Posted in Urban India

Rethinking India’s Urbanization

With no apologies for a little diversion into the history of colonialism: because we cannot plan the future if we forget the power plays of the past…

It is well documented that while the European colonizers chiefly plundered Africa for its gold, diamonds and equally precious human resources, their interest in India was mainly for what its broken and bleeding peasantry produced – cotton, indigo, jute, tea to enrich imperial businesses, and food grains to feed the British army through the two World Wars.

And given the differences between Africa and India, this was a very shrewd business decision. While even today Africa holds only 15% of the global population and has a population density of just 87 per sq km, Asia with 60% of the world behind its borders, is densely packed with 246 persons per sq km. So naturally, Africans were historically widely dispersed over vast spaces and preferred small village communities to urbanization, while the Indus Valley Civilization dates back 5000 years. Over the centuries, different rulers have left their mark on the Indian urban landscape in the shape of pilgrim centres, temple towns, handicraft towns, military forts, princely capitals, maritime ports and agricultural hubs. However, these towns were essentially orthogenetic i.e. born from the soil and culture of India. But colonialism was to change all that …

The colonizers in Africa basically needed exit points to carry out their nefarious human trafficking, and these cities soon grew and became primate for an entire region and most are still the capitals of modern African States. In India, the same need for developing exit points for colonial trade led to the creation of the port cities of Chennai (Madras), Mumbai (Bombay) and Kolkata (Calcutta) in the 1600s. However, although these ports were the chief cities in their respective regions, they could not develop into primate cities because of the highly developed pre-colonial cities spread across the sub-continent, which remained a repository of Indian culture and values throughout the days of British Rule – which also explains why the western proselytization of Africa could not be replicated in the Indian subcontinent.

Many Indian cities were ‘repurposed’ by the British: as ‘hill stations’, railway towns, mining towns, tea estates or military cantonments and those that couldn’t, served their purpose as conduits of agricultural produce to the exit points. Therefore, it is no surprise that modern facilities like schools, universities and hospitals were concentrated only in these ports where the colonizers did business – the Indian hinterland was left to rot, and that neglect made rural poverty endemic in India, and is the chief cause of farmer distress even today.

Now, 70 years after Independence, we find that India still lives in its villages (as Mahatma Gandhi famously said) with only 31% urbanization reported in Census 2011. As the figures below indicate, even this low urbanization is greatly skewed towards the larger metros with smaller towns only fit as launching pads for new migrants to the big bad city, because their local economies are virtually non-existent and can create no jobs, nor build careers. This skewness is largely a result of the Indian penchant for top-down, low-form urban planning, learnt from the British, who hankered after their own ‘green and pleasant land’, and rather unrealistically, tried to recreate it in the teeming tropics!

It is indeed ironic that India’s colonial hang-over has been replaced now by a very American neo-colonialism, where cities are supposed to be run like businesses, with maximum corporatization and zero inclusion. This was the undoing of both the JNNURM of the last Government, and the Smart City Initiative of the present one. (See: Why our cities cannot be run as businesses)

Instead of developing rural areas under a separate ministry, sector by sector (rural roads, rural housing, rural sanitation, rural health, etc), why not take a more holistic approach which recognizes the rural-urban continuum at the heart of Indian society, economy and polity? After all, China built its entire fast rail network on the basis of urban migrants going home to their native villages for the Chinese New Year!

This is where Regional Planning comes in.

It is not something new, but unfortunately, Indian Regional Planning has traditionally been left to urban planners and they have never been able to rise beyond the standard British formula of land use, transport and communication routes, water supply and drainage, preservation of areas, and reservations of sites for new towns. It’s almost as if the big city is endowing its poor rural sisters with that ultimate gift of modernity – more urbanization. Like creating 5-star Industrial Townships in the heart of good agricultural territory! In fact, with the worldwide decline in heavy manufacturing, the Special Economic Zones (SEZs) of yesteryear have quietly fizzled out, with the only beneficiaries being the business houses who promoted them, who are now the owners of vast swathes of rural and tribal lands, generously ‘acquired’ for them by Government agencies themselves.

As currently understood, a major aspect of the Regional Plan is metropolitan decentralization and the redistribution of the population, city functions and activities of the Mother City. In other words, it is a classic case of ‘top-down’ planning doomed to failure in a rapidly changing globalized world.

However, as the title suggests, maybe it is time to rethink India’s urbanization…

So, let’s begin with the villages. India, because of its density of population has always had market towns at the hub of a circle of villages – going back to Vedic times. These market towns have in most cases been reduced to overgrown villages or small municipalities or census towns. So why not concentrate on their revival first? Let us rebuild the spokes of the wheel of which each market town is a hub through good all-weather roads, telecommunication links, broadband connectivity, adequate water and electricity.

The next layer can be developing the social infrastructure like schools, polytechnics, colleges, hospitals, mother and child care centres, and financial infrastructure like banks and business centres in each of these hub towns, which are likely to have a population of 20,000-50,000. The only industry to be allowed in these towns would be agro-industries and food processing, and modern polluting industries like tanneries would be strictly kept out.

To enable these hubs to function properly, the full allocation of education, health, irrigation and forestry funds should be devolved to the local authority, as has been done successfully in Kerala. The local economic development and environmental and water management will also be the responsibility of the local body. As the area becomes more productive, there should be financial incentives for the local body like higher allocation from the Goods and Services Tax (GST) collected.

In this way, we will be tertiarizing the rural economy, creating non-agricultural jobs in small towns, using local resources in a sustainable manner, and reducing migration to cities in search of higher education and good health care. So, if we adopt this approach, we end up with multi-nodal development and these nodes or hubs can all be networked through transport and communication links.

As we approach the medium range towns, the Regional Plan must concentrate on upgrading basic municipal services and infrastructure, which will make these towns more liveable and discourage migration to the big city. These medium towns must also provide the tertiary level of services like Universities and multispeciality hospitals. Such towns should focus on developing local entrepreneurs by providing affordable industrial sheds, shopping malls, and reliable power, water, transport and communication. These towns can also become cargo hubs for produce from the market towns, with the emphasis being on developing rail and water transport rather than 6-lane highways which play havoc with the environment.

Coming to the Mother City, the emphasis must be on efficient public transport, power, water supply and environmental management with good connectivity to outlying areas, the rest of the country and abroad. With these facilities in place, the productivity of a city is bound to go up and this growth must be encouraged through higher allocations from taxes earned, more autonomy and less interference by State Governments in local matters. This will make local governments more responsive and accountable to their citizens.

Finally, the already existing forest and conservation laws need to be stringently adhered to, so that the rights of forest dwellers and the legacy of future generations are preserved.

In the present bleak scenario of polluted cities, urban sprawl, dwindling water sources, depleted forests and land hoarding, governments need to think outside the box, and plan for India’s future.






I am a trainer of Government Officials and Elected Representatives, specializing in the urban and municipal sector. I have also written extensively on Urban Governance, Poverty, Development, Social Accountability and Municipal Management in the Indian context, and wish to share these writings with you through this blog.

One thought on “Rethinking India’s Urbanization

  1. Madam Author,
    It was a splendid portray of the past 400+ years developments taking reference of largly populated Africa and India.
    Indians after independence certainly almost came out from the clutches of British and other invaders much more planning is required to shape the development and to eradicate the poverty.
    Your valuable findings should reach the policy makers .
    With regards
    V.P.Thandapani IAS
    Director of Stationeries and Printing


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