India's Trickiest Urban Planning Obstacle? Gandhi's Legacy

The stated preference of India's greatest citizen for village life may be holding his country back.

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Dinodia

BANGALORE, India — Before he became India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru received a letter from his mentor. “I am convinced,” the sender, Mohandas Gandhi, wrote, “that if India is to attain true freedom, and through India the world also, then sooner or later the fact must be recognized that people will have to live in villages, not towns; in huts, not in palaces. Crores [tens of millions] of people will never be able to live in peace with each other in towns and palaces.”

Six decades later, there are three Indian cities where over 10 million people live with each other. In 1951, four years after Independence, five Indian cities had populations over one million. Today, there are 53. And the growth is not relenting: one estimate pegs the capacity that Indian cities must expand by at 400 percent over the next 50 years, a growth rate needed to accommodate the nearly one billion expected additions to the population.

Urbanization in India is inevitable.

Gandhi's preference for the village was primarily political, a slight against colonial rule. But since his time, the nation has gone through scores of political changes and multiple leaders named Gandhi. For urbanists here, a critical force holding India back from providing the resources to fix the problems of its cities—and unleash their potential—is the still lingering philosophy of its greatest citizen.

“Our founding fathers often talked about an India that lives in its villages,” says Prathima Manohar, the founder of The Urban Vision, an India-based urbanism think tank. That is mostly still true. Only a third of the country currently lives in urban areas. But not for long. “The scale and size and magnitude of growth that’s taking place right now is going to change that ‘India of villages’ to an ‘India of cities.’”

Without proper planning, the nation’s next wave of mega-cities risk growing like its first—chaotic and sprawled, with lagging infrastructure and inadequate housing. In Mumbai, the coastal city of 14 million, more than half of the city lives in slums.

“We’ve been, in general, averse to urbanization,” Manohar says. “We need to be really, really strategic about it. We can’t just allow it to be happening and ignore it.”

Part of this aversion is cultural, a continued embrace with the philosophy of India’s most revered figure. Yet much of it is demographic. Most politicians were born around Independence, when village life was the norm. The average age of the national government’s cabinet is 65. The average Indian is 40 years younger. It is likely the widest generation gap in the world.

“We conceive of ourselves as an agrarian country.” says Aromar Revi, director of the Indian Institute of Human Settlements. He shows me a graph of population distribution across India’s history as a sovereign nation. At the start, the bar marked ‘Villages’ stretches the highest. “This was Gandhi’s vision of India.”

Over time, the village proportion steadily shrinks. “You're governing India like that,” Revi says, pointing close to the time when Nehru received his letter. “It’s a totally different country now.”

We’re seated in the Institute's tranquil back patio, in central Bangalore. It’s a moment of rare quiet. Outside the front doors, the horns have taken over. Rickshaws, motorbikes, sedans and trucks compete with pedestrians for precious road space. There, on the wide streets, is evidence of Bangalore as one of the fastest growing cities in the world.

Although much of this growth is natural, from births alone, it’s a declining share. Instead the city, like other inflating Indian metropolises, is expanding by drawing people in. Since 2001, an estimated 22 million rural Indians have migrated to urban areas.

A villager today, says G. K. Karanth, a sociologist at the Institute for Social and Economic Change, is “an urban person in the making.” Newcomers arrive to Bangalore from all over the country largely for the job opportunities. Occasionally they are well-educated white-collar workers, but more often they are uneducated and impoverished. “There's a beautiful Kannada saying,” Karanth says. “‘When you're ruined, go to the city.’”

In some ways, investment in villages, as Gandhi’s credo dictates, can help. Making rural life less burdensome could ease the migratory flow to cities.

Yet the fastest growing contributor to growth in cities like Bangalore is not migration. It’s sprawl. The city swells by absorbing land and people.

A couple decades ago, the city built a highway, Outer Ring Road, circling its edge in an attempt to ease paralyzing traffic. Now cars, shopping malls, tech parks, and luxury apartments extend well beyond the road. At the same time, the central district has developed slowly. Zoning laws limit the height and expansion of the area’s buildings, Revi explains. “Typically, they’re highly underdeveloped compared to what the restrictions are.”[

Eventually, the government paid attention. A nationwide urban renewal project, the JNNURM, named after Nehru, began in 1995 to invest $20 billion over seven years. Master planning initiatives are kicking off in cities and towns across the country. The shape of these plans and the renewal effort, set to expire and re-launch this year, are still being disputed.

And the renewal project may be lopsided. Manohar recently broke down JNNURM spending and discovered that the total spent on roads far exceeded what was spent on mass transit. Forty-two road projects were deemed completed; only three mass transit ones. “We’re really building our cities for cars and not people," she says.

Road investments, however, are in strong demand. Very few of Bangalore’s roads are well paved, further slowing its crawling traffic. Still, car-centric development isn’t economically feasible. For one thing, the nation imports upwards of 70 percent of its oil, a severe handicap highlighted by the recent widespread power outages.

Urban advocates here avow their respect for the Gandhian approach to villages, where poverty and illiteracy still persist. They just insist it’s outdated. “I'm not saying we shouldn't be investing in our villages,” says Revi. “It’s actually a very good thing that we're doing that. But the point is, the multipliers lie here.”

Despite covering only 16 percent of India’s land, cities account for nearly half of its GDP. By some estimates, urban areas deliver almost 90 percent of the nation’s tax revenues.

The largest share of JNNURM spending is not on roads, but on water and sewage. To remain an economic force, the country needs to pour resources into this desperately needed infrastructure. A recent McKinsey report projected that, at the current pace of urban services—on water, sewage, housing and transit—the quality of life in Indian cities will decline fast and soon.

“If we don’t invest in cities,” Manohar says, “we really kill the Indian story.”

Still, its cities are at a “crux,” she notes, not an endpoint. Her optimism stems from the age of the average Indian.

Likewise, Revi sees hope in the young population. His organization is launching a new, interdisciplinary degree for urban development this fall. And, despite the frequent inflexibility of Indian politics, he claims that younger officials are ditching the old approach and facing urbanization.

“Politics is going to change in this country,” he says, “because more and more politicians are going to get elected from urban areas.”

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