With a quarter of the urbanizable population of the world, India is clearly one of the main sites where 21st century urban transformation will play out. Will this urban transformation follow well-trodden paths, and if not, what paths will it follow?
While the consequences of informality are well known, the processes, systems, and nature of these informal processes themselves and especially the contingencies inherent therein are not very well understood. How are, to take one example, “auto-constructed” settlements actually built by residents over time? What is built first, through what mechanisms, by which actors, and with what efficiency and equity? Is “auto-construction” a problem, a solution, or a method? Should policy seek to leverage it, replace it, or enable it? What are the different ways in which policy engages with such informality? Limited understanding of informal urban processes have led to two specific types of dissonances.
The first is in policy – which has been unable to articulate a connection with urban informality, without first formalizing it. Yet, across different sectors, what it means to “formalise” and how it is to be done remain unclear. Discussions of incorporating the “informal” also happen in sectoral silos: within housing or land or work or specific services, rather than taking them as intertwined as they are, in fact, in practice.
A refusal to engage with “auto-construction” and its relationship with the current economic, social and built forms of our cities leads to uninformed policy choices privileging ‘redevelopment’, i.e., demolition of existing structures and reconstruction, over ‘upgrading’, which seeks to retain existing housing investments and improve infrastructure.
Similarly, even though there are periodic initiatives to “regularise” (formalize) ‘unauthorised’ settlements, an almost visceral refusal to engage with their ubiquity means that the process for and consequences of such “regularisation” remain ambiguous. The ‘implementation gap’ that is often rued in Indian policy circles, we contend, is a misdiagnosis. A better description would be a ‘recognition gap’.
The second dissonance is in the nature of this knowledge and the way research itself is conducted. By its very nature, knowledge about informal activity is tacit and dispersed. It has to be. If one builds settlements, for example, in tension with law and planning, then a certain opacity is required for such processes of urbanisation. This implies that research methods that rely on shorter-term investigation; or methods using secondary data without attention to deep linkages between actors and institutions on the ground are insufficient to capture informality. Yet this is precisely the kind of data that programmes and policies rely upon, reinforcing the disjunctions that currently inform our policy landscape.
Finally, the tacit and place-based nature of informal processes can also create a self-limiting universe. Many of the tacit workarounds are site-specific, though others can travel. Some, e.g., obtaining electricity by unauthorized connections to overhead wires, will cause the system to collapse if adopted city-wide, while others, e.g., unauthorized transport modes, in principle, can provide city-wide public benefit. Too often, though not always these difficulties are bracketed off as implementation gaps and attributed to corruption even as policy and lived life continue on divergent paths.