India unprepared for urban transition


More than 600 million Indians will be urban by 2030, up from 350 million today. Many of these will not be found in India’s big cities, but in large villages growing in aspiration, and small towns.  (Rama Lakshmi/The Washington Post)
December 30, 2011

Mahatma Gandhi once said that “India lives in its villages” — an adage that defined political and economic decisions for decades. In more recent years, policymakers shifted some of their focus to huge urban areas, as the economy boomed and cities swelled.

But overlooked by planning officials and investors, analysts say, are hundreds of villages that have grown so quickly and changed so dramatically that they are hard to define. Researchers call them “the missing middle,” and they include places such as Kotwali, 120 miles north of New Delhi.

A decade ago, most villagers here were farmers. Today, Kotwali is home to 12,000 people, less than 12 percent of them farmers. Among the sugar cane fields and dairy farms are new banks and computer schools. Colorful concrete homes have replaced mud huts. Residents walk along well-lighted paths.

But Kotwali is still listed as a village in government records, and it is governed by a village council, or panchayat. Residents lack indoor plumbing, and electricity is available only six hours a day. There are no hospitals.

“Big investment befitting a town will come when the government stops calling us a village,” said Ishtiyaq Mohammad Ansari, 42, a former village chief. “We will have modern civic amenities like roads, electricity, water. The next natural step will be jobs for our unemployed youth.”

Young people say they need new opportunities because farm work is vanishing. “We want sugar mills and factories to come here,” said Mohammad Alam, 22, an undergraduate whose father switched from farming to watch repair.

Kotwali is among 2,532 villages that the most recent census determined had lost their villagelike character in the past decade, the biggest such shift in the past century. But the federal and state governments continue to categorize them as villages and treat them as such for budget and planning purposes.

With such transformation underway, analysts warn that policymakers must prepare as people’s ambitions change and they begin to demand modern amenities.

“Our policymakers are missing the middle, where about 300 million people live,’’ said Aromar Revi, head of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, which trains Indians in urban planning. “They are rural in their lifestyle and access to services and markets, but urban in their aspiration. There is a massive under-
investment of public resources in these large villages and small towns.”

Residents of Kotwali are already worried that their new alleys may need repairs in three years, which the village council might not be able to afford.

“If we become a town, the budget for road repair will get approved automatically and instantly,” Ansari said. “As a village, there is no guarantee that the money will ever come.”

At a recent conference in New Delhi, officials discussed the challenge of planning for these villages, which could alter the way India is governed and investment is directed in coming years.

“Should we think of urbanization as a set of pre-identified areas? Or think of it as a process? Our notion of urban planning needs to change,” Pronab Sen, principal adviser to the government’s planning commission, said at the conference. He talked about the challenge of converting villages from councils to the complex structure of urban taxes and municipal administration. “No panchayat is capable of building roads, sewers or supplying electricity for these areas.”

Scholars say the changing villages reflect India’s unique urbanization pattern. Villagers here are not migrating to big cities, as they do in many Western and Asian nations. Instead, people are moving to nearby boomtowns, and some villages are becoming small towns.

“People are getting out of agriculture and not finding manufacturing jobs yet. Where will they go, what will they do?” asked Amitabh Kundu, a professor of economics and dean of the School of Social Sciences at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “Unless we provide jobs for the educated youth nearer their villages, we are going to have social unrest on our hands.”

Some scholars say India must disperse its development instead of concentrating investment in overcrowded, polluted big cities.

“India is where America was in the late 19th century in terms of urban transition. But we now have the opportunity to invest differently,” Revi said. “The 21st-century technologies like cellphones, broad-band Internet and renewable energy can help us plan for decentralized urban growth without moving big numbers to the big cities.”

Not everyone welcomes the transition. Fatehpur Beri, a large village that hugs the sprawling southern tip of New Delhi, was designated as a town in the census this year. But many residents say they do not like their new status and fear the economic and cultural change that might follow.

“If we become a town, then we will have to pay taxes for our house, land and even for our buffaloes. Right now, we drink fresh milk every day. If we become urban, we will have to drink milk from packets,” said Prakash Pradhan, 71, a farmer whose son has a government job. “We will lose our intimate culture. In the cities, neighbors don’t even make eye contact. I was born in a village. I want to die in a village.”

Rama Lakshmi has been with The Post's India bureau since 1990. She is a staff writer and India social media editor for Post World.
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