Is India Already Urbanized?

December 13, 2012

A playful provocation; some serious questions

All indicators of urbanization in India point to a future that looks pretty stagnant, if you use conventional barometers. According to the latest census data, we see a  low proportion of officially urban to rural areas – still under 30 %. The growth of metropolitan centers is also slowing down.

Interestingly, all this is countered by a significant increase in non-farm economic activities in traditionally agrarian regions. These include manufacture, processing of agrarian products, construction and other services. There is also an increasing investment being made by rural-urban migrants from cities, back to their villages of origin. Significant rural-rural migration also hints at dynamism in erstwhile agrarian regions which are providing income through both farm and non-farm activities.

A family may have members spread out across the country fanning out into a range of different economic activities with roots in the ancestral village still active, and one leg firmly entrenched in the city. Different economic sectors can thus contribute to the income, or at the least, provide some social security to one family.

The presence of a pan Indian railway network that is cheap and relatively efficient allows for seasonal commutes, long distance migration as well the ability to keep  ties with rural areas intact, all of which contribute to a sense of belonging that is not classically rural or urban.

The slowing down of growth of metropolitan centers in the country, the most populous of which had emerged mainly during colonial times, is accompanied by a boom in small towns. These growing urban centers are more intricately connected to their rural hinterlands than the great presidency cities were. Which by the way, also owed much of their economic growth to agrarian fuel, either poppy, cotton or jute. For longer than one imagines, large parts of rural India were agro-industrial ventures, linked to urban markets, and not sites for home-based, sustainable agricultural activities.

To divide the country sharply into rural and urban sectors has been critiqued as vehemently by social scientists, many of whom tried to capture this fuzziness with awkward concepts such as rurban, or by presenting rural urban experiences on a continuum. However these observations were rarely used by policy makers, who preferred at first, to subscribe to a Gandhian fantasy of a rural idyll as the site of real India and then, with equal, one-sided alacrity, became anxious about urbanizing the country through seeing more people live in cities as soon as possible. The fact that a people depleted rural India is unthinkable anytime in the near future, thanks to a 800 million strong presence does not seem to daunt such eager urbanists.  A fallacious comparison with totally different historical experiences from North America, a selective reading of European history and a pointless competitiveness with China allows this fantasy to have currency in spite of all indicators pointing elsewhere.

Historically, to classify agrarian practices as purely rural – as if this sector was not tied down to taxation policies or revenue needs of urban centers – is a fallacy. The growing of grains was directly connected to accumulation of centralized, storable wealth.  At the same time, to ignore that much of pre-industrial manufacture actually happened in villages is also subscribing to simplistic and rigid notions of what is rural or urban.

Even in contemporary times, social scientists are trying to sensitize census data collectors to interpret peoples self proclaimed professions in more nuanced ways. A farmer is not always just a farmer (if she ever was one) – but also someone who could be a taxi driver, a construction worker or an artisan and maybe even all of these. In fact the evolutionary framework that cast social growth into tribal, rural and urban-industrial has been one of the weakest theoretical constructs in terms of empirical substantiation, even though a hugely influential one. It tended to fix people into singular roles ignoring the intricate and complex economic systems that existed in the smallest of societies.  Even a hunter-gatherer did some horticulture, construction, fishing and artisanal work.

The development of a modern industrial, job oriented ethic reduced individuals to cash oriented capitalist wage earners even though urban environments provided as much variety and possibility to absorb multiple skills from a single worker or a group of workers. Modern urban work ideals were connected to certain promises linked to a special arrangement of labour, technology, resources and skills. This was based on imagining an endless supply of resources and continuous economic growth. In reality growth hardly happened in this way.  Workers were always relying on multiple sources of income, dealing with economic cycles, depression and uncertainty.

Progressive politics put all hopes into the promise of a stable job oriented economy and rarely looked at other forms of state-sponsored economic systems for individuals and families. Rural worlds were firmly seen as static and incapable of being integrated into a modern worldview. Insurance systems, social security, pensions were all tied down to the negotiations that workers had to make with private job providers or the state, in the city. Creative solutions that gave them more agency and control over resources, both traditional and new, was rarely the path chosen by pro-worker political actors.

Yet in countries like India, urban industrial workers always managed to create support systems that were wired to their villages of origin, no matter how economically and socially marginal their location there. Sometimes this may have been acts of desperation, but often it was also linked to a real desire to remain connected. For most of the country, the railway network acted as the biggest factor making this dual affiliation a reality. However, historian Raj Chandavarkar points out that  in the case of Mumbais famed textile industrial workers, (at one point of time, half of whom came from just one coastal district in Maharashtra, Ratnagiri,) the lack of railways was substituted by sea travel.  Workers commuted seasonally,  across 400 kilometers of coastal waters. The citys iconic mill workers relied a lot on agricultural income from back home to supplement their earnings in expensive Mumbai. Almost as much as they used their ethnic connections to their villages to assert their own urban identities in a cosmopolitan city. Industrial strikes became real bargains only because the workers could prolong their defiance, thanks to support from their village.

Indias supposedly most modern city,  Mumbai, grew around several fishing villages, which themselves spawned large settlements in which rural urban migrants settled into homes and started commercial activities which allowed for a complementary set of work that supplemented the dominant job-providing sector. The state, at one time shaped by welfare ideals, was forced to protect land use by poor migrants. Even if it did not do much else but grant temporary, negotiable rights of occupancy, this act allowed for migrant groups to develop systems of sustainability with very little resources. They too could not rely on stable job generating  abilities of the city beyond a point.

Today, instead of finding ways to improve these neighbourhoods, provide them with better infrastructure, support their emerging economic activities, the state agencies and the private sector have entered into battles over land and proprietorship in the most reductive of ways.

The expansion of a neo-liberal economic mindset encourages the specter of speculation to hang over every urban space in the country. It eventually develops into an ideology of the city that never gives any space to economically dynamic neighbourhoods which need little else but special protection from market forces as far as land occupation goes.. People are willing to pay rents to the government for occupying and using land for socio-economic development, but this is rarely acceptable to authorities. Instead urban policy itself  speculates over every square inch of land and is eager to generate more urban space to emerge in the city (and elsewhere) and make even more money out of speculation. Subsequently, a city like Mumbai ends up having 500,000 vacant flats in the city where prices remain sky-high, for very mediocre properties.

Contrast this with the generations of residents in the so-called informal city – commonly referred to as slums and whom we refer to as homegrown neighbourhoods. They increase and enhance the quality of life of their neighbourhoods through incremental investment in its built form, by raising capital from using space as intensively as possible. Many of these residents also invest back in their villages – in improving ancestral homes, or by starting new businesses there.

The latest census report points out to increased rural expenditure in the country thanks to urban migrants sending money home on a regular basis. These are often from the same homegrown neighbourhoods of cities like Mumbai, who are now being increasingly attacked  as speculative value of urban space becomes more unbearable and the city more unlivable for those with modest resources.

Thankfully the rate of population and economic growth of cities like Mumbai is declining. Instead, small towns are developing more dynamic growth patterns all over the country. What is important to note is that these small towns are more smoothly entrenched into their rural hinterland than large metros. People often commute from villages to cities on an everyday basis for jobs and education. Sometimes rich farmers buy second homes in towns. Families expand their affiliations across rural and urban areas with more ease thanks to better transport facilities. Well-connected and networked areas make it easier for people not to migrate, but instead, navigate distances more strategically for commercial and personal reasons.

In India, the administrative unit of the district in many parts operates like an urban system. With a network of towns and villages criss-crossing, using transport facilities that are private and public. To classify such spaces as exclusively urban or rural does not make sense.  Economic interactions are enmeshed and educational needs are cross-wired across massive distances, as well as in closer proximity.

If there is any need to persist in defining these areas as exclusively rural or urban – it is only because we are still stuck with a very limited notion of a city. One which remains informed by speculative practices and  visualizes cities as dense and consolidated spaces.

In reality the experience of urbanization is extremely unpredictable. Officially the state of Goa is India’s most urbanized state, even though a large proportion of its residents live in villages, (just under 50 %) . The remaining 50 odd % of urban Goa includes large villages and networks of  habitats of a great variety.  Thanks to a slightly different historical trajectory, Goa manages to have a landscape that is mixed use in terms of agrarian, mining, tourist and manufacture, has a large forested land cover and is also urbanized in a social sense.  Conversely – if you follow an ethnic history of Mumbai – the metropolis has more than 150 official urban villages that are part of the city s East Indian history (Maharashtrian Catholics connected to the city’s Portuguese past) in which more than half a million people still live. Thus more people live in villages in Mumbai than in Goa.

This play of statistics is only being evoked to open up our way of looking at Indias urban future in a more realistic way. On one hand we have the depressed figure of an under 30% urbanized economy. On the other hand you have the vision of a highly dynamic agrarian sector that is emerging as a manufacturing hub, and a service economy, with a relatively skilled and multi-talented workforce.

As a cautionary note we must acknowledge that rural India is also being exploited commercially by global agricultural practices and an aggressive mining sector. However it is they who will benefit from an evacuated rural landscape more than anyone else. This is what happened in many so called developed countries that looked at urbanization purely as dense consolidated urban centers and ignored the possibilities that rural lives could provide to a modern economy. Evacuated and empty rural areas made it easier to create hyper commercialized agro-industrial territories, depleted of human presence.

In India thankfully we are far from that picture. India still is heavily populated in its rural and tribal areas. However the nature of these  areas is changing.

Can this change be harnessed more creatively? If urbanization is such an important part of a modernizing economy can we not define urbanization a bit differently?

Can we say that India’s teeming populations are organized in urban systems that connect agricultural and other activities and spaces? That the future of this kind of an economy is as much connected to a peopled farm sector as it is of non-farm activities in both rural and urban areas? Just as formal and informal settlements and economies hide a more complex reality does Indias rural area also hide such a complexity? One that we are burying under a very simplistic dichotomy?

As Anthony Leeds suggests very provocatively, pre-industrial kingdoms were not urban centers ruling vast territories of rural villages. The villages were producing for a tax regime, for centralized urban centers and food was revenue and wealth in the form of taxes. Villages were part of urban systems. There is no such thing as the distinctively rural – as opposed to the urban -  in his world view. Kingdoms were urban systems. Just because people lived in villages did not mean their lives were not being governed by  urban power centers. For him it is urban systems all the way. But this argument cannot be used to justify a narrow world view of urbanization or a dense urban future for all. It actually calls for a more integrated understanding of economies and habitats.

Maybe if India – in an ironic twist of statistical reality calls itself 100 % urban – and defines itself as a network of urban systems, it will dignify its vast rural populations in a more creative way – it will be able to harness its natural resources more inclusively and also look at the future of urban India in a less anxious way – where the image of rural hordes attacking its urban frontiers will give way to a more generous relationship to space. Instead of visualizing the future of rural India either as gorged out mines, battlefields, or dystopic cash crop landscapes, it can be still seen as peopled with habitats, organized around healthy public transport systems, a combination of agrarian and other kinds of economic activities and greater local control over natural resources.  For those concerned that a peopled rural landscape cannot be environmentally friendly, one only has to look at states like Kerala, which for all  local cynicism, is a living example of rural-urban density and a mixed use, tree lined inhabited landscape – like Goa, another kind of an urban system. In contrast, all the commercially exploited landscapes of colonial rural British India (thanks to cotton, jute or opium and aggressive mining in tribal belts)  remain tied down to exaggerated rural-urban categories.

To look at India as a network of urban systems, having a wide variety of landscapes and uses of land, of deeper connections between natural resources and people who use them – would need an over haul of conceptual frameworks. It would mean a fresh look at administration, at infrastructure, at revenue generation and use of natural resources. It would mean a more creative way at looking at the countrys human capital and potential – and a firm break from an outdated way of looking at work and livelihoods. But it may still be economically and ecologically less expensive than going down an imagined one way route of hyper-urbanization on one hand and empty, depleted hinterlands on the other.