Sunday, April 5, 2009

First cousins: The ties between rural and urban India

The Government of India’s 2001 Census Report states that 285 million citizens live in urban areas, a figure that approximates the entire population of the US . Thus, if Urban India was perceived as a distinct nation, it would be -- on its own- - the fourth largest nation in the world!

But of course, that still leaves 742 million Indians living in villages, a figure that immediately compels urban studies scholars to concede that the urban scenario here, and perhaps in all of South Asia , is drastically different from that in many other parts of the world.

Thus, even now, the percentage of urban population to the total population of the country stands at only 27.8. If you keep in mind that the percentage of urban population to total population in the 1991 Census (including interpolated population of Jammu & Kashmir where the Census could not be conducted in 1991) was 25.7%, one still finds that there has been an increase of just 2.1 percentage points.

Thus, as urban studies scholars such as Amitabh Kundu have time and again pointed out, the level of urbanisation in India actually remains quite low even though its contribution to the national economy has become extremely high--calculated at 60% in 2001.
At the same time, urban poverty levels are high too and in 1993-94, almost 76 million Indians living below the poverty line were from urban areas. If we still want to think in terms of nations, then that itself is the size of Mexico !

All this information never really allows us to forget that 742 million rural Indians continue to play an important role in the lives of many of the urban dwellers and a fair proportion of them are actually related, in more ways than one. A small proportion of urban residents are recent migrants to cities, continuing to have close ties with their native homes. Their urban habitats may be relatively better equipped, even having a comparative advantage in accessing basic resources such as water and electricity, but by and large their living conditions are built with kutcha (temporary) material reminiscent of poorer homes back in the villages. And more disappointingly, their right to their homes is highly contested, often classified as illegal, putting them in a situation of insecurity that eats into their incomes, leaving them more or less as economically depressed as they were when they had started out.

Thus, to actually treat urban India as a separate nation because it contributes 60% of the national income would be very short-sighted. Not only because it is organically connected to rural India but also because this relationship is strongly reflected in the nature of the urban economy itself. It is largely energised by what is called the informal economy, and more than 60% of all employment, according to the same census, actually comes from this sector in cities such as Delhi and Mumbai. What we often refer to as the informal economy is simply the vast, decrepit reality of Indian cities, where the majority of citizens are left on their own to get shelter and jobs for themselves, being part of a system that feeds off their contractual, unorganised status and where much of their social security comes from a tiny piece of land back home in their native village or through families that have stayed behind, who even as they are dependent on their urban family member also land up providing basic security to her or him when the city cannot absorb more skills.

According to the ' Food Insecurity Atlas of Urban India' by the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation and the World Food Programme, 2002, more than 38% of children under the age of three in India 's cities and towns are underweight and more than 35% of children in urban areas are stunted. According to the report, the poor in India 's expanding urban areas do not get the requisite amount of calories or nutrients specified by accepted Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) norms. It also suggests that absorption and assimilation of food by the urban poor is further impaired by non-food factors such as inadequate sanitation facilities, insufficient housing and woeful access to clean drinking water. It reminds us that more than 21% of India 's urban population lives in slums, 23% of urban households do not have access to toilet facilities and nearly 8% of urban households are unable to find safe drinking water.

In many ways the above description reminds us painfully of the situation in many rural areas as well.

But this picture of urban India is not what illustrates the dominant narratives of contemporary life in Indian cities, especially as portrayed in the mainstream media. Those narratives are celebrating the relatively recent entry of middle class India into the world of global consumption and the transformation of their urban landscapes into some version of the landscapes they associate with that world. Shanghai and Singapore have now achieved the status of archetypes of such urban aspirations. What is significant is that these aspirations are also expressed as policies of governance for urban infrastructure and planning, best epitomised in the move to create world-class business centres and high quality roads favouring private transport, while ignoring the concerns of the poor in all kinds of ways. The poor as entrepreneurs, the poor as residents and the poor as consumers of mass transport systems -- an ironical situation, if you consider that this section of society actually got plenty of attention when other celebrated cities, including New York, London and Paris, transformed themselves from chaotic, slum-infested sprawls into modern habitats in the early 20th century.

Showering attention on urban India by itself is not a bad move. After all, historically, urban India has much to demonstrate in terms of a refined and complex attitude towards urban habitats. A tradition that was sadly ignored in the 20th century, when all attention was directed towards modernising ‘real’ India , the India of the villages. A process of modernisation that also displaced people, depleted natural resources and forced large numbers to migrate to cities.

So when today one part of urban India stakes a claim for improving its situation, when leading industrialists and representatives of the corporate world fold up their sleeves to transform their urban habitats -- one understands where they are coming from -- and where they want to go.
But unfortunately, a hard-headed study of urban habitats around the world reveals that their goals may just not be achieved. And this could have everything to do with the situation of the 745 million rural Indians that shadow the horizon of all Indian cities. A shadow that may darken over a period of time when one finds that to feed the ever-consuming cities with electricity, water and natural resources, the habitats of rural India gradually become more and more depleted, forcing larger and larger numbers to migrate to cities, thereby further straining resources, especially since all the existing policies are doing little to absorb the needs of the urban poor.

It is through such a narrative that Urban India, which never really forgets the rural, can best be understood. However, even this narrative is not as straightforward, if you take into consideration the following facts:
According to the Government of India’s Census report, the net addition to population in rural India during the decade 1991-2001 has been 113 million while in urban areas it has been 6 million. If you calculate the percentage decadal growth of population in rural and urban areas you get figures of 17.9 and 31.2% respectively. These statistics energise many loud arguments which claim that India is getting urbanised at a rate higher than ever before. However, we can also read the statistics slightly differently. The addition of 6 million individuals distributed across all Indian cities and towns over a decade could not really have led to the major crisis of urban infrastructure we find in many Indian cities and towns. And in reality it has not. The crisis in infrastructure, most strongly visible in terms of quality and quantity of roads, presence of slums and water scarcity, is more a manifestation of the increasing aspirations of the middle class in terms of access to private transport -- cars -- and a high-consumption lifestyle. It is not directly related to the increasing population of the poor. Of course, the poor are increasingly visible and find that their basic needs are competing more and more with those of the higher-end consumers -- land for slums is increasingly making way for private transport facilities and shopping malls, for instance.

The other urban crisis that hits the poor more strongly than others is water scarcity. This too cannot be blamed on the 6 million recently urbanised citizens but on the increasing consumption of water by various consumer industries. Both these crises are a function of increased consumption of certain kinds of goods, commodities and services and not due to population pressures alone. It is reported that our cities will very soon be severely ill-equipped to handle urban water requirements which are expected to double from 25 billion cubic metres (BCM) in 1990, to 52 BCM by the year 2025. Actually we may become water stressed by the year 2017 itself. Before we blame the increasing population alone for the huge scarcity we must note that it is the way we consume water too that is responsible. Urban conglomerations are water-intensive by their very nature. The lifestyles adopted by its inhabitants (piped water supply, flush toilets etc) make things worse. Environmentalists point out that urban-dwellers eat more meat- and water-intensive crops: each kilo of wheat requires some 500 litres of water, a kilo of rice upto 2,000 litres, while a kilo of meat requires some 20,000-50,000 litres of water. Automobiles, the hallmark of urban centres, have production processes that are highly water-intensive. The production of one car directly and indirectly consumes about 400 cubic metres of water.


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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