City · Habitat III

Addressing Rurbanising Realities in the New Urban Agenda

Sehreeti was invited to participate  at the National Consultation on Civil Society Contribution to Habitat III, held at JNU, Delhi on 10 October 2016. Nidhi Batra of Sehreeti, spoke about issues of ‘urban-rural dichotomy’ in respect to South Asian Context. Attached is the paper:

Urbanisation has almost become synonymous with development. This developmental process comes with its unique challenges – one of them being the ‘urban-rural’ divide.

Sociologists tell us to look at city as a ‘theatre of social action’ that celebrates ‘heterogeneity’. However planners and policy makers in India, tell us to look at ‘urban’ as a locale of a certain size and density, with a local governing body and with 75% of its male population in non-agricultural economy.  As a result, the design and policy approaches involved in all master planning exercise observe city as an economic engine geared up to commercialize and industrialize, resulting in an unsustainable ecological footprint of the city which often ignores the regional ecosystem that does exists, and which is not bifurcated through administrative urban and rural divide.

The process of rapid urbanization in most global south is also creating a development pressure on rural areas that are located in close proximity to the existing cities and towns. Even though it is assumed that most prevalent reason for urbanization is the migration from villages to cities, it is also true that the consumerist footprint of the city keeps expanding and engulfs many villages in it. Also, as Pradhan (2013) points out, 30% of the urban growth in the last decade can be attributed to new Census Towns, which, for all administrative purposes, are large villages.

In India, this phenomenon is not new and can be clearly seen in the planning approach of Delhi, right from the first master plan in 1962. The master plan of Delhi, designated the existing villages, which were now coming in its imaginary municipal jurisdiction laid out on a map – as urban villages, encircled by a ‘lal dora’. These villages, since then, continue to live in a state of  flux, deprived of  quality of life that urban areas should offer, yet continue to feed the city, through informal housing and economy. The city of Raipur saw a massive growth in ‘slums’  post 2004-05. A study undertaken by PRIA revealed that many of these slums were located in the outer fringe of the city. This growth was due to the expansion of the municipal limits which had engulfed most peri-urban villages, and due to lack of infrastructure have now been termed as slums.  These villages often also observe a massive resistance by the residents about the new urban title, wherein the residents still prefer to cling on to the tag of rural areas which attracts a much larger share of welfare funds from the centre and escape higher taxation. This results in poor infrastructure development and administrative chaos, partly explaining why a large majority of urban poor continues to be concentrated in newly-developed small towns such as Raipur.

Various corridor development projects and new master planned cities are also displacing the rural residents and their livelihood to make way for ‘urbanisation’. These practices are always exclusionary and more often than not ecologically unsustainable. Urban flooding, disappearing drainage paths and ponds, deforestation and contestations of the once ‘rural commons’ become a common phenomenon.  The case of Mangar Bani – a sacred grove wedged between the advancing sprawl of Delhi and Faridabad, and less than an hour’s drive from the iconic Qutab Minar is a perfect example of privatizing of the commons. This ecological reserve which is one of the last patches of Aravalli forests with native tree and plant species has been slowly been subjected to the clutches of new development, commercialization, and fancy tourism project. This grove has until now been preserved by the local villagers. These villagers are now selling off their land slowly and steadily at extremely low prices to private developers. Villagers regret that in 1970s when the government allowed privatization of the village commons, they sold their share in the common land without knowing the actual location of their holdings. The plots were not demarcated on ground in the village till mid 1980s. The transactions gave private investors a toehold in the Bani. The entire area is now like an isolated island subjected to urbanization pulls. Even though through vigorous fight by environmentalist and the community, the courts have agreed to designate bani as a reserve forest, illegal deforestation, almost every night, is very common.

These peri-urban realities make these areas as transitional zones with significant governance ambiguity which often lies beyond municipal jurisdiction where public services such as water, sanitation, and waste disposal are not provided by rural or urban authorities. These also become zones of contestation that display a dense overlap between geographical, socio-economic, political and environmental dimensions of marginality. This phenomenon is seen across  many South-Asian Cities including Nepal, Pakistan, China, South African and Latin American cities. China follows a ‘sealed management policy’ for its rural villages which have been absorbed into China’s growing cities and which now are becoming thriving unregulated rental markets for rural migrants.

India, through the National Rurban Mission (and its earlier avatar, Provision of Urban Amenities to Rural Areas) seeks to provide high-growth rural areas with infrastructural amenities, economic activities and planned layouts similar to those available in cities. However, in this act of rurbanisation, the country needs to be mindful of the ‘new developmental pressure’ that the rural areas would be subjected to and also needs to address any insertion of new infrastructure such that it respects the larger regional ecosystem. Covering natural drainage paths or dividing forest reserves for laying new infrastructure is never a solution. Also a study by CPR highlights the instability of the rural non-farm workforce which shows that the rural-urban boundary is blurry, and from the policy point of view, this creates a difficulty in the formulation and application of schemes (rural vs. urban) in these settlements.

The new urban agenda for cities and human settlements at Habitat III should provide adequate direction to the following aspects with the common thread of ‘urban commons’ amongst them:

  1. Defining ‘urban’, guiding the processes of urbanization and revival of the ‘commons’: We are no longer in an era where we define ‘urban’ by 75% of male population in ‘non-agricultural’ practices. Various cities in the developing world are employing unique principles of urban agriculture integrated in the master plan of the city. These agricultural lands are not just pastiche vertical farming, but are productive lands that are seen as the new urban commons.

Issue of land contestations, tenure rights, socio-economic and environmental justice can be addressed by observing ‘land resources’ as common, that is managed by the collective for the collective and is not subjected to the forces of laissez-faire. In master planning exercises for new urbanizing domains of Thies-Senegal and Al Batinah-Oman, practices of rural-urban continuum are being explored wherein the forest and agricultural reserves were protected within the city domain and productive agricultural practices were encouraged for sustainable living. Havana-Cuba revolution is also an example of the same, which needs a revival in present urbanization processes.

  1. Relook at the role of ‘governance’ and idea of ‘control’: The role of governing bodies and the devolution of powers in both rural and urban domains need to be strengthened. New governance institutions, such as Special Planning Vehicles, instituted under the Smart Cities Mission in India are an obituary to the 74th amendment and have taken us many steps back in the aspects of participatory planning. Community resources in both rural and urban landscapes are under threat and the community which once was the caretaker and stakeholder is excluded in the process of development.
  2. Strengthening the voice of the community and civil society: The present situation also calls for the role of civil society to be strengthened even further and not just be limited as a check box in planning processes. Most civil society organizations in India complain that there are very few organizations working in the urban domain. While the rural landscape has been much favoured by the civil society, their knowledge about urban issues remains weak. Community awareness of ‘developmental issues’ is a key that needs to be addressed. Urban awareness, outreach and dissemination initiatives that break down the jargon and silos of planning and development is a requisite for a participatory approach to development.
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