The Central Government's announcement that it will soon establish an Urban Renewal Mission is long overdue. For, the reality facing India's planners is that over one-third of the country's population lives in its towns and cities. And the numbers are growing. These are also the centres of growth, driving the country's economic engine. To neglect them is to neglect not just the economy but also a sizeable population.

Yet even as the Urban Development Ministry prepares a plan for 60 cities in India under this mission, the central question it will have to address is that of priorities. How will it decide what is more important and what can wait in a situation where everything has to be done almost simultaneously?

Few cities illustrate the difficult choices facing anyone undertaking urban renewal better than Mumbai. The present Democratic Front Government, led by Congress Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, has made the conversion of Mumbai into a "world-class city" one of its principal planks. But already it has tripped up by going in one direction without being clear about the whole picture.

Mr. Deshmukh has had to face brickbats from many in Mumbai, including members of his own party, because of the recent mass demolition of slums. At the same time, business, industry, the middle-class have applauded his "determination". While the Chief Minister maintains he has done nothing wrong, he has been forced to step back after being "summoned" to Delhi this week where he was basically told that the party could not afford to alienate the urban poor electorate. Even if this has given a temporary reprieve to Mumbai's urban poor, there is no indication that the Government has an alternative plan or strategy to deal with the absence of housing.

While the Opposition, particularly the Shiv Sena, is thoroughly enjoying the Chief Minister's discomfiture, its own record in matters urban has been far from exemplary. Even though it was the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party Government that launched the massive Slum Redevelopment Scheme (SRS) in 1995 with the intention of resettling lakhs of slum dwellers, very little was achieved by it in five years. The scheme ran into problems largely due to the politics of money that overrode any merits the scheme had on paper.

So far, there is little to indicate that the present Maharashtra Government is clear about its priorities on urban renewal. The areas that are getting immediate attention are the cosmetics. Thus the makeover of the airport and the building of freeways are being given top priority. On the other hand, two important issues that affect the majority of the people - public transport and housing - are hardly discussed.

One hardly needs to emphasise that the world over, cities with good and affordable public transport are also the most liveable. Yet in Mumbai, the plans envisage building capital-intensive and long gestation projects such as freeways instead of short-term cheaper solutions that build on the existing public transport network. In the meantime, 90 per cent of the city's residents are packed into suburban trains and buses that, despite the load they carry, are still more efficient than the public transport systems in other Indian cities.

The best cities in the world are also the ones that have affordable housing for all classes. Yet is there any Indian city that has a well-conceived housing policy? In the "Vision Mumbai" document prepared by the private consultancy firm McKinsey, which is being used as a framework within which the plans for Mumbai's makeover are being formulated by the State Government, housing is mentioned in the context of mass housing on the salt pan lands outside the city. This area is not just environmentally fragile but is also poorly linked to the city. Poor people are expected to live in this distant area with no thought given to livelihood or other needs. Meanwhile, significantly, the plan envisages developing hundreds of acres of prime land, formerly occupied by textile mills, now available in the heart of Mumbai as "islands of excellence" with high-class housing, clearly for the rich.

This alone exposes the fractured vision of our planners when it comes to making over cities such as Mumbai. The city developed as an industrial centre that was crucial to India's economy when the British made available land in central Mumbai, at hugely concessional rates, to entrepreneurs willing to set up textile mills. Thus grew the textile heartland or Girangaon, as it is still known. Within the compound of these mills as well as around them were hundreds of buildings with one-room tenements where the workers lived. The entire area was until quite recently an almost exclusively working class enclave.

The history of the way the land on which these mills stood has been surreptitiously diverted, with the collusion of governments, is a story that speaks of not just an absence of vision for the city but a complete disdain for the needs of the working class and the poor. It is important for people in other cities to be aware of these developments because they illustrate how governments change policies to benefit the rich and the powerful even as they speak in the name of the poor. And textile mill lands waiting to be developed exist in many cities, including Delhi, Bangalore, Kanpur, Allahabad, Kolkata and Coimbatore.

Mumbai's textile industry dates back to 1854 when the first mills were established. At one stage, in 1961, these mills employed almost two and a half lakh workers. Today, there are 58 mills employing fewer than 20,000 people. Of these, 32 are privately owned, 25 are owned by the National Textile Corporation and one by the State. Twenty-nine of the privately owned mills are already closed after going through various stages of industrial "sickness".

In 1991, in response to the plea of mill owners that they be allowed to sell some of their land to generate revenues to pay off debts and workers dues, the Maharashtra Government introduced Section 58 in the Development Control Rules that permitted mill owners to sell or redevelop one third of the land they owned. However, one-third had to be given to the municipal corporation for open spaces or other public facilities. And one-third was designated for public housing.

The formula remained on paper and only very few of the private mills actually sold their land to pay the workers their dues. The stories of mill workers still waiting for their dues, committing suicide because they saw no hope in the future, and having to fight for each instalment of what had been agreed upon, are legion. In any case, what was due to the workers constituted barely 10 per cent of what mill owners would have gained by selling their land.

This is where the Government steps in again. In 2001, Mr. Deshmukh, in his earlier tenure as Chief Minister, passed an amendment to Section 58 of the Development Control Rules. Instead of all the land occupied by the mills being divided up, the new rule laid down that only land that was vacant, that is, with no built-up structure, would be so divided. In other words, the mill owners got to keep most of the land on which their closed mills stood and the city and workers got less than six per cent between them.

And this is in a city that is crying out for open space and for more land for public housing. What is the justification for this bonanza for the mill owners when land is desperately needed for public housing?

It is evident now that this change was not done inadvertently. The amendment was passed without discussion. In recent years, there has been a spurt of new construction on the mill lands. None of it is public housing. Most of it consists of luxury housing and shopping malls. Earlier this month, Mr. Deshmukh appointed a committee to visit this controversial issue again and come out with a report.

But even as the committee, which does not have any representative from the workers, deliberates, the municipal corporation is clearing plans to redevelop hundreds of acres of mill lands. What use will this report be when it comes out and if and when it is ever implemented? Once again, one has to question the intent of the Government. Surely these choices are not innocent.

Cities such as Mumbai, or any other, cannot be "renewed" if no attention is paid to crucial areas such as affordable and environmentally benign public transport systems and public housing.

We need to put aside our obsession with becoming "world class", or like Shanghai or any other city. Let us make our cities liveable for all the people. That itself is a big enough agenda for the future.