When Our Cities Become Battle Zones

Article by Anwar Fazal in Malaysiakini, 16 June 2001

Today, 16 June 2001, marks one hundred days since the tragic and traumatic events of Kampung Medan happened.  (Kampung Medan, situated on the fringes of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia witnessed racial riots between the Indian and Malay communities).

At six minutes past midnight on 5 December year 2006, according to one UN projection, the human being will become primarily an urban animal.

Three and a half billion people will crowd on to one per cent of the earth’s surface.

Global statistics vary but a fair estimate suggests that if we go the way we are going, two billion people -one-third of humanity - will be the absolute poor.

One half of this -1 billion will live in cities. They will constit of ute 90 per cent of the poor people in Latin American, 40 per cent of the poor in Africa and 45per cent in Asia. Northern countries may not be spared either, at least in relative terms.

Not only will there be more poor, the poor often pay more, and they often pay with their lives. For the poor it is not the luxury of the cost of living, it is the cruelty of the cost of survival.

Cities - a Burning Issue

Although cities have been concentrations of great human enterprise, they have a darker painful side.

Not only are we seeing a horrifying explosion of poverty, we are also witnessing a deafening implosion, a deepening of alienation, and anger, manifesting itself in urban violence and even more, in urban terrorism. The cities are becoming the battle zones.

We also see a painful “displosion” - a disintegration, a breaking up of family, community and indigenous values. We see wasted lives of young children turned on to sick streets and sicker values.

We face a “techplosion” - the introduction of new complex, often ruthless, technologies operating in environments inappropriately prepared for such ventures. We see the mindless proliferation of armaments of all kinds. We see them side by side with problems requiring, but not getting, the simple technologies that will give clean water, adequate nutrition, basic literacy and the kind of livelihood opportunities that could wipe out poverty in a decade, if not in a generation. Instead we get potential Bhopal’s. (Bhopal was the city in India that suffered an industrial holocaust that became a mega gas chamber.) And we get Chernobyl’s and their slow-motion nuclear catastrophe. Our cesspools of sewage also end up as poisoned cocktails.

Not so long ago, a test for lead levels was done on umbilical cords of some two dozen babies born in a leading hospital in one of the Southeast Asian capitals. The shocking news was that every one of those samples had lead levels higher than those acceptable. These innocent babies were doomed to mental retardation. Is that to be our future - maddening development and mad people!

We are also seeing an “Infoplosion” - a proliferation of mindless entertainment and propaganda that is overwhelming and confusing, often creating new addictions and distractions, often enlarging the power of bureaucracy and commercial propaganda. The tapping of the power of these new information technologies by the poor for knowledge and advocacy, is going to be necessary but it will not be easy, for power will more readily move to the already powerful.

Forgive my use of pyrotechnic images - explosion, implosion, displosion, techplosion and infoplosion -but these are burning issues.

We tolerate more chandeliers for “over-consumers” while we deny communities their basic rights to food shelter and education for their survival. We see a rush to build monuments feeding to national egos, while we deny people the right to adequate shelter. We evict whole communities for dubious economics and even cheap thrills for the conspicuously rich but bored. There is so much anger that there is now even a citizens movement against golf courses, which are proliferating as the playgrounds of the “new rich” in many Third World countries. These citizens groups believe that these playgrounds are at the expense of the environment and the poor.

We see the poor, the pregnant and the powerless blamed as victims of their own making, when in fact they struggle with great ingenuity and creativity in circumstances where they are virtual prisoners of perverted economics, and even more perverted politics.

The Alternative Vision

Is there an alternative vision with a soul, another development which is “people friendly” and “earth friendly” and yet productive? Surely there is. At the global level, some years ago the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) articulated it in three words -Sustainable Human Development or “SHD”. Development that is both sustainable and human must mean being pro-poor, pro-women, pro-nature and pro-jobs. UNDP has also called for a radical transformation of all aid away from a mostly vicious “money lending” or “trickle back” operation into mode of real partnerships and new, equitable and people-friendly global frameworks. It proposes a global tax and a 20:20 social compact for both developing and developed countries. It calls for developing countries to increase their expenditure to meet basic needs to 20 per cent of their budget while developed countries should raise their allocations for foreign aid for priority human concerns from the current seven per cent to 20 per cent.

A “Panchasila” for Cities

At the local level, if we really want to make our cities our homes, we must draw an alternative vision. If our cities are to be our homes they must be built on five principles, what in many Asian cultures’ is called ‘panchasila’. I would like to suggest a – ‘panchsila’ for our cities. If our cities are to be our homes, they must be based on actions that are:

1.                      Socially Just

2.                      Ecologically Sustainable

3.                      Economically Productive

4.                      Politically Participatory

5.                      Culturally Vibrant.

The challenge for all of us is to make this five-point vision a reality. If we don’t, we run a great risk of social disintegration and be like a kite out of control. If cities do not deal more constructively with poverty, poverty may well begin to deal more destructively with cities.

There is a great deal to learn in Malaysia from the Sustainable Penang Initiative about a process of inclusive and creative thinking and developing a commonly based plan of Action. A culture of community based ‘Report Cards’ can also be critical in feedback and ensuring participation and responsiveness.

I believe that little people in little places doing little things working together, can change the world. We need to nurture the ‘Solidarity of Peace’ and the ‘Spirit of Community’. The world, and indeed Malaysia, has enough resources. It has enough knowledge and experience. The poor need not always be with us and social disintegration and conflict need not be the way.

And Kampung Medans need not happen.

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