The Modi government has unveiled an unprecedented focus on cities, but it has barely engaged in discussions over the New Urban Agenda.


The mind-boggling urbanization trends that India is wrestling with, after all, offer a microcosm of the concerns playing out across the globe, particularly in fast-developing “middle income” economies. In turn, strategies for dealing with those trends are being debated and sharpened in the lead-up to Habitat III, which is to result in a 20-year vision document on sustainable urban development known as the New Urban Agenda.

The conference, the third in a series that began in 1976, is expected to rejuvenate global political commitment toward the sustainable development of towns, cities and other human settlements, in both rural and urban areas. The outcome from that process, along with pledges and new obligations, could shape the global strategy around urbanization for the next two decades.

As yet, however, India’s engagement in this process is decidedly mixed.

“Official India has engaged in the process in fits and starts,” said Shipra Narang Suri, vice-president of the Habitat III General Assembly of Partners, a key umbrella group of stakeholders.

After a year of broad discussion and input, the Habitat III political negotiations began on the details of the New Urban Agenda in May. Suri said the Indian delegation was “relatively quiet” through special Habitat III consultations with local authorities andcivil society groups in May and June, respectively. That was followed by “some engagement” during subsequent key talks that took place at the end of July.

“Mostly, however, India’s engagement is confined to reading pre-prepared statements in plenary sessions rather than engaging in any active negotiations,” she said. Citiscope contacted the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation for a comment on India’s urban agenda and the country’s engagement with the Habitat III process but had received no response at deadline.

This lack of engagement wasn’t always the case. India has played important parts in the urban discussion, in the distant past and more recently.

“The government of India played a pivotal role in establishing the U. N. Human Settlements Programme [UN-Habitat]. The first head of UN-Habitat was an Indian, Dr. Arcot Ramachandran,” said Srinivasa Popuri, a senior officer with UN-Habitat’s regional office for Asia and the Pacific.

India also was very active in advocating for last year’s establishment of a new global goal on cities, one of the U. N.’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are currently guiding anti-poverty and sustainability efforts around the world, Popuri said. Many are now hoping that the New Urban Agenda will offer guidance on how to implement this goal — SDG 11, which aims to make cities “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.

[See: Cities turn to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals]

Aromar Revi, director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, agreed that India has been “low-key in the Habitat process at the official level”. Yet he too noted that the country was much more active during last year’s framing of the SDGs as well as the Paris Agreement on climate change. But in this regard, Revi cautions, India is not unique.

Popuri, meanwhile, suggests that the Habitat process has been useful in focusing the country’s official urban conversation — and offers an opportunity to showcase that conversation for the world.

“This is the first time that the government of India has come out with a clear and candid picture of housing, human settlements and urbanization issues in the country,” Popuri said. “There is a National Habitat Committee. There have been consultations with the civil society, industry groups, academics and others. This is the perfect time for India to be more proactive in sharing lessons from these missions not only in India but also with the outside world.”