Urbanisation in India: Some Critical Issues

Originally published on my blog at https://premckar.wordpress.com on 3rd September 2016

India is expected to undergo a sharp degree of change in the extent of urbanisation. Current surveys put the urban population of the country at around 32%, and history the world over has shown that a 30% urban population is a threshold beyond which the rate of urbanisation increases drastically. Several projections, including some from the government, expect India’s urban population to cross the 50% milestone before 2060. In absolute numbers, this means the country will have about 400 million new urban citizens over the next forty-odd years. What Europe and the United States did over 150 years will have to be done at a larger scale in less than one-third of the time, without using the urban paradigms of the West for that constitute a global ecological disaster. Only a small portion of this growth will be in the metropolitan cities, and a major portion of it will be in Tier 2 and Tier 3 towns, as well as the transformation of areas that are currently labelled as rural. In other words, the pressure will exist most in those areas that have the least history of large-scale urban governance.

If this is not managed well, it could cause significant social upheaval. Indian cities (and villages as a whole) do not have any social housing schemes operating at a scale that have a substantive impact — whatever schemes that exist cater to a minuscule segment of the actual demand, and the bulk of the population is thrown to the vagaries of the market. There is no solution immediately possible within formal urban land markets at current price structures. If one were to take any major city in India, look at the smallest parcel of residential land recognised by the land-use plan, calculate the value of this land in the formal land market, calculate the rental value that ensues from land alone (leaving aside the capital value of purchase), and equate this with median incomes broken up by quintiles, one would find that the bottom two to three quintiles (at the very least) are out-priced by the system. This degree of marginalisation persists even if one seeks to leverage land values with higher floor-area-ratios. The idea of a strictly defined land use plan that forms the basis of a formal land market is not suited to the ground realities of the Indian city, and state intervention is the only means possible for giving the urban poor a decent quality of life.

The poor have survived in the Indian city thus far thanks to the fact that master planning, in both ideation and implementation, is weak. This has granted them the space to operate the informal systems of tenure that underpin their survival. This is a far from ideal situation, for it condemns them to live in less than acceptable conditions with no security of tenure; and the system inherently classifies a major portion of the urban population as criminal, leaving the urban poor vulnerable to dispossession and dislocation whenever someone powerful decides that the land on which they live is now desirable.

In recent years, a historical shift has created a socio-economic collision course. India, as a post-colonial country, had suffered a disruption of history for independence was a sudden rupture from few centuries of history that preceded it, and there was no smooth transition possible between past, present and future. The newly independent country was faced with the challenge of building a new history, and for the first few decades the development discourse was coping with this challenge, remaining in a state of suspension between the imagined memory of a distant and glorious past and an anticipated technological modernity. This changed with the liberalisation of the economy in the 1990’s and the subsequent heightened presence of globalisation in the Indian scene. The economic growth rate, measured in terms of gross domestic product, suddenly increased substantively, and those segments of the urban middle and upper classes who benefited from this change began to feel that they did not need to wait for modernity any more. It had arrived in the form of globalisation for the Indian metropolis was no longer isolated and was now anchored in the forefront of global economic production. This created a new desire for the global city: one that is clean, ordered, efficient, well-planned, and in conformance with the imagery of urban command centres of the global economy such as New York, London, Tokyo, Shanghai and Singapore. This aspiration for the global city is evident in many forms: the projects proposed by the organised real estate sector, the increased use of building materials like structural glazing and aluminium panelling, proposals for new cities such as Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh, or the imagination of the ideal urban condition reflected in both mass and social media. The impact of such an imagination of the city on the urban poor receives scant attention. Without a paradigm shift, the resultant confrontations over urban space are likely to result in increasing violence; and we are already seeing the first signs of this.

The challenge of urbanisation is a burning issue in India, and the choice of approach can make the difference between a stable and equitable future versus one that is violent and volatile, and unfortunately current trends point toward the latter.

Indians generally do not have any an imagination of the city, for we tend to locate the authenticity of Indian culture in the village and look at the city largely as a technical entity. This is why we tend to have building codes (derived from the model set by the National Building Code) that are articulated in formulae, where crucial factors such the amount you can build or the open space you must leave are derived from calculations based on parameters such as the width of the access road or the size of the site. Or we think nothing of inserting large infrastructure elements such as flyovers or elevated metro tracks with little thought on their impact on the cultural geography of the city.

In many parts of the world, it is recognised that cities have a culture, neighbourhoods have character, and building codes should work to sustain this fact by being tailored to the specificity of neighbourhoods rather than being the products of generic formulae. This is generally achieved through a discipline called Urban Design that lies in-between the disciplines of Architecture and Urban Planning. Architecture examines the cultural and aesthetic aspects of space, but does this only at the level of individual buildings. Urban Planning looks at the city as a whole, but primarily from two-dimensional frameworks such as function, land-use and economic policy, and cannot look at the aesthetics or culture of the city with sufficient specificity. Urban Design is a discipline that is meant to bridge this gap, and while there are many institutions in India which teach this discipline, the spaces where it is practiced are so few that they have little impact at the national scale.

In some ways, this failure to build an imagination of the city is understandable, for while cities have existed since time immemorial, the study of urbanism as a specialised condition is relatively recent, beginning only in the second half of the nineteenth century; and disciplines such as urban planning, urban sociology, and urban geography are all less than two centuries old. So we could say that we are still at a stage of infancy in our understanding of cities.

What is the inherent nature of the city? While this is a complex question beyond the scope of a single essay, an important essence will be taken up here. Many people think that a city is differentiated from a village by the factors of density and scale. Neither of these are wholly true. Many villages are quite dense, and even denser than many unquestionably urban areas with large private single-family homes. And the city is something much more than a very large village. The key difference in a city is that its population is potentially mobile — anyone can move to a city, unlike a village where a large percentage of the population tends to have deep historical roots in the place. This means that a city’s population is inherently complex and cosmopolitan, which offers one key difference when compared to a village: anonymity. It is far easier in a city to move in the company of strangers, whereas in the village you are more likely to be under the tradition-driven gaze of people who know who you are, even if they do not know you personally. The gaze of tradition tends to force you toward conforming to collective mores, whereas anonymity grants you the freedom to be who you want to be.

Some of the early thinkers on urbanism recognised this fact. In the late nineteenth century, the German philosopher Georg Simmel argued that the anonymity of the city allowed a different kind of person, an urban monk who could use this freedom to withdraw into himself to think innovatively and creatively. In the early twentieth century, the American sociologist Robert Park came up with a wonderful formulation, arguing that the primary role of the city is to “foreground the moral range of deviant behaviour”. Cities have leveraged this fact to constitute the creative cutting edge of a society, have formed the centre of artistic innovation; and this creativity has also had an economic impact with GDP per capita being far higher in cities than in rural areas. Even though India has had a minority urban population for a long time, a major portion of her GDP has come from cities (currently, over 60%).

Jeb Brugmann, in his book Welcome to the Urban Revolution, argues that the economic dynamism of cities is built on leveraging four kinds of economies: (a) Economies of Scale — the city has many people, and therefore many possibilities for economic activity; (b) Economies of Density — these people are closely packed together, so it is easier to reach more of them; © Economies of Association — one can leverage scale and density to form collectives of people who come together on a regular basis for functional and/or economic purposes; and (d) Economies of Extension — the city establishes a collective presence that allows its economy to connect with economies beyond its boundaries. Brugmann argues that there are multiple strategies used by people to leverage each of these economies, and it is therefore unproductive to seek to reduce them all to a single strategy such as a rigidly implemented urban master plan. Rather, master planning is an activity to be practiced with a loose and flexible hand, whose primary purpose is to resolve the misalignments and clashes between differing strategies.

All this requires that the city must contain a vibrant, equitable and diverse civic realm — for this is the realm where people come together and the creativity of urban life flourishes. The opposite of a city with a vibrant civic realm is one that exhibits the condition of autarky: a term that means self-sufficient, but in the urban context means that a space that is introverted and gated. Cities that show low degrees of autarky and high levels of diversity tend to be economically productive and highly resilient to change, whereas cities with high degrees of autarky and low diversity become increasingly vulnerable to economic vicissitudes. It is more than a question of having nice cities, India’s economic future also depends on the success with which it urbanises. Unfortunately, Indian cities are currently on a trajectory of increasing autarky, streets are viewed as functional connectors rather than catalysts of urban life, little priority is given to other public spaces such as parks, piazzas and plazas, new urban areas do not exhibit a vibrant civic realm, and the percentage of gated space is increasing rapidly.

It is important to realise that there is a difference between civic space and public space, and just because a space is public in character does not necessarily means it is civic in nature. For example, the atrium of a mall is a popular hang-out place on today’s age. However, it is gated with security controls, introverted from the city, and is oriented toward visual spectacle rather than human engagement. Civic space must be publicly owned and open to all, therefore has high levels of diversity, is spatially integrated with the city, and is oriented toward human engagement rather than visual spectacle.

One of the foundations of urban planning is an explicitly defined land-use plan that sets the framework for zoning controls and land markets. In the Indian city this has meant that a major portion of the population is outpriced by the system, and has to depend on the informal sector for its survival. This lacuna in the current urban condition has meant that most parts of the Indian city have sprung from outside the formal system: slums and other forms of informal housing, unregulated layouts, street vendors, roadside shacks, and so on.

A person can be officially recognised as a resident of the city only when they are anchored in it by a mechanism of property rights such as a sale or rental agreement. It does not matter whether this property right is formally documented or not: what is important is that it must correspond with the official plan of the city. When it does not do so, then the person whose life in the city rests on that right cannot be formally recognised as a resident of the city, and is inherently defined as criminal by the official system of urbanisation.

This is a huge human rights problem which has been inadequately addressed. If our history in studying urbanism is short, our history of universal human rights is even shorter. The first formal declaration of human rights as being universal happened only in 1948, after the United Nations was formed in response to the horrors of World War Two. And the subsequent drafting and ratification of the necessary covenants took another 28 years, being completed only in 1976; and some would say that this process is still far from complete. Human rights are predicated on the notion of citizenship, and the spatial entity conceptualised for their implementation is the nation state. Citizenship is stable at the level of the nation state as it is controlled by the protocols of immigration, in contrast to the city which thrives on migration and mobility. There is much work to be done on the philosophy of human rights to extend it to the level of the city.

The fractures of the city have an impact beyond those who are denied their fundamental rights, and will also impact the lives of the privileged. Urban life depends on infrastructure networks such as roads, transportation, water supply, sewerage, and electric power. The efficiency of any network depends on a certain seamlessness across the network, and in a fractured city where formal systems only serve a minority of the population, it is practically impossible to implement an efficient city-wide infrastructure network. Since the majority of the population have to gain access to some of these amenities, the system creates incentives to distort it, and obtain amenities criminally, either by subterfuge or by under-the-table political patronage. Distribution losses in water and power networks in most Indian cities are officially acknowledged as being in the range of 40%, and many believe it is much higher. Inequity in the Indian city is not only an impediment to economic stability and growth, it is becoming an impediment to a reasonable quality of life among the privileged classes.

India has never had a strong tradition of local government, and this was something that was inadequately managed when the Constitution of India was drafted. At that time there were two opposing schools of thought. One, typically associated with Mohandas Gandhi, argued for a primacy of the local, seeking to maximise the autonomy and self-sufficiency of local government. The other, typically associated with B.R. Ambedkar, argued that the local was captured by caste bias and other distortions, and giving local government too much power would only result in perpetuating these distortions. Therefore strong central control was a necessity. It was the latter argument that prevailed, and when India officially became a constitutional republic, the Constitution only granted recognition to two levels of government: central and state. Under the Directive Principles of State Policy, state governments were instructed to form local governments and thereby empower administration of local bodies such as cities, towns and villages.

By the 1980’s it was clear that this system was not working. State governments, hungry for power, refused to give any fiscal or operational autonomy to local governments. In many cases, local governments were suspended and remained in a state of dissolution for years, with local bodies being run by state-appointed administrators rather than democratically elected office-bearers. In response to this condition, the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution of India were passed in 1992, which for the first time granted constitutional recognition to local government. The 73rd Amendment, popularly known as the Panchayat Raj Act, applied to rural areas. And the 74th Amendment, popularly known as the Nagar Palika Act, applied to cities and towns.

Both of these amendments were very broad in scope, and the state governments were asked to develop the detailed rules by which these amendments would be operationalised; which is like asking the fox to write the rules for the chicken coop. As a result, the only significant change is that there is now a six-month limit to the period for which a local government can be superseded, and fresh elections must be held within that time limit. Otherwise, technical modifications have been made to conform to the new constitutional amendments, but the status quo remains the same. Local governments still remain without any substantive strategic, operational or fiscal autonomy; and many substantive powers remain outside their control. A great deal of city functions are controlled by parastatal organisations under the financial and administrative control of the state government. To take the case study of Bengaluru:

· Planning is under the control of the Bengaluru Development Authority (BDA)

· Water Supply and Sewerage is under the Bengaluru Water Supply & Sewerage Board (BWSSB)

· Electric power distribution is under the Bengaluru Electric Supply Company (BESCOM)

· Law and order and the police force comes under the Home Ministry of the State Government of Karnataka

Clearly, under this fragmented system the city cannot be autonomously run as a functional unit by its democratically elected local government. In some cases, components of a system are segregated under different bodies, such as the case where storm water drainage comes under the Bengaluru municipality, but water supply is under the BWSSB, making it impossible to attempt one of the fundamentals of ecological planning which is to consider the complete water cycle.

In some aspects, the constitutional amendment has been given short shrift in both letter and spirit. Under the 74th Amendment, Bengaluru was required to constitute a Metropolitan Planning Committee (MPC), a group where two-thirds would be made up of elected officials, constituting a body that would take responsibility for the planning of the city. It took over 20 years for the city to constitute its MPC, and despite the fact that the intention of the 74th Amendment was to prevent undue interference of state government in local affairs, the Chief Minister of the state has been made the ex-officio Chairperson of the MPC.

While Bengaluru has been used as an illustrative case study here, the situation in other cities in India is not drastically different. The reason why empowering local government is important is that it is the level where everyday needs and circumstances can be most accurately assessed, where government is in greatest proximity to the average citizen in matters related to daily life, is the easiest level at which the citizen can gain access to government to voice grievances, and is therefore the first building block to creating transparency and accountability in governance. For this to happen, even the scale of a large city is too big, and the city has to be broken up into smaller constituencies. The 74th Amendment calls for scaling down large cities into territorial constituencies known as “wards”, and there has been subsequent thought on scaling down wards further into “area sabhas”. If this system is to be effectively implemented, both planning and operations of local government should operate by what is known as the “principle of subsidiarity”: that is the smallest local unit does whatever it can do within its scale, and what needs to be done at a larger scale is delegated upwards in the hierarchy. This is philosophically a drastic, and sorely needed, reversal of the current system of top-down control.

While land is a finite resource, the way it can be bought and sold and regulated is the system that constitutes the land market, and has a fundamental impact on prices. In India, this process is poorly defined, opaque, and depends on under-the-table patronage; whether you are talking about buying land, registering its ownership, or obtaining permits to build. As any elementary economics course will tell you, price settles where supply and demand curves intersect, and the inefficiencies of the land market mean that the supply curve is close to vertical, so even minor increases in demand cause disproportionate increases in price. As a result of this system, the cost of any land related transaction in urban India bears little relationship to median incomes.

Reform of the urban land market to provide greater clarity and transparency is foundational to the future of India. The task is huge, and unfortunately the political will for reform is lacking. This absence of will has become endemic to the system to the point of unity even among political parties who have major differences in other areas; and this is because unofficial earning on urban land has become a significant and across-the-board means of political fund-raising.

In the early 1970’s, in a seminal book titled “Freedom to Build”, the editors John F.C. Turner and Robert Fichter offered both analysis and case studies from around the world (including India) to show that when poor dwellers take control of the housing process the results are far more effective than housing solutions that are controlled and delivered by professionals. This is because the needs and circumstances of these segments of society are very different from those of the affluent. This is for a variety of reasons: their requirements change far more rapidly, the rapid change introduces greater degrees of diversity, and they are far more dependent on the home’s proximate embeddedness in contextual networks such as the relationship to work and community. For this reason, the results are likely to be better matched in self-help, incremental and dweller-controlled housing processes, and it is unlikely that professionally delivered solutions will offer the resilience and adaptability they need. The resultant misfit of professionally delivered housing solutions often results in a process of neighbourhood degradation that is reflected in symptoms such as alienation, crime and disrepair.

In an essay in the book titled “Housing as a Verb”, Turner argues that housing should not be seen as a product from which a quality of life automatically ensues, but should be construed as a verb: a set of actions through which a decent quality of life is pursued. In this interpretation, where greater adaptiveness, resilience, and surrounding support systems acquire primacy in day-to-day survival, it is essential that the dweller has greater control over the housing process.

When housing is construed as a verb, policy for the poor will focus on: (a) recognition of poorer residents with the concomitant right to the city and the right to housing; (b) land policy that provides access to affordable security of tenure; © building codes that are supportive of self-help and incremental housing, with community-building seen as a desirable output of the housing process; (d) zoning policies that ensure proximity and access to community, work, healthcare, education and recreation; and (e) the provision of support systems for finance, technical advice, material purchase, and other professional inputs, but in a framework that gives the dweller freedom of choice in how and when to use these support systems.

An argument that is often made against giving poorer dwellers control of the housing process is that this will lead to a lowering of housing standards. But when security of tenure is provided, the urban poor have shown remarkable resilience in building a reasonably decent quality of housing. The major reason why the condition of slums is so deplorable is not just due to lack of finance, but because the economically vulnerable cannot risk investment in an asset that does not possess security of tenure, and is therefore vulnerable to dispossession and demolition at very short notice. When security of tenure is available, even the poor have shown a capacity for financial investment in quality housing: it is just that such investment tends to be incremental and spread over a longer period of time when compared to the housing processes of the affluent. In contrast, the misfit of professionally delivered solutions is more likely to lead to degraded housing conditions. To claim that housing is a verb is to put more faith in the capabilities and freedom offered to the poor in pursuing a decent life than in the abstract standard of a housing product defined by someone who is remote from the condition of the dweller.

In this era of growing populations, overstressed natural resources, and climate change, the ecological paradigm on which we build our cities will be of critical importance. The dominant paradigm is that of Western urbanisation, and if this paradigm is sustained in the West as well as exported to the developing world, that will result in ecological disaster. This cannot be avoided with incremental change: it requires a fundamental paradigm shift in our imagination of both cities and nature.

The environmental historian Willliam Cronon points out that we tend to think of nature as a scientific fact out there, and lose sight of how our imagination of nature is a combination of scientific reality and social construction. We often feel that nature is at its most pure when it is untouched by human habitation, and consequently equate it with wilderness. And we do not realise that the implication of such an imagination of nature is to dismiss any space that is not wilderness as something that is less natural: almost a fallen space. So we see cities as remote from nature. Cronon argues that we must learn to see the tree in the backyard of our house as being just as much a part of nature as a tropical rain forest. The distancing of our backyard from nature reduces the space to inert phenomena on a surface, and therefore easily subjectable to an appropriation that constitutes a claim of possession with no consequence. If we are able to see all of nature in the same way, we will not draw such drastic differences between wilderness and nature within our cities, and can then learn to look at those parts of nature that we have turned to our own ends with wonder and thanksgiving, seeking to use them sustainably without diminishing them in the process.

For this, we must also change our imagination of cities. Because the fortified city surrounded by a defensive wall is so prevalent in the early history of cities, we still tend to imagine our cities as bounded entities, where the boundary is a delineator of sharp differences between what lies inside it and what lies outside it. An ecological paradigm relies on perceiving similarity between the urban and non-urban, and an alternative paradigm that has been offered is to see the city as a sponge. The sponge is an entity that possesses identity and shape, yet has the capacity to allow flows through it, and has some degree of adaptability in the way it responds to the volume of those flows.

In such a model, urban planning techniques would adapt the form of the city to the natural flows that move through it. The planning techniques that allow this have existed for a many decades, but they are yet to be sufficiently mainstreamed.

It is a time for radical change, and every system possesses a degree of inertia that will resist change. This inertia is greatest in those segments of the system that have the most to gain from preservation of the status quo, and that is why most historical examples of positive social change have come from social movements and individual thinkers rather than from the structures of political power. One cannot just assume that a democracy means that electoral processes will empower social movements in influencing governmental policy, for there is sufficient evidence of the tendency of politicians in a democracy to court fanatical minorities as constituencies who can swing electoral results in a desired direction.

The major impediment to the formation of social movements is not the repression of power, but lies in two self-inflicted impediments within society.

Firstly, we all have both a sphere of influence as well as a sphere of concern, and because our concerns are so much larger than what we can influence we tend to get paralysed by our impotence in front of our sphere of concern, losing the motivation to act within our sphere of influence, even though that is within our capacities. We should realise that every change does not have to come from grand acts, and when several small acts, each insignificant by itself, coalesce into a greater stream, then it becomes more difficult for the status quo to ignore the impetus to reform.

And secondly, when we wish to act for change we tend to focus on the vertical relationship between citizen and state. Causing substantive change in this relationship is likely to head for failure because of the inherent asymmetry of power in this vertical axis. We pay inadequate attention to the lateral connections between ordinary citizens. The technological means to reinforce and leverage these lateral connections exists at a level that is unprecedented in history. But the technology will not do it by itself: just because social media exists does not mean that good social change will occur, for social media also has its own inherent capacity for disruption. We need nonviolent vision aimed at building greater harmony, and such vision has to be intelligently applied to the harnessing of new social technologies.

When energetic action within spheres of influence is brought in alignment with the leveraging of lateral connections between citizens, then alternative spaces for constructing new visions and implementing new actions will emerge. The planning of our cities and environment is too important a task to be left wholly to the structures of officialdom, and these new alternative spaces will be of crucial importance. There is a joke told about a man during the French Revolution who was sitting in a café drinking his coffee, and a mob rushed past on the street, whereupon the man dropped his coffee and ran after the mob shouting, “I have to catch up with those people. I am their leader!” Things will not change until we build the social movements that compel our leaders to chase us.

Practicing architect in Bangalore, India. This blog contains general writing. For writing on architecture and urbanism, see https://premckar.wordpress.com