Towards A Sustainable City:
The Problem of Environment and Urban Poverty in Medinipur

Ambarish Mukherji
Paper presented at the conference Livelihoods and Poverty Reduction: Lessons From Eastern India, 25-27 September 2001, by Ambarish Mukherji, Reader Dept. of Political Science, Vidyasagar University, Medinipur, West Bengal.

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Urban Poverty and Environment: Emerging Issues
Research Method and Data Source
Medinipur: Urban Poverty and Environmental Problems
Policy Making At the Grassroots: Whither Environment
Policy Implications
Notes and references


In the literature on poverty the ‘rural’ usually reigns supreme over the ‘urban’. More so in the context of the developing countries of the South including India. For example, in India since independence, very little attention has been given to the alleviation of urban poverty in particular, though the problems of the urban poor has become no less critical over the years than that of the ruralites.

It is true however, that in independent India the elimination of poverty as a whole occupied centre stage in almost all the plan documents. The various expert groups and the Planning Commission addressed the issue of poverty from methodological as well as empirical angles. The National Sample Surveys through its several rounds tried to quantify the nature and extent of poverty in different parts of India. On the other hand, prominent economists made novel attempts towards the measurement of poverty 1. The eradication of poverty by the government through various poverty alleviation schemes became a dominant objective only in the Fifth Five Year Plan (1974-79) though it made no distinction between rural and urban poverty. The Sixth Plan (1980-85) also did not directly address the issue of urban poverty. It was only during the Seventh Plan (1985-90) that the maiden attempt to tackle urban poverty was made. The Plan explicitly noted the growing incidence of poverty in urban areas coupled with overcrowding and unemployment. It was during this Plan that urban poverty alleviation programmes were initiated which continued in the subsequent plan periods 2.

A review of the performance of these urban poverty alleviation schemes revealed several operational difficulties. The most important of which was a top-down approach towards the implementation of those schemes. The other difficulties being inadequate coverage of the poverty stricken population as well as non-availability of grants to be released by the governments. The inadequate attention of the policy-makers and planners towards problems of urban poor is also reflected by the absence of a well formulated policy for urban development both at the national and state levels. It took almost four decades since independence to constitute a National Commission of Urbanisation (1986) and five decades to enact the 74th Constitution Amendment Act (1993) empowering the urban local governments with the responsibility of planning at the grassroots for the overall improvement of livelihood patterns in urban areas.

Urban Poverty and Environment: Emerging Issues

In the recent period almost all the urban problems including poverty have been converging into environmental issues. For example, overcrowding in the cities in now-a-days viewed from an environmental angle. The management of urban space is another instance of the entry of environmental variables into the domain of city planning. The relationship between poverty and environment in the urban context is mediated through market forces and policy measures adopted by the governments.

There is another important aspect of the interrelationship between urban poverty and environment. (The environmental problems are very often caused by the urban poor which in turn affects the quality of life of the poverty stricken people. This forms a vicious cycle 3. In reality, the problems of the growing number of urban poor in India are ever increasing and intimately connected with environmental issues. Recent developments have shown that in many places the urban poor are getting organised to fight out the environmental problems which in reality are related to the conditions of abject poverty and poor living conditions. The case of rapid urbanisation by filling up the water bodies in the eastern part of Kolkata and the resistance movement initiated by the poor fishermen shows the linkage between environment and policy-making in an urban milieu. The urban poor are affected not only by economic poverty, but also various types of environmental problems like pollution, lack of pure drinking water, housing and sanitation, health hazards and so on. Suffice it to say, that these problems cannot be tackled without the joint endeavour of the local elected bodies and a conscious group of city people acting through the NGOs and other institutions at the local level.)

There is another dimension of this issue of environment and poverty which relates to various policy process through which the demands for better civic services are transmitted and allocated in society. Ironically, in India, the problems of small and medium cities/towns have received scant attention both from the researchers and policy makers. In this study, an attempt has therefore been made to inquire into the relationship between urban poverty and environmental problems from a policy perspective in the town of Medinipur – a medium-sized town – in West Bengal.

Research Method and Data Source

The study has sought to combine both quantitative and qualitative methods of analysis. It has followed the method of survey research to collect data from the city people and the city managers about different aspects of urban poverty and environmental problems in Medinipur. The sampled population was interviewed in a structured manner with the help of questionnaire, containing both closed and open-ended questions. As regards the city policy-makers, data have been collected from the community leaders. As per the institutional structure of the city government in Medinipur, the body of elected councillors, headed by the Chairman – ‘Chairman-in-Council’ - constitute the principal policy making authority. As such, the elected councillors in the city government have been interviewed. These councillors belonged to one or more of the four Municipal Boards constituted in the town during 1981-1998, representing all the municipal wards. The leader-interview has been conducted with the help of questionnaire having mostly open-ended questions.

In addition to data gathered from citizen and leadership interview, this study has depended on other sources for collecting relevant materials such as official publications like Census of India, Handbooks on Municipal Administration, Reports of Municipal Finance Commission and other relevant government documents. The records and proceedings of the Board Meetings in Medinipur Municipality have been examined. The study has also gone through the Annual and Administrative Reports of Medinipur Municipality. Moreover, content analysis has been made of two state level daily newspapers and two local level weeklies (all in Bengali) over a period of about fifteen years to find out relevant information on issues of environmental problems and the plight of the urban poor. The proceedings of the debates in the West Bengal State Legislative Assembly has also been looked into. Thus, the study has resorted to both primary and secondary sources for the necessary data.

Medinipur: Urban Poverty and Environmental Problems

Medinipur town is one of the oldest urban centres of West Bengal. It is the headquarters of Medinipur district having a population of 1,25,000 (as per 1991 Census). The population growth rate of the Medinipur town lagged behind that of the district as well as the state during the decade 1941-51. The growth rate of the town population of Medinipur was more or less similar to the district figures during the next decade (1951-61). During the next twenty years, the town’s population growth rate has remained more or less stable without any major variations. It again increased during the decade 1981-91. Medinipur is basically a non-industrial, administrative cum commercial town of the district. Industrial activity in the town is less important compared to others. Except a cotton mill and a few rice and oil mills, there are no other sizeable units within the town. As a whole, the industrial zone accounts for about 2.40 per cent of the town’s total area. Medinipur town is situated within the agricultural region of the district. Therefore, a sizeable percentage of agricultural lands as well as woodlands are found along the eastern and western borders of the town, which is a rare phenomenon in an urban community 4.

In recent period the Medinipur town is facing many of the common environmental problems which are yet to receive proper attention from the politicians as well as administrators in the town. A major part of this environmental problems have arisen out of the steady increase of urban population as well as lack of proper planning for the development of the town. This has obviously led to an ever-growing demand for the basic civic services and amenities. On the other hand, provision for housing and shelter, water supply, sewage and sanitation, health care services, transport facilities etc. are becoming scarce and costly. This has a direct effect on the living conditions of the urban poor who were already subsisting on the margins of their existence, Medinipur town has a large number of rickshaw-pullers, petty-traders, owners of small shops, street vendors, and a huge army of child labours working in the roadside restaurants, tea-stalls, sweet shops, motor garages and many other small establishments. In a more recent period, the city managers have adopted a policy for the eviction of hawkers, small stall owners and petty traders from the pavements in order to broaden the streets without making any provisions for their rehabilitation. The water bodies of the town (which used to serve important sources of water and fish production) are also facing serious crisis owing to the expansion of sprawling settlements of the urban poor. The city managers have not yet given any serious attention for proper maintenance and development of these water bodies in the town. The river Kasai (Kangsabati) which flows along the southern side of Medinipur town is also getting heavily silted due to erosion of its banks. As yet, there is no joint endeavour on the part of the Kangsabati River Valley Project Authorities and the Medinipur Municipality to undertake any comprehensive programme for saving the river from environmental degradation.

In Medinipur we have a sizeable number of slum dwellers living in inhuman conditions. There are altogether twenty such clusters of slums scattered almost in every part of the town 5. The poor people who live in those slums are not only the victims of environmental hazards, but they are also instrumental in the degradation of the city environment.

The foregoing discussion reveals the general scenario of urban poverty and environmental problems in Medinipur town. We have already mentioned that the solution of these problems lies in the participatory and decentralised mode of planning and its implementation at the local level. Let us now look at what is happening in Medinipur town in this respect.

Policy Making At the Grassroots: Whither Environment

The study reveals that the city people as well as the policy-makers in Medinipur lack a long-term view of their immediate problems. It is interesting to note in this connection that the major issues in city politics have been mostly centered around the day-to-day basic civic services and amenities. Dealing with environmental issues requires a farsight. This is missing in the perceptions of the planners and policy-makers as well as the common people of the town.

It is now well established that neither environmental issues nor matters related to urban poverty alleviation could be tackled without the participation of a sizeable section of the civil society. The mere existence and aggravation of environmental problems is not a sufficient condition for the generation of people’s movements for the overall amelioration of the living conditions of the poor. In Medinipur, we have found that the city dwellers on an average rarely takes part actively in the decision-making process related to their own living conditions. Most of the city people never participate in this process except at the time of municipal elections during which they only cast their votes. The average voter turn outs in the municipal polls in Medinipur during 1980-1993 was 70-75 per cent. This reasonably high rate of voting apparently indicates the existence of a participative citisenry in the town. However, when the active voter respondents were asked whether they were equally participative in the various political processes involving policy-making about city problems, more than a majority of them (about 51%) answered in the negative.

On the other hand, the elected people’s representatives of Medinipur town can be described as ‘ward-fathers’ at their best and completely indifferent to people’s needs at their worst. Moreover, it was found from our survey that the lack of funds was not always the real cause behind the absence of both long and short term developmental activities in the town. The Annual Budgets of Medinipur Municipality often showed an excess of income over expenditure. This reveals that the local government in Medinipur lacked motivation to do work which would cater to the real needs of the people. For example, in Medinipur the primitive and deplorable practice of employing scavengers still continues and the municipal authority has not yet been able to eradicate this practice from the city which needed not so must of funds as strong political will.

Policy Implications

The findings of the study indicate certain policy measures as well as action-oriented research programmes which are stated below:

1. The urban local government should be made accountable to the general public from the lowest level of urban governance. Although the 74th Constitution Amendment has kept a provision of ‘Nagar Panchayat’ (analogous to Gram-Panchayat at the rural level), it has not been realised in practice as yet throughout the country. Attempts should be made by the respective state governments to form Nagar Panchayats for greater decentralisation of urban governance.

2. Viable channels of communication between the civil society and the urban local government may be formed in order to achieve greater participation of the citizens in solving the problems of the city.

3. The environmental problems of the city should be viewed from a long-term perspective by the city managers. There should be governmental efforts to orient the city managers in this direction.

4. The centres of higher learning should start short courses and training programmes for the city managers so that they can develop their understanding about the urban problems in a wider perspective. In order to achieve the capacity for providing such type of training, the Universities and Research Institutes should form a data base on the urban problems and their various dimensions. For example, empirical researches could be done on the nature and extent of urban poverty, environmental degradation, coverage of health-care delivery system among the urban poor and the like. And there should also be a system of public awareness-building with the help of the data generated through this kind of empirical research.

The foregoing discussion draws our attention to the greater role of the civil society and its fruitful collaboration with the political authority for the overall improvement in the quality of urban living and greater sustainability of its resources.

Notes and references

1. Some of the important works are, e.g.,

i) V.M. Dandekar and Nilkantha Rath, Poverty in India, Indian School of Political Economy, Pune, 1971.

ii) C.T. Kurien, Poverty, Planning and Social Transformation, Allied Publishers Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 1978.

iii) Pramit Chaudhuri, The Indian Economy: Poverty and Development, Crosby Lockwood Staples, London, 1978.

iv) Nandini Joshi, The Challenge of Poverty: The Developing Countries in the New International Order, Vazirani and Arnold Heinemann, New Delhi, 1978.

v) Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines, OUP, New Delhi, 1999.

2. The programmes initiated during different plan periods are, for example, Integrated Urban Development Project (IUDP) 1975, Integrated Development of Small and Medium Towns (IDSMT) 1985, Nehru Rojgar Yojana (NRY) 1989, Urban Basic Services for the Poor (UBSP) 1990, National Slum Development Programme (NSDP) 1996, Swarna Jayanti Sahari Rojgar Yojana (SJSRY) 1997 and others.

3. The UNDP, World Resources: The Urban Environment 1996-97 OUP, New York, 1996.

4. National Atlas and Thematic Mapping Organization (NATMO), Government of India, Urban Studies – Series Four: Medinipur. Calcutta, 1992.

5. District Statistical Office, Govt. of West Bengal, Midnapore, Key Statistics of Midnapore District, 1996-97.