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Dr. Rashmi Mayur

It is estimated that by the year 2050 three out of four people in the world will be living in urban agglomerations - up from one out of two presently. Between now and then the world's human population is projected to grow from the current 5.7 billion to 10.5 billion. The urban infrastructures of many of the world's largest cities are already stretched to or beyond the breaking point and the pressures continue to mount. By all accounts we are headed for collective disaster.

According to Dr Wally N'Dow, the Secretary General of the UN Habitat Summit II held in Istanbul, Turkey in June 1996, the goal of the summit was to engage policy makers, planners, city administrators, and citizens everywhere in building sustainable habitats for the future. It is an important and timely goal. The crisis of the world's cities and towns is deepening so rapidly that this conference may be our last opportunity to build global consensus on necessary corrective actions before the damage becomes irreversible.

Almost 1.2 billion of the world's people live in wretched environmental, social and economic conditions without home or shelter - at the edge of survival. At the present rate of deterioration, another 200 million people will join their numbers by the year 2001 - an indicator of the accelerating disintegration and collapse of urban civilisation. The most dramatic examples of spreading urban pathology are found in the megacities of the South - such as Bombay, Mexico City, Bangkok, Lagos, and Sao Paulo - where crushing congestion, poisonous pollution, the nightmare of traffic jams, proliferating slums, rising crime rates, poverty, disease and death are endemic. In Northern cities rising crime rates, alienation, pervasive drug addiction and alcoholism, shattered families and suicides suggest similar urban pathology.

Whereas the populations of the largest cities in the West have been stabilised, in India, as in the other countries of the South, megacities and large metropoli are on a runaway population growth path. With approximately 70 percent of its 945 million people still living in villages, India remains an agricultural country by international reckoning. Yet it also has 280 million city dwellers, the largest number of urbanites of any country in the world. The populations of Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta have doubled in the last 25 years. Migration from rural to urban centres continues unabated.

With 15 million people, Bombay is the largest megacity of India, one of the 15 megacities of the world, and one of India's worst urban disasters. Two out of three people live in slums. At peak times roads are burdened with three times more traffic than their designed capacity. Air pollution chokes the people during the climatic inversion experienced during the winter months. And 80 percent of the city's sewage is discharged raw into the sea. The situation continues to worsen in every major city of India, as it does in the major cities of other Asian countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Cambodia, where one out of three urban inhabitants lives in gruesome settlements.

By and large, the urban conditions of the majority of people in the cities of Africa and Latin America are as mercilessly cruel as in India and Asia - the only difference being the magnitude and the level of poverty. The urban civilisation, which was to fulfil the dreams of the millions for ease and material abundance, has become a nightmarish curse.

What is our vision of the kinds of cities, towns and villages in which we want to live? How do we create human settlements that function as self-sustaining eco-habitats? For many millennia human beings lived in harmony with nature in well-integrated cultures. Even today, the millions of people living in the 600,000 villages of India, several hundred thousand villages of China and tribal communities of Africa and South America live modest, yet fulfilling and sustainable lives. But the pressures of modernisation are driving millions out of such communities and into the wretched cities and megacities.

We must rethink our vision of the proper role and function of human habitats and reconstruct our institutions accordingly. The concept of the ecovillage as a place for sustainable and joyful living should be a centrepiece of any vision for the 21st century. The new vision must give high priority to stabilising global population size and limiting rural-urban migration, decentralising governance, investing in low-cost indigenous technologies to meet basic human needs in harmony with the environment, establishing universal literacy, and achieving true cooperation between peoples everywhere to create good and satisfying lives for all. We will as well need to free the world from the institutions of exploitation that support the gluttonous consumption of the world's scarcest resources by the few at the expense of the many.

Our vision must embrace the many possibilities available to us. We can treat the sewage and compost the garbage from our cities and towns to provide fertiliser for urban agriculture. We can retrofit our settlements and transport systems to function on renewable energy sources such as bio-, solar, and wind energy. We can enable people to create low-cost ecologically sound housing programmes. We can use information technologies to reduce commuting, enhance education, and link societies and cultures around the planet. We can replace dehumanising shopping centres with people's markets. We can produce and use fully recyclable products. We can adapt our lifestyles to principles of conservation and sufficiency rather than consumption and excess. We can preserve our humanity and the integrity of the richly diverse cultures of human societies by ending the obscene cultural homogenisation of the world through the spread of Western commercialism. Let our settlements be known as centres of art and culture, music and dance, knowledge and creativity, love and joy.

For millions in the South a simple decent place on earth to live with their families in a community is all they want. It is within our means to create societies that realise this dream for all 5.7 billion people in the world while maintaining a healthy and vibrant ecosystem. We must make the realisation of this dream our driving commitment for Habitat II - a commitment to creating a futuristic vision based on values of sufficiency and simplicity where the earth and the sky dance to the symphony of children's smiles.

Dr Rashmi Mayur was Director of the International Institute for Sustainable Future and Special Advisor to the Secretary General, United Nations Habitat II Summit.

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