As expanding metros swamp villages on their way, the solution to a crisis waiting to explode perhaps lies in designing cities explicitly for the rural areas
Half the world’s population lives in cities. Of the three billion urban dwellers, one billion live in slums. In India, three out of five people live in slums. An increasing migration from the villages will make that four out of five within 10 years.
The new census figures on urbanization have suddenly revived the age-old migration debate that has existed since the rejection of the Gandhian view that village life could be filled with dignity and virtue . Sadly, the argument of making a life in the village today can only be tinged with hollow laughter: derelict , teacherless schools, abandoned health centres, parched lands, continuing social divide – all make the city slum and footpath an attractive option. The old hopes of government largesse lie tattered in the complete demise of public rural programmes, undone by years of ineptness and corruption.
In the last 50 years, however, public action related to the influx into towns has only accommodated trends, leading either to increasing densities, or to a widening sprawl of city boundary. Comparisons to cities like Singapore, Rio de Janeiro or Cape Town, where similar migrations occur and are controlled , are meaningless.
The Indian city has never endorsed particular urban values, nor had the will to govern. Since the goal is a commitment to nothing, the ground of shared ideals that make the city livable is constantly compromised.
There are daily wars on water supply , roads, electricity, school admissions , and government departments .
With no restrictions on cars, no congestion tax, uncertainty about mixed use living, changing and changeable building norms, thoughtless codes on historic preservation , the city is little more than a modern day trading outpost – marketplace for extracting favours, exchanging goods and livelihoods.
The new inhabitants of the city come with modest expectations of employment. So far the approaches to accommodating their increasing numbers have been marred by a colossal administrative failure and a lack of will to investigate new solutions. The attitude has left Indian cities imprisoned behind the stranglehold of conventional planning . What would Mumbai be like if the FSI were allowed to rise to Singapore levels? Would it reduce land costs or raise poverty levels? How can Delhi’s inflated building costs be reduced to provide affordable housing to its constantly changing citizenry? Has there ever been an attempt to describe the kind of life urban Indians would like through investigation of land value, design and planning?
There are serious flaws in which India operates its cities – neither as an efficient machine nor as a workable business model, nor as an urban welfare state. An appraisal of the sort required by the new census figures on urban migration needs more than band-aid solutions to the existing city. Today, the need to accommodate the rising numbers is extending the city into multiple corridors between the metros; a new way to include the many villages and small towns along the path. It is the government’s way of taking the city to the village. The seriousness of the attempt can only be seen if there is a genuine desire to create appropriate space and livelihood along the corridor. The densification of villages into cities can be a success only if the social and cultural constraints of local lives are taken into account on the road to prosperity.
By all standards, the poor live a richer life, filled with more varied daily incidents, fewer possessions that are not shared and more enduring connections with nature. A place that takes these values into consideration is bound to be more livable than one whose concern is entirely an inequitable division of spoils – of land, building, car space, office, transport modes. The answer may then lie in writing fresh guidelines for yet unmade places: to think and exact a new model of living that does away with all tiresome middle-class possessions that pollute and maim the city. To create conditions of lifestyle dependent on sharing and sustenance, dispossession may be the singularly important ideal for a better city.
Today the possibility of the migrant’s return to the old village should be whole heartedly discouraged . No one should be allowed to live a life that is an annual contribution to the national statistics on starvation, infant mortality, disease , and suicide. But the possibility of never leaving a village that is transforming into a new town raises the prospects of a better life. It is a task wholly imaginative and without the prescription of tested models. Cities designed explicitly for the rural areas is not just a good idea for the poor, but can act as a game changer for the self-centered ugliness created in the metros by the middle-class.
(The writer is a Delhi-based architect )
And a Counter View
‘CITY IS GOING TO VILLAGE’ – A horrendous hypothesis masquerading as a socially equitable solution
Dear Mr.Gautam Bhatia,
Your article in the Sunday Times of India, dated 2/10/11, looked like one against the unorganised growth and the pathetic state of affairs of our present day cities in India. Your dissection of the anomalies at the heart of the modern city, the lack of infrastructure, the lack of sanitation, the ‘daily wars for water, space in schools & roads’…they all paint a true picture of the ground realities in our cities.
Your analysis on the huge influx of migrants into the cities and the resultant impact on cities being relegated to ‘a modern day trading outpost’ is spot on. As you say, there are no innovative solutions yet as to how to integrate this urban migration into the fabric of our cities. True, there are administrative failures, a ‘lack of will to investigate new solutions. This attitude has left Indian cities imprisoned behind the stranglehold of conventional planning’. These are indeed the present state of affairs in our urban areas, further burdened by the demand and expectations of an ever growing affluent consumerist middle class.
Now, what is the solution to this? How do we overcome this state of affairs? How can we reclaim back our lost space? It is indeed worth examining if there are alternate solutions which can be implemented.
So far, the analysis of causes and ground realities stated are right on in the article. But now comes the confusing part, and I quote: “Today, the need to accommodate the rising numbers is extending the city into multiple corridors between the metros; a new way to include the many villages and small towns along the path. It is the government’s way of taking the city to the village.
Cities designed explicitly for the rural areas is not just a good idea for the poor, but can act as a game changer for the self centered ugliness created in the metros by the middle class”.
Mr.Bhatia, this hypothesis of yours, of taking the cities to the villages is pretty absurd. How will unleashing the unbridled forces of real estate development onto a village landscape help in the betterment of the villages, which in turn will help in reducing migration to the existing cities? It will be architectural & urban genocide. How will developing cities on agricultural land bring about a better state of affairs? How will this bring about a better life for the city dweller or for the farmer?
If you are assuming that merely by creating a city like environment will benefit the villagers, that it will make their lives better, that it will stop them from migrating to cities, then your stand is pretty weak. By exporting a city and its infrastructure into a rural setting, you would be doing more harm than good. In the name of creating infrastructure & liveable spaces, developers & other market players will take over agricultural land (and I assume that they will get land at cheaper rates due to the fact that they are doing a great ‘service’ to the villages), rape it and start erecting multi-storeyed apartments & luxury villas, which would then be marketed & sold at exorbitant prices, as they are set in a ‘pristine unpolluted rural environment’. Do you for one moment, Mr.Bhatia, think that the villagers, the original inhabitants of that place will get possession of such habitats? Will they be able to afford it? How will their social structure & support systems function in this new environment? How will their ways of life be accommodated? What will be the impact on their thoughts, their lives, their families? How will they cope when the cash doled out to them for their land is splurged on drinking by the men and finished? Where will the women and children go?
What will be the impact on the loss of livelihood be on the villagers? How will they be employed? How will agriculture & food production be affected? It will only be logical to assume that in such a scenario, more and more people will turn away from agriculture – they will find alternate employment in the ‘new city’. How will that contribute to the food shortage and malnutrition plaguing the country?
By turning our villages into miniature cities, we would be encouraging the use of more automobiles, more pollution, more eating up of resources – opening the door to all the problems found in our cities today. And my dear Mr.Bhatia, who will pay for all this development? Who will bear the cost of this Utopian proposal?….the government? The government & our public administration is so ineffective that they are unable to properly implement the existing rural welfare, education, health & social welfare schemes, which if properly implemented would have made the village a much better place to live in….So then it would have to be the private sector? As we all know, the private sector is attracted only if there is a great return on investment, lured only by the smell of profits. This then would simply end up as creating cities based upon the same template which would have been used in our present cities to create this present mess. And we would end up destroying our villages and agriculture lands to create the same pattern of monstrous urbanism.
Mr.Bhatia, this hypothesis of yours is simply playing into the hands of developers and real estate players, who have currently almost exhausted the development potential in our present cities and are now turning their greedy eyes onto the villages, so that they can make quick profits in the guise of altruistic motives. It is just like a noble sounding excuse used to fool the common man, to appeal to the moral conscience of the middle class. This article is reflective of the propaganda machine that the corporate media in India is turning into. A lot more was expected from such a senior architect & writer. It would not be asking too much, from someone like you Mr.Bhatia, to properly analyse & think through your hypothesis dispassionately, to evaluate the impact of ideas before proposing them, that too in a national daily. Or it would seem that the propaganda machine has already spread its net far and wide.
The article ‘City is going to Village’ can be found at –
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