Debating India

Rural paradise? SEZ who?

Saturday 28 October 2006, by DEBROY*Bibek

There are several quotes by Mahatma Gandhi about India’s villages. Let me choose three at random. First, “India lives in her villages, not in her cities.” Second, “If the village perishes, India perishes too.” Third, “India is not to be found in its few cities but in the 700,000 villages - we have hardly ever paused to inquire if these folks get sufficient to eat and clothe themselves with.” Partly as a result of this legacy, our attitude towards villages is reflective of what Indira Gandhi said in a speech to the Science Congress in 1976. “The overwhelming majority of our people lives in villages and will continue to do so for years to come. I would go further and say that we don’t even want to uproot them. All over the world, urbanisation has brought comfort and stimulation; but who could claim that it has not given rise to complicated problems? Rural life should be so enriched as to prevent the migration of people and resources from villages to towns.” The National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP), Bharat Nirman and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) generally have the same refrain. Create employment opportunities and physical and social infrastructure in rural areas, prevent rural to urban migration. That takes care of the push factor. And although no one states this as clearly, contain the pull factor by eliminating urban-centric non-targeted subsidies.

The 2001 Census tells us 74.27 per cent of India’s population lives in rural India, while 25.73 per cent lives in urban India. There are 384 urban agglomerations, 5161 towns, 27 million-plus cities and 35 million-plus urban agglomerations. More to the point, there are 638,365 villages, some of which are uninhabited. States with more than 40,000 villages are Rajasthan, UP, Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, MP and Maharashtra. Indeed, there is a positive correlation between urbanisation and level of economic development.

Admittedly, there are problems with rural/urban definitions. For census purposes, to be called a town, there has to be a population of more than 5000, a population density of at least 400 per sq km and 75 per cent or more of the male working population must be in non-agricultural employment. But regardless of these criteria, including population, states find it convenient to classify as urban any geographical area that has a corporation, a municipality or a nagar-panchayat. Conversely, courtesy the UPA government and ministry of rural development’s largesse, notwithstanding the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, there is a perverse incentive in favour of classifying habitations as rural.

But to come back to the point, notice the number in the third Gandhiji quote. The total number of villages in India has dropped from 700,000 to 638,365. More relevant is the number of inhabited villages in 2001, at 593,643, and the decline has been sharper since then. Is this desirable or undesirable and should we plan for people to stay in rural India or should we plan for an urban India, remembering that urbanisation is slower in India than in many parts of the developing world? There are several reasons why villages disappear. Thanks to migration and improved connectivity, some disappear. Others become mainstreamed into urban agglomerations. Still others are reclassified as urban as development proceeds.

All these are desirable developments. The average population in an Indian village is 1,161 and this doesn’t make the village viable, to provide physical or social infrastructure. And 91,555 of India’s villages have population sizes less than 200 and 12,644 of them are in Orissa, with other large numbers in Himachal, Uttaranchal, Rajasthan, UP, Jharkhand and MP. Another 127,515 of villages have population sizes less than 499; 14,806 have population sizes more than 5000; and 3,962 have population sizes more than 10,000. The idea is not to have a quota on the number of villages.

Instead, the argument is that if urban planning is properly undertaken, more than 200,000 of India’s villages will disappear, as they should, and we will have larger villages or towns with populations upwards of 10,000 and approaching and even crossing 100,000 (classes II to IV or urban settlements, under the Census definition). As in other areas, urban governance also has economies and diseconomies of scale and scope. The answer isn’t in million-plus cities, or in habitations with populations less than 10,000. If transport (meaning primarily road) connectivity improves, this will automatically happen and we can see its occurrence in places where the National Highway Development Programme (NHDP) and the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) have got off the ground.

However, who undertakes urban planning in these new agglomerations? Let’s ask a different question. Which city in India won the UN’s Global Compact City Award in 2004? It wasn’t Chandigarh, Pune or Bangalore, but Jamshedpur. The moral is that we want cities created by the private sector and also cities where urban amenities are provided by the private sector. (The Jamshedpur Utilities and Services Company Limited does this for a large chunk of the city.)

From the Jamshedpur moral, let us move to the Pudong moral. Visitors to Shanghai marvel at Shanghai’s infrastructure, but they often actually mean Pudong. There was no Pudong before 1990. Planning for existing urban agglomerations is always difficult, if not impossible. Green-field development, which is what Pudong was, is easier. (One has a similar experience with highways.) This leads to a corollary that we are reluctant to accept.

Developments must take place on non-urban land, including non-urban lead within existing urban agglomerations and conversion to urban usage must be a part of life, instead of leading to agitations. Perhaps we should scrutinise and revamp the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 with this objective in mind. Rather perversely, this thought about urban planning has occurred not to the ministry of urban development but to the commerce ministry. On second thoughts, this is probably natural, because Pudong was originally a special economic zone (SEZ). We have thus got hold of the wrong end of the stick. SEZs, and tax and land concessions aren’t about exports. They are about a new cluster of SEZ towns, built by the private sector.

The writer is secretary-general, PHDCCI

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