Rights, capacity and control: Debating issues around the ability and willingness of cities to extend social services
Posted by ramblinginthecity
This post was first published on the SHRAM blog. SHRAMIC (Strength and Harmonize Research and Action on Migration) seeks to bring together academia and NGOs to develop a richer understanding of migration in South Asia.
The economic benefits of migration to the city is often offset by expenditure towards schooling, healthcare, food, sanitation and other services that the State is meant to provide.
Rights vs capacity: Are cities able to service the needs of the needy (migrants included?)
One dimension of this issue is the mechanisms of accessing social services. The question of portability of rights has been debated time and again and there is no real solution in sight. However, attempts are constantly being made to push this rights-based agenda that help let migrants into the social security net. For example, the National Health Policy 2015, the draft version of which was made public on 31st December 2014 talks the language of universal health coverage and portability of the Right to Health, which it advocates as a fundamental right.
The other dimension, and an important one, is that of the capacity of cities to provide these services. Large metropolitan centres like Mumbai and Delhi are unable to service residents, regardless of whether they came in yesterday or have lived there for generations. Small cities are stretched for finances and have barely any capacities to service residents.
Don’t let them in: The idea of entry barriers
In this context, I find the idea of allowing cities to define limits to their growth fascinating. Historically, land use planning has been a popular instrument to contain growth. By specifying densities, types of land use and building controls, it was possible for cities to imagine what kind of people would live there, what they would do and how communities would function and interact. In theory, at least. Urban growth boundaries, for instance, were used widely in the US through the ’80s and ’90s to limit growth and contain urban sprawl, with mixed success.
Closer to home, China is in the process of reforming its hukou system, which is a legal system of house registration that has historically acted as a formidable tool in controlling rural to urban migration. The reforms, which were announced in mid 2014, boldly delink hukou and entitlement to welfare, allowing city governments to decide on the level of social service provisioning that is possible. The larger intent of the policy seems to be to redistribute populations, urging rural migrants to move to small and mid-sized cities.
Professor Bingqin Li, who teaches at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, recently wrote a piece on the hukou reforms on the website of the East Asia Forum. Her article illustrates some of the ways in which different cities have reacted to the reforms,
“Cities that are either unwilling or unable to invest more in social services can use the flexible settlement criteria to set up alternative barriers for entry to replace the older hukou barrier. The largest cities, such as Shanghai and Beijing, have made it even more difficult for migrants to settle down permanently than before. A number of medium-sized cities have also introduced policies to favour highly-skilled migrants at the expense of low-skilled ones.”
In India, the question of entry barriers is not on the table, but somewhere under it! Prof. Amitabh Kundu and others have commented that Indian cities (esp large ones) have become “less welcome to migrants” (Kundu and Kundu 2011) by using processes of formalisation and sanitisation that discourages the inflow of the rural poor.
A case for strengthening capacity
In her article, Bingqin Li subtly points out that the apparent merit in permitting autonomy of decision at city level masks the fact that cities are not equal in being able to provide services; and that inequalities would likely result in higher entry barriers for migrants coming in from rural China. A strengthening of the social services system is her ask.
In India too, rights-based approaches like that of the new health policy are critiqued for the same reason; inequalities across States in being able to provide the coverage and quality of primary health services threaten to render the most progressive of legislation ineffective when it comes to the ground. The same goes for education as is seen from the recent results of the Aser Survey, which pronounce dismal education outcomes, more in some States than others.
Better delivery of services for the urban poor is clearly an issue that merits both introspection and investment, regardless of whether the urban poor are migrants; however the removal of barriers for migrants to access government-subsidised social services can go a long way in helping migrant families truly reap the economic benefits of migration.