Restating the Indian urban problem one more time anew

In approaching India’s ongoing massive urbanisation with a new thought architecture, our country can lead the world in creating urban spaces that are sustainable, resilient, ecologically friendly and carbon neutral. First of a 12-part series


R Swaminathan | July 7, 2017

#resources   #metropolitan cities   #infrastructure   #architecture   #Indian cities   #urbanisation   #Rethinking cities   #rural urban relationships  
GN Photo
GN Photo

Here’s a quick brainteaser. Where is the world’s largest mass migration ever in human history taking place? No, it’s not from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan to Europe. No again. It’s not from the climate distressed African countries or from a destroyed Libya. No, yet again. It’s not from the seemingly volatile Latin American countries and Mexico to the United States and Canada, despite what Donald Trump might have us believe. In fact, it isn’t from any of the usual suspects. 

The world’s largest mass migration is currently underway in India. Indians are city bound. They are abandoning villages for a variety of reasons that range from drought to dreams. It’s a massive movement every day. In the next 13 years, estimates indicate that 40 percent of Indians would be living in urban areas. That’s an addition of at least 300 million people to the almost 150 million currently living in 53 cities hosting a million-plus Indians. Another 15 years after that, in 2047, close to 65 percent of us would be living in urban conglomerations. That means that we must provide an urban way of life for at least 800 million Indians. 
These numbers are well known in policy, academic and bureaucratic circles. Yet these numbers embed within themselves two inherent flaws. First, they are rough estimates, sharply highlighting how little we know about the nuances and details of the world’s largest human migration ever and how flippantly we are approaching this unfolding human event. To illustrate this point in a specific manner, no one knows how many men, women and children land up in Mumbai every day from the rural hinterland of Maharashtra and beyond. 
Second, these estimates automatically assume a commensurate proliferation of cities and urban areas. Truth be told, there aren’t enough cities or urban areas nor is there a concerted effort to generate and invest adequate financial resources, create appropriate infrastructure ecosystems and design governance systems and structures to provide to create the right kind of urban spaces. To illustrate this point in a specific manner, no one really knows how many cities and how much money would India need to safely negotiate this massive human event. The long and short of it is that all we know for sure is that Indians are moving towards cities and in droves. Tragically, that’s all about the one-line story that we have known for the last two decades. Behind that story lies a riveting and complex narrative made from three interlinked elements. In each element, one can identify a selective blindness that cannot quite be explained by conventional rationality or logic. 
The first element has acquired the status of a cult classic that’s neither questioned nor revisited. ‘India lives in its villages’ has been an oft-repeated truism that routinely finds its way into high-quality academic literature as well as low-brow political discourse. It was true for a substantial part of our post-independence history. Adhering to the strictest of the technical definitions, it still is true. However, it is not the kind of truth that comes out of an organic evolution, marinated for a long time with collective nuances, changing individual lives and larger movements of political economy and society. It is a truth that is archeological in nature, an essentialised derived fact that has the character of a fossil. 
Like all truisms that anchor themselves to essentialised facts, this one has had serious implications for developing a vibrant and independent Indian thought architecture on cities and urban living. To illustrate one implication and unpack its consequences, for instance, the truism that India lives in its villages has stunted serious academic and pragmatic inquiry into the questions centred on the complicated rural-urban relationship. It has led to an intellectual environment where rural is as a matter of starting point equated exclusively with a village economy based on farming, a caste-based social structure and a collective imagination of a rural Indian as a male farmer. In this intellectual environment, urban is at best a conceptual byproduct and at worst an analytical afterthought. Illustrative of this accidental and incidental nature of the collective imagination of urban Indian is the stereotypical prototype of a male English speaking, educated professional owning some form of private transport earning a salary and working towards securing his future through investments and buying a property.  
Such a simplistic and seemingly direct rural-urban relationship ignores or marginalises multiple realities. Women form the bulk of small and marginal farmers. Farming does not provide employment for more than four months in a year on an average. Villages are driven equally by milk buyers, traders, artisans, middlemen and money lenders. Men, women and children routinely migrate for anywhere between six to nine months to urban areas in search of employment. Many come back, and many don’t, and often for years. Similarly, cities run on informal economy. Women form a substantial portion of this economy. Most of the work in the cities is contractual in nature, and by default temporary. Cities run on public transportation. And, housing is temporary, informal and precarious.  
An almost willful neglect of these inconvenient truths, simply because they don’t fit the basket case conceptualisation of rural-urban relationship, has created a policy environment that has fostered a chronically sick and underperforming rural political economy and a haphazard, unstructured and largely unplanned urban ecosystem. This rural crisis is quite well known and the points thereof cannot be overstated. Rural indebtedness is but one manifestation of this deep crisis. What is not well known, or well documented, is the deepening urban crisis that has almost reached a point of no return. The manifestations of this deep-rooted crisis are there for all to see, at least for those who want to recognise it for what it is. The frothing lakes in Bangalore and the overnight jam in Gurgaon are but two of the many symptoms of a diseased body. 
The second element is a distillation, a derivative, of the first. It’s a measuring scale that has been finely machined to quantify definitions of rural and urban that strengthens the simplistic relational architecture between the two. This scale manifests itself in academic discourses in terms of parameters, quantification methods and standards, gets disbursed through knowledge centres and hubs, say universities, colleges and training centres, and permeates the policy and implementation institutions. What it eventually boils down to is a characterisation of urban and rural primarily based on infrastructure density and separate governance systems.
In its twin focus on infrastructure and governance, both of which can be reduced to a neat check list and set of global standards, a city becomes a collection of material systems: utilities, public and private transport systems, services economy, housing sector, connectivity, green spaces and central business districts. In contrast, a village becomes a non-material space that would always require to be upgraded to a material standard that ironically gets defined by the standard of infrastructure and governance density characterising a city. The constant and continuous debates about the governance architecture promised in the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendment acts and the narratives surrounding smart cities and smarter villages are but two concrete manifestations of this twin focus. 
This tautological logic leads to two kinds of perversions. The first is insidious to the extent that it’s become commonsense. No one questions it anymore. It’s assumed that urban is an end state to be manifested as an ideal global city, either a vision or a concrete mirroring of other global cities. The second is amplified pressure on rural areas to integrate select infrastructure, originally urban, for a right to access a variety of resources, from government support to technological solutions. In both cases, the discourse consciously prefers systems thinking approach that places a premium on macro-economic factors, experts and expertise and big trends. This is best illustrated by the typical composition of any seminar or workshop on cities that’s invariably dominated by architects, bankers, town planners, economists, infrastructure and real estate companies. Both these perversions, as you would have noticed, prevent the conceptualisation of urban and rural as a set of interlinked processes foundationally linked to the movement and lives of people. 
The third element is technology. It floats, as it were, as an independent building block that can used like a joker card in a card game. It’s rarely seen as additive to a set of processes that have people at the centre of it all. It’s often imagined as the primary solution to issues that are necessarily socioeconomic and political in nature. Taken as part of a stack of manifestations emerging from the other two elements, the third element of technology acquires a messianic character, infused with near-divine powers, not only to circumvent and overcome generations of deficient thought architecture but also to miraculously transform Indian cities into cutting-edge global cities of the future that would set the standards for the next generation of aspirations. A similar narrative has started emerging for technology-infused villages. 
Technology is the most problematic. No one, not even its most trenchant critics, will dispute the transformative potential embedded in Internet of Things (IoTs), connected sensors, smart grids and autonomous and intelligent transportation systems. Again, no one, not even its most ardent of supporters, would lead us to believe that technology by itself will transform people’s lives. Yet when this element is stacked up on top of the other two elements, the narrative about urban and rural spaces reflects the undertones of the linear simplicity of software architecture, user interface and user experience. In doing so, urbanisms and urbanity of the future get imagined as something that could be coded, controlled and interfaced.
Such an imagination is not without basis. Built, non-built and unbuilt spaces are getting intersected by technologies. These range from access cards for offices and services, networked grids for utility services and sensors in forests to accurately count the number of tigers. Yet to conceive of future spaces as being dominated and led by technology is an overemphasis on a material foundation at the cost of non-material processes that are dynamically contoured by people. Ironically, the logic underpinning this thought process is not very different from the essentialisation that led to the original cult classic of ‘India lives in its villages’. The new emerging cult classic, as it were, is that ‘India lives in its technologies’. It’s here that we come to the end of a fascinating story, poised for a classic closing line: the more things change, the more they stay the same.  
But the closing line precludes possibilities. The problem is manifold. No doubt about it, as many of you who have persisted till here would have realised like I did. Yet, this is also the right time for India to foray into unexplored new ground to decisively rewrite and reconfigure existing knowledge about urban life, cities and its future. It’s the right time, because we Indians know that we need cities. It’s also the right time because we can take a new path that can be molded and defined by principles of sustainability and resilience that others will not be able to do so, simply because they are far down a different path. It’s again the right time because India of today has an inherent capacity to absorb global practices, cutting-edge technologies and thought processes. It is also acquiring a unique entrepreneurial ability to transform that absorption and retention to architect models of living that are local, contextual and modular. It’s also the right time because Indian sociocultural practices have traditionally been ecologically friendly, inclusive and always been representative of new-age design and platform thinking. Synthesis, for instance, which is the crux of design thinking, has had a long Indian history. It’s also the right time because if we don’t do it now, we risk a social implosion of a size that both humanity and the world cannot cope up with. It’s also the right time because we just cannot afford to fail. 

Next: Part II: Quantum Urbanism: Why we need a new thought architecture  

Swaminathan is a visiting research fellow at Uppsala University and research director of Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy (CSIP), Ashoka University

(The article appears in the July 1-15, 2017 issue of Governance Now)



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