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The Importance of Balanced Urban Development Has Been Ignored for Far Too Long

The return of migrant workers from cities to their home states during the COVID-19 lockdown once again highlighted the need for the large scale development of India’s small towns and rural areas.

Almost four decades ago, in 1973, after a survey of schools of architecture in South East Asia on behalf of UNESCO, I had recorded in a report that in the developing countries of the region, political independence had brought about a consciousness of the need to develop the countries on a holistic basis, not concentrated on the building of cities.

As such, the report recorded the need for a broad-based professional training programme to design buildings in urban situations, which also addressed the basic human problems of social welfare and the economic betterment of the country as a whole. It was recognised that the bulk of development was controlled by the public sector in most countries and it was here that the trained ‘architects’ needed to be fitted to make an effective contribution to environmental development. It was suggested that such professionals be designated as ‘development managers’.

In a more detailed assessment of the Indian context, the report recommended that a two-tier system of training architectural professionals be introduced. This involved splitting the five-year course into two tiers, with the first tier being a three-year course leading to a BA degree – a course based on the humanities and environmental sciences, which would provide trained specialists capable of addressing the social and environmental problems of our villages and small towns.

Also included in the report was the need for an organised framework for the growth of the building industry across the country, along with the setting up of a number of craft training institutes to develop construction-related skills.

The report, however, was not seriously considered by the government at that time and was largely ignored by politicians and bureaucrats involved with urban development.

More than a decade later, in 1986, the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi recognised the extensive changes that were beginning to happen across the country with the steadily increasing population and the shift of people from rural to urban areas. In order to study and evaluate these changes and their implications, he appointed the National Commission on Urbanisation, headed by architect Charles Correa, with M.N. Buch as vice chairman and a mix of architects, planners, industrialists, economists, environmental engineering experts and administrators. This group of experts from different backgrounds prepared a comprehensive report on the possible trends of future urban development in the country – a report that is significant and still has meaning and relevance today.

Rajiv Gandhi. Credit: PTI

Rajiv Gandhi. Photo: PTI

Control migration to existing cities

Between 1947 and 1987, the population of the country grew from 350 million to 800 million. The urban population quadrupled from 50 million to 200 million and was mainly concentrated in the large metropolitan cities of Calcutta, Bombay, Delhi, Madras, Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Pune. These had huge financial, business and industrial establishments and their infrastructure was under increasing pressure because of steadily increasing migration from the rural areas. The commission recognised that there was a need for the balanced growth of industry across the country and that employment potential needed to be distributed around a larger number of smaller towns and cities that had a definable localised hinterland, which would ensure a rural-urban continuum.

In order to provide positive growth of the economy, an active urbanisation policy was suggested. The Commission stated:

“Instead of remaining isolated centres of economic activity, with weak linkages with the rural hinterland, the cities must become vibrant centres, making the best use of the natural and human resources in the region where they are located, and over time, expand their economic base to enable them to assume economic functions which transcend their rural boundaries.”

Over the next two years, the commission carried out extensive surveys across the country and identified 329 urban centres which had high promise of both demographic and economic growth. Out of this, 109 small towns were selected that were located in districts where more than 90% of the population was still rural and which had the highest number of people likely to migrate to urban areas. The development of these centres would help decentralise and widely spread urbanisation and also improve the infrastructure of small and medium towns. The investment that they would attract would help take advantage of the huge pool of surplus labour available in these rural areas. In addition, the provision of vital urban links would enable entire regions to develop and grow.

Also Read: COVID-19 Reverse Migration Calls for Long-Term Rural Development Planning

The proposal to invest in small towns which had a potential for growth and develop them to provide a market for the products of the rural hinterland was well considered and meaningful. Investment in urban settlements in such areas would help fund the improvement of agriculture so that urban and rural growth was in tandem.

By the time the final report was submitted in August 1988, Rajiv Gandhi had lost political support and the recommendations of the National Commission on Urbanisation were shelved. The governments that followed ignored the report and embarked on a series of isolated development proposals, like the townships along the industrial development corridors and the much publicised smart cities, all of which called for massive investment and were not linked to the development of larger surrounding regions.

The real work from home scheme

The movement of over 10.4 million unskilled workers back to their homes in rural areas as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic has now drawn attention to the need for the serious re-evaluation of a plan for balanced urban development across the country.

For the growth of rural areas, an initiative under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana was launched in June 2015 for the building of a large number of pucca houses which would also generate employment for a number of workers. The programme called for individual pucca houses of minimum 30 square metres carpet area, each with a toilet, water supply and electric connection. However, after more than five years, there is a shortfall of 3.12 million between the number of houses sanctioned and the number actually built.

Another programme to provide a toilet in each and every rural home, although implemented and much publicised, has given rise to serious doubts about its success. Surveys in November 2019 showed that toilets had been built in only 71.3% of all rural homes and a number of the toilets are not being used or are non-functional.

Both these programmes have been implemented without the preparation of plans extending over larger areas and without the active involvement of qualified professionals. It is pointless to spend large sums of money building toilets in each rural house without preparing a plan for water supply and a connected system of sewage, along with a proper arrangement for sewage disposal. Just dumping sewage in pits only ends up polluting large areas.

In order to effectively plan for all such items including the building of pucca houses, access roads and the provision of a fibre cable network connection to each dwelling unit, a Geographic Information System (GIS) aerial survey of the entire area is important and proper plans need to be  prepared by qualified professionals. Comprehensive aerial GIS surveys help to prepare accurate plans, recording all existing structures, as well as the layout of existing services above and below ground. Although this method of survey has been available for over a decade now, most government agencies still rely on primitive instrumental land surveys which do not have the same level of accuracy and detail.

All plans for development need to ensure that different systems are effectively coordinated and organised for the proper connection and distribution of services and for ongoing maintenance. The involvement of architects, town planners, services consultants, landscape consultants, horticulturists, engineers, fibre cable network engineers and other concerned specialists is essential. At present the implementation of these programmes is being done by state level engineers, bureaucrats and local politicians and apart from the absence of planning, there is no proper evaluation of the spending of the large sums of money that have been sanctioned. Many of the prime minister’s ambitious programmes for the development of rural areas lack proper professional input.

Migrant workers walking in Mamallapuram, May 31, 2020. Photo: PTI

A scheme to train village youth in rural areas in a variety of craft skills was started by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship was set up in November 2014 to focus on enhancing the employability of youth through skill development. The skills ministry was entrusted with the task of training 1,50,000 workers under the short term training programme and another 1,50,000 in recognition of prior learning skills.

In 2016, under the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana, a further programme for training workers in craft skills was launched, in which trainees were attached to specific industries and paid a wage during the training period, which varied from a few weeks to six months. A sum of Rs 12,000 crores was allotted to train 10 million villagers by March 31, 2020. As of now, it is estimated that 9.2 million workers have been trained and a process of evaluating and mapping skills has been started.

Also Read: How China Reduced the Urban-Rural Economic Chasm – and How India Can Do it Too

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the return of a large number of migrants, the programme is being extended for another four years and the responsibility for the cost of training is being shifted to the states, with increased focus on entrepreneurship, digital technology and skill development. For this skill certification scheme, a budget of Rs 12,000 crores has been allocated to benefit 10 million youth. The intention is to further focus on the training of quality manpower to attract companies who are looking to relocate from countries like China.

On June 20, 2020, a scheme called the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan was launched to provide 50,000 crore jobs to help migrants, providing 125 days of employment in 116 districts in six states where large numbers of migrants had returned. The states were Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkand and Orissa. Jobs were provided in 25 categories of public infrastructure, including the laying of fibre optic cables for rural internet, railway work, sanitation and waste management, poultry and farm ponds, and training in horticulture.

PM Modi during his address on June 30. Photo: Video screengrab

A holistic vision

All these different schemes have been promoted as the prime minister’s special individual projects. No attempt has been made to coordinate these different projects together into a unified system for overall rural improvement. Imagine how much more effective these schemes would be if, on the basis of a regional plan, they were linked to the actual development of an entire region in the state, where a new road system was being laid out simultaneously with a fibre optic cable network, an electrical connection network, water supply, sewage and drainage system in each village along with the development of community facilities like schools, health centres and meeting halls.

As part of the regional plan, the location of new work centres could be planned for agro-based and other small scale industries at suitable locations, which would take advantage of the local craft skills available. Based on a holistic vision, the entire development would help bring about a new approach to the development of large areas, which would include the active participation of workers within their home states.

The development of such a concept calls for the active involvement of a team of professionals consisting of architects, urban designers, town planners, demographers and landscape architects to plan for the proper development of all aspects of the entire regional hinterland. State governments need to wake up to the importance of this broader visionary concept instead of continuing with the current narrow fragmented approach to future growth. There are at present over 1,49,000 qualified architects in the country and 573 approved institutions from which, after completing a five-year programme of study, approximately 30,000 students graduate every year. In recent years, a large number of fresh graduates have been unable to find suitable employment and there is increasing frustration.

Also Read: The Steady Decline of Architecture in India Points to an Increasingly Chaotic Future

The Council of Architecture, the body responsible for approving professional courses in architecture, has recently made a proposal that a BA degree be awarded after three years of study, after which students could perhaps get involved in the development of rural areas. While the proposal makes a lot of sense, it needs to be backed by active support from the Central and state governments which could create a cadre of ‘development managers’ who would be involved in the planning and implementation of the large scale development of entire rural regions. The three-year degree course could be supplemented by fieldwork in the rural areas and the addition of subjects concentrating on environmental issues to help them play an effective role. NITI Aayog, along with the Council of Architecture, needs to plan a framework for regional development in all states and help set up a cadre for the employment of such professionals on a long term basis.

Some 22 years after the National Commission on Urbanisation submitted a report that was ignored, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought back into sharp focus the need to shift in a holistic manner from the further densification of urban areas to the balanced large scale development of rural areas.

Ranjit Sabikhi is an architect and urban designer. He was formerly Professor of Urban Design at the School of Planning & Architecture, Delhi.