference.” The causes for that difference will continue to be misinterpreted – with destructive consequences – by the pro-globalisationists for as long as GDP growth is held up as the defining national mission. In India and Bangladesh, the incidence of malnutrition in poor urban areas is more than twice that in non-slum urban areas: for India the figures are 54% and 21% respectively and for Bangladesh 51.4% and 24%.

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A table of the world’s fastest growing cities. Indian cities (in red) account for 9 of the top 30. There are four others (green) in South Asia and 13 of the top 30 (plum) are in Africa

It is however the Gini coefficient that effectively dismantles much of the sophistry surrounding the urban-is-better argumentation. The Gini index is the most widely used measure of inequality. It measures either the distribution of household income or consumption spending in a country. A zero value implies perfect equality, with resources distributed proportionally amongst all households, while 1 signifies perfect inequality, where one household has all of the nation’s income and others have none. It is the UN agency most closely connected with cities, UN-Habitat, which has made a breakthrough by using available city-level data to illuminate the urban divide (and in the process derail the urban-solves-poverty thesis). The Colombian cities of Bogota, Barranquilla and Cali in South America; Lagos in Nigeria; Chiangmai and Udonthani in Thailand show the sharpest economic divides in the world. UN-Habitat’s ‘State of the World’s Cities 2010/2011, Bridging the Urban Divide’ report holds out these cities as harbouring very high income disparities of Gini coefficients above 0.55 states; Catamarca and Buenos Aires, in Argentina; Santiago and Chillan, in Chile; and the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, follow closely with income Gini values between 0.55 and 0.51.

When Gini values are based on consumption spending they usually reflect less inequality than when based on income. “In a broader, updated sample of consumption-based equality Jakarta, Indonesia; the Bangladeshi cities of Chittagong, Dhaka, Khulna; Lome, Togo; Freetown, Sierra Leone; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Bissau, Guinea-Bissau; and Dakar, Senegal; stand out as the most egalitarian in the developing world – with Gini values ranging from 0.27 to 0.37,” the UN-Habitat report continued. However, in the relativist landscape of the Gini chart, the ‘most equal’ developing-world cities sampled are in fact ‘equally poor cities’, with their spread in consumption spending being similar for rich and poor. All these cities fail to provide water, sanitation or housing to all residents, and feature some of the highest numbers of slums in their respective regions. These gaps exist most conspicuously in urban India (as a prominent subset of the urban condition in developing Asia) and less conspicuously in rural India. There, in both better equipped and far-flung districts, the social factors that interpret law, control access to resources and markets, determine status and control money are still feudal in nature, with omniscient caste interleaves always stratifying society, for the logic of caste quickly uses economic levers and opportunities as tools to enforce both ruling and subservient roles.

When sections of rural society move to cities therefore, they look to caste and clan as their supporting structures in the new environment. Social anthropologists in East Africa have talked of the phenomenon of “divided loyalties” amongst urban settlers both recent and established. This category of urban migrants remains for long ‘transplanted villagers’, their loyalties and obligations to their ancestral rural land (or to clan and family ties) coming before their ‘integration’ into city structures. This is seen most clearly in the mega-metropolises of Mumbai and Delhi, in which thousands of Nepali men live and work, maintaining close ties with networks based on their home villages in the terai or in the low Himalayan ranges. It is seen functioning just as crucially amongst the many South Asian labour communities who live and work in the Arabian peninsula (in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, whose apparently astonishing urban transformations have been wrought by the humblest of labour from Pakistan, India or Bangladesh, whole cohorts of mistreated men toiling and living in wretched conditions far from their homes).

Who can intervene at a meta-national level? There are the global policy and programme entities, many in the United Nations constellation, such as the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Cities Alliance, the Global Environment Fund (GEF), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the United Nations Food Program (UNFPA) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), all of whom – we are recently told – are being instructed to follow a common UN rationale. There also exists a wealth of expertise outside the UN that can enhance the effectiveness of the local, regional and global response to the food crisis, misdirected economic policy and mounting urban needs. Some examples are Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), Metropolis, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), Urbanization and Global Environmental Change (UGEC), Climate Change, Environment and Migration Alliance (CCEMA).

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For smallholder farmers, pastoralists and agricultural labour the urbanisation programme poses human rights and social justice questions

These entities, singly and in concert, have many years of experience in a range of countries that matches the number of member countries party to the UN system. Why then these joint efforts not had the expected result of mitigating the food crisis and turning around smallholder agriculture’s waning tide? Some of the policy myopia must lie with the neglect by governments and intergovernmental organisations towards countries’ human rights obligations – in doing so they are repeating many of the same errors that caused the food crisis which grew from 2007 onwards. The enthusiastic supporting of urbanisation as a core national ‘progress’ mission leads to farming communities being displaced from their socio-cultural homelands and turfed out of their local markets by a combination of household income pressure and the growing corporatisation of the agri-produce system.

In several countries of Eastern Africa and South America, the trend which is now called the global farmland grab – agribusiness corporations acting as profiteering agents of governments seeking overseas food security – has been well documented. What is less recognised is that the factors at work in this trend at the international level also apply at the sub-national scale, where the cultivating communities of districts are manoeuvred out of an income based on agriculture and coerced into migrating to cities and towns. This is already visible in the logic of the Ministry of Home Affairs in India, which sees national and regional food security (that of a state) as being determined by the ability to buy foodgrain from the global market: again the model is that of China 2000-2009, which has used a gigantic foreign exchange surplus to buy food amongst a number of other industrial commodities.

Such an approach sees cities as being devoted to services and manufacturing (needing a self-adjusting pool of labour and management) and whose high GDPs will be used to purchase foodgrain from wherever it is available, the next district or across the seas. It is a machine-mind binary solution to a problem that has been created by the most virulent form of opportunity capital. That is why it ignores utterly the gathering signals of man-made climate change (already threatening harvests in Africa, South America and Asia – China is in the grip of a long drought and South-East Asia has suffered erratic rains since 2008), the urgent need to strengthen localisation of community and agriculture, and the rising energy deficits which are crippling livelihood and economic opportunity in cities all over South Asia (Pakistan’s recent experience in the last four months is a lesson to all Asian governments).

“The number of undernourished people in the world has set a scandalous new record of one billion in 2009, in spite of a record grain harvest in 2008,” commented the ‘Global Food Challenge’, a compilation of case studies and recommendations by a consortium consisting of Brot für Alle, Brot für die Welt, Ecumencial Advocacy Alliance (EA), FoodFirst Information and Action Network (FIAN), FIAN International, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), Germanwatch and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung. “It requires a fundamental reshaping of international trade and investment policies and rules to put human rights, particularly the right to adequate food, at the centre of economic policy.” The right to food (which includes the rights of socio-cultural community systems of which cultivation is one expression) is also a human rights question. For Asia’s millions of landless farm workers, smallholder farmers, pastoralists, indigenous peoples and slum dwellers, the city is neither survival solution nor opportunity to find social justice.