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Towards a better life? A cautionary tale of progress in Ahmedabad

Research report

Written by Tanvi Bhatkal, William Avis, Susan Nicolai

Research report

​Ahmedabad, the fifth largest city in India, has achieved significant progress since the 1990s. The city provides a useful lens through which to explore the rural-urban transition and how its challenges can be addressed, particularly terms of improvement in material well-being (including income, access to finance and housing); environment (focused on basic environmental services and urban expansion); and political voice (through collective action as well as strengthened local governance).

In the western Indian state of Gujarat, where Ahmedabad is located, the urban poverty rate declined from 28% in 1993-94 to 10% in 2011-12. Trade unions, such as the Self-employed Women’s Association, founded in Ahmedabad in 1972, have played a key role in organising and empowering informal workers. By 2001 Ahmedabad was already above both state and national urban averages in the coverage of drinking water, and progress has continued. The municipal government has introduced specific programmes to improve access to public utilities – water, sanitation and electricity – for slum dwellers irrespective of tenure status. Additionally, the city stands out for its ‘smart growth’ through proactive planning for urban expansion, enabling a compact urban area while allotting spaces to house poor families.

This has been enabled by various efforts that have strengthened municipal governance and finances, allowing the local government to invest in infrastructure across the city. Moreover, civil society organisations have played a critical role in mobilising poor communities, and the municipality has welcomed collaboration.

However, gaps have remained and relations between communities and the government have become strained in recent years. Significant sections of the population continue to lack access to good quality services, and Ahmedabad has evolved into a city segmented by class, caste and religion. Further, across much of urban India there has been a shift in the conception of development from inclusive growth to the creation of ‘global cities’ marked by capital-intensive projects. As a result, dialogue has decreased, becoming increasingly confrontational, and the availability of public funds has diverted focus away from flexible local programmes built on a collaborative model of development. While urbanisation has been recognised as key to India’s future, the experience of Ahmedabad provides key lessons – both positive and cautionary – relevant to urbanisation both nationally and globally.

Tanvi Bhatkal, William Avis and Susan Nicolai