“The future of India lies in its villages” is a popular statement among both politicians and urban planners of India for different reasons. This statement is credited to the father of our nation, Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was quite vocal through various forms of media about his utopian idea of rural India for decades prior to our independence, while being seemingly averse to the idea of urbanisation. However, Jawaharlal Nehru believed that the developmental path for the country includes industrialisation and urbanisation. The following is an interesting excerpt from a letter Gandhi wrote to Nehru on October 5th, 1945:
"I am convinced that if India is to attain true freedom and through India the world also, then sooner or later the fact must be recognised that people will have to live in villages, not in towns, in huts not in palaces. Crores of people will never be able to live at peace with one another in towns and palaces. They will then have no recourse but to resort to both violence and untruth."
This was a result of his constant engagement with the rural demographic during the freedom struggle through which he managed to develop a special kind of respect and love for the rural life. He strongly believed that urban India will not be successful in providing a dignified life for the flourishing Indian population and hence envisaged the future of our nation in its villages. There have been multiple interpretations of Gandhi’s proclamation over the years, largely by the political class in order to defend their largely favourable policies towards rural India. It is no secret that urban population has been voting all these years only for the ruling party to appease the rural population. The politicians have been fixated on villages while the cities and towns reel under the pressure of lack of infrastructure to accommodate the rapidly expanding population.
However, a brief research about Gandhi’s claims through various speeches and letters of pre-independence helps us put things into perspective about his idea of an Indian village for the future. His idea, although utopian, was not limited to one-dimensional development of Indian villages through the agrarian society. In fact, he imagined a rural India with access to state of the art educational and healthcare facilities, in addition to well-functioning governmental institutions. Further, he did not want the Indian villages to be isolated and wished for both physical and digital links to urban India and rest of the world. His focus was on a self-governing and robust community life for the future. Therefore, if one attempts to analyse Gandhi’s popular declaration about the villages of India it is quite evident that he was largely worried about the social construct and was not entirely averse to the idea of urbanisation as many would like to believe so.
The Five-Year Plans
Since 1947 there has been a rapid growth in the urban population and this can be largely put down to population growth and rural-urban migration. As per the census data, population in urban areas has grown from 11.4% in 1901 to about 32% in 2011. The urban population in India is known to have increased by 90 million between 2001 and 2011 alone, and is projected to grow by another 250 million by 2030. Although India’s growth of urban population post economic liberalisation has been seemingly impressive, when compared to China’s urbanisation during the same period the numbers appear flat. China grew its urban population from 26.4% in 1990 to 59.2% in 2019. Similarly, the world on average is at 55%, while India lags behind at 34% in 2019. Global trends stand proof to the fact that rapid urbanisation is the way forward. The Planning Commission of India back in 2008 had projected that about 9 to 10% GDP growth fundamentally depends on urbanisation.
India’s history with urban development is fascinating because most cities and towns have grown on their own, by remaining largely unaffected by the policies or programmes drafted by the government over the years.
Urban planning reforms by the government can be traced back to as early as the first two Five Year Plans (1951-56 & 1956-61). They essentially focussed on setting up of urban planning organisations and on the development of a master plan for Delhi, which in time turned out to be the point of reference for planning in other states. The Third Five Year Plan (1961-66) was historic for urban development policy, at least on paper. It recognised the importance of regional approach towards urban planning in India. In the Indian context, regional approach refers to inclusive development considering the diversity in terms of economic, social, environmental and geographic regions. Further, the plan also transferred the responsibility of a master-plan development to the state and local governments. The Fourth Five Year Plan (1969-74) included special grants from the central government towards development of new state capitals which included Chandigarh, Gandhinagar, Bhopal and Bhubaneswar. Crucially, the Fifth Five Year Plan (1974-79) advised the state governments to focus on the development of growing areas outside the city limits. Subsequently, the Sixth Five Year Plan (1980-85) pressed on the importance of developing small and medium size towns, that is, with a population of less than 1 lakh.
The Seventh Plan (1985-90) included some significant developments which shaped India’s urban development. It was the first time a bill that dealt with providing constitutional status to urban local bodies was tabled. The purpose was to ensure a federal structure, and the bill was successfully passed in 1992 after some revisions from the first attempt. The Eighth and Ninth period also had its fair share of schemes and policies. Tenth Plan (2002-07) was when it was officially recognised that urbanisation plays a major role in the accelerated economic growth and this happened on the back of economic liberalisation. It also noticed and addressed the fact that urban local bodies needed to be strengthened democratically to achieve the envisioned goals. The Eleventh Plan (2007-12) witnessed the launch of an initiative named Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) with the aim of focussed integrated development of urban infrastructure and services. Consequently, the Twelfth Plan (2012-17) had proposals to consolidate JNNURM with additional components which included slum rehabilitation programmes.
What went wrong?
Now, the above brief research about policies and initiatives related to urban planning in post-independence India showcases the fact that there has, in fact, been a fairly reasonable and sensible attempt by those at the helm towards urban development.
So, what transpired over the years that forced us to hail the ‘Mumbai Spirit’ come every monsoon, that too in different cities? I am sure, at least a few of us are aware of the Minto Bridge underpass in Delhi, which more often than not has had a drowning vehicle make the headlines since 1950s. In case you are wondering, the headline in 2020 was not any different. The attempt and intentions of those framing urban policies have been sound, such as, the recognition for the need of regional approach towards urban planning and the decentralised structure which was formed with amendments to the constitution. However, the same cannot be held for how these frameworks have been executed over the years.
As cliché as it may sound, the most significant deterrent towards implementation of these policies have been the lack and/or mismanagement of resources over the years. For instance, as per the 2001 census, there were about 4,500 urban centres which qualified under the definition of small and medium towns. The funds allocated under the respective scheme as proposed in the subsequent plan-period could hardly cover about one-fifth of those centres. Consequently, some of the programmes were not aligned with the requirements at the local level leading to a lack of accountability. Furthermore, there have been issues with regard to delay of securing land for the sanctioned projects, inefficiency of the urban local bodies and the lack of participation from its citizens towards the cause, while policies on paper called for a decentralised and participatory structure.
The reason for rural-urban migration is primarily better quality of life. However, if the cities fail to accommodate and provide rewarding roles, the outcome won’t be as effective, which in turn has an impact not just on the economy but also on the social fabric of the nation due to lack of equity. The challenges posed by urban India is anything but consistent. It is varied and contextually different, hence they need to be addressed accordingly.
Firstly, the narrative around urban development should not be limited to poverty alleviation and access to basic needs. The argument should be about how rapid urbanisation could unleash the developmental potential of a country.
Secondly, There needs to be a synchronised approach towards urban planning and development. Various stakeholders, both governmental and private need to work closely with the urban dwellers to ensure that the needs are met efficiently.
Thirdly, the urban local bodies should be allowed to function within their autonomy without interference from state/central governments with regard to funding and/or land allocation to ensure effective implementation.
Fourthly, It is also important to manage the creation and development of SEZs, satellite towns and industrial townships to ensure that the urban development is not just limited to the big cities.
Lastly, urban development should consider the social fabric of communities and ensure that it is not disrupted. The involvement of the urban occupants is crucial at this stage of development because it cannot be addressed effectively by a top-down policy approach.
One of the key urban development projects launched by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 2015 was the Smart City Initiative. It was introduced with the objective of driving economic growth and improving the quality of life through local development with the use of technology. The devised approach included retrofitting and/or redevelopment of cities, and Greenfield projects. The programme, similar to the previous ones since independence have been successful in identifying the crucial aspects of urban development. However, much like before, only time will tell if justice is done to such policies through honest and effective implementation.
In conclusion, the fact that rapid urbanisation has the potential towards economic development and national progress is not a point of contention. However, it is equally important to ensure that large-scale urbanisation does not occur at the cost of social disruption and environmental degradation. Integrated and indigenous urban planning which can help broaden India’s economy is the need of the hour. The future of this nation lies in its cities, but through participatory, inclusive and sustainable development. Therefore, Mahatma Gandhi’s views on the future of India is pertinent and will remain so in the future.