India is no stranger to urban life. It is the land of some of the oldest continuing cities in the world besides being home to the site of the famed prehistoric urban settlements of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. But the true dimensions of the great urban expansion it has experienced over the past three-quarters of a century, accelerating during globalisation, had rarely been fully appreciated. Until, of course, the massive reverse migrations triggered by Covid-19 lockdowns. As sources of income dried up with the large-scale loss of jobs, thousands of women, children and men trudged back to their villages to find refuge in relative economic and social security. They had to surmount great difficulties as all means of public transport had been suspended. No doubt some good Samaritans volunteered to provide succour in their distress but this mass reverse migration was a strong indictment of city planners who over decades left the people who actually build the cities and provide them with many essential services, to fend for themselves so far as shelter and other welfare needs were concerned.
The tough task of actually leading lives and making a living on scarce water, electricity and transport has largely been left to citizens. Many, like the residents of Dharavi in Mumbai or the thousands of migrants living in Delhi’s oxymoronic 135 urban villages and unauthorised colonies, have made themselves very useful contributors to the city, their ‘dismal living conditions’ notwithstanding. In Dharavi, an incredible half-million people live on a two-square-kilometre plot of land. They are descendants of migrant labour who lost their jobs as the city’s textile mills shut down to make way for the emergence of Mumbai as a centre of finance.
Ironically, the very construction industry that employs thousands of migrants rarely shows any interest in building low-cost homes for workers, mostly concentrating its energies instead on luxury condominiums that fetch fat profits. Recent plans to redevelop 100-year-old chawls in Mumbai clearly show that the government and builders seem to be more interested in monetising the real estate value of the chawls, located in up-market areas, rather than in the continuation of the chawls community and culture that have developed over so much time. People used to living in four-storey buildings are being offered accommodation in 40-floor apartment buildings with its associated high maintenance costs.
So, it is not surprising that the Indian state was caught completely off-guard when an exodus began to the villages as thousands were thrown out of jobs with hotels, restaurants, manufacturing and trade shutting down completely. Many were thrown out of their homes too, as with no wages they couldn’t afford rents. The blame has to be shared, among others, by city planners who took the easy mechanical way to urbanisation, skipping over the difficult parts. Had a sufficient stock of government housing been created for migrant workers, this great reverse migration could perhaps have been avoided.
If the case of Delhi as the largest urban conglomerate of the country is taken as an example it will highlight the general direction that urban development has taken in India since 1947.
Like in many other countries, industrialisation, migration and urbanisation are phenomena that have been witnessed in India for well over the past hundred years. But it’s only crises, particularly health emergencies, that force recognition of problems arising out of large concentrations of people in cities. They also spark action in the form of urban renewal or city planning. It is not surprising therefore that the process of urban planning had a relatively early start in our country, behind Europe but ahead of most of what is known as the developing world. It was the plague epidemics at the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries that set off the efforts to provide healthy living conditions for migrant workers in Bombay (now Mumbai) and Calcutta (now Kolkata), two of the three main cities founded by the British in India.
In those days the best-known name in city planning was that of Frenchman Georges-Egene Haussmann, the man who was responsible for establishing the modern city of Paris after literally demolishing its medieval past. Between 1850 and 1870, Haussmann, officially charged by Emperor Napoleon III to turn Paris into a showcase, demolished most of the congested parts of the city, replacing it with wide boulevards, uniform buildings, parks and squares which are the hallmarks of many modern cities. Haussmann served as the inspiration for town planners in many parts of the world including the United States and even India.
By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Haussmann’s influence had spread to Indian shores as well, as a plague epidemic forced authorities to improve living conditions in India’s crowded cities of Calcutta and Bombay. In 1898 the Bombay Improvement Trust was constituted, which over the course of the next three decades demolished thousands of buildings and built new four-storeyed one-room apartments for migrant workers, creating what are known as chawls. More than 200 such chawls were built which consisted of thousands of functional living units initially built for the single migrant worker but eventually occupied by entire families. They developed a unique and vibrant culture that is in danger of extinction now.
A few years later the Calcutta Improvement Trust (CIT) was set up (1912) which went about its work in a more methodical manner, having learnt from Bombay’s experience. It planned road networks to open up the congested city and helped in urban renewal to introduce hygienic buildings. Much of that city remains in place to this day. Going about things in a more orderly fashion, CIT head C.H. Bompas, an Indian Civil Service official, engaged E.P. Richards as the chief engineer. Though the mandate of the CIT was just that – ‘improvement’ – and not town planning, Richards went beyond its mandate and partially began city planning by drawing up a plan of road networks and building houses to relieve congestion. He was influenced deeply by the ideas of Haussmann. The approach that Richards adopted was one of slum repair in which the emphasis was upon the physical aspects of improving sanitation and opening up congested spaces by removing obstructive buildings to admit more light and fresh air. To deal with overcrowding, he came up with the idea of setting up suburban or satellite towns with good communication channels with Calcutta, thus laying the foundation for the concept of regional planning in India.
The tough task of actually leading lives and making a living on scarce water, electricity and transport has largely been left to citizens.
Delhi’s turn for urban improvement came later as it had been relegated to the background, having been the centre of the failed uprising of 1857. The British decision to shift the capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911 revived the fortunes of the city. It had seen the building of a number of planned cities in the past like Shahjahanabad. So, when New Delhi was built by the British, it was the eighth in a series believed to have begun about 2000 years earlier. It was completed in 1931 but a few years later an improvement trust had to be set up for Delhi as well to renew its older, congested parts. With its rich past, Delhi belonged to a special category. But the new city, known as Delhi Imperial Zone (DIZ), with its posh offices, huge bungalows and exclusive shopping areas, could hardly accommodate the millions of migrants who poured into the city following the partition of the country. As migrants from East and West Pakistan flooded into the nearest cities, preventing overcrowding and haphazard growth became the overriding objective of planners at the cost of other important human factors.
If the case of Delhi as the largest urban conglomerate of the country is taken as an example, it will highlight the general direction that urban development has taken in India since 1947. As impromptu settlements sprang up over the outlying parts of the then-existing city, the authorities realised the urgency of introducing some order in this haphazard growth of what was after all the country’s capital town. The Delhi Development Authority was therefore set up in 1957 and after five years of intense deliberations within a group that included town planners and a Ford Foundation team, this new authority prepared a 20-year Master Plan for Delhi. It outlined the expected growth of Delhi and the measures required to meet its social, economic and cultural requirements, particularly as it was the capital of a colony that had now become independent. Two more such Master Plans have followed but planning has mostly remained based on the concept of land use under which the physical use of land is emphasised. The concept of master plans has been adopted by many other upcoming cities too. Regional planning, introduced by Richards, has been adopted by most.
As opposed to this purely physical approach to the question of how to deal with organic but unplanned urban settlements, an alternative holistic scheme was suggested a hundred years back by polymath Patrick Geddes, a botanist-turned-sociologist-turned town planner who was known for his close association with Rabindranath Tagore. A contemporary of Richards, Geddes had different ideas and was opposed to the imposition of Western culture in town planning in India. Geddes was particularly critical of programmes that ignored the needs of people and destroyed the housing and social life of the urban community, especially the urban poor. Geddes’s approach was rested on two principles – ‘conservative surgery’ and ‘folk planning’. He saw the city as an “inseparably interwoven structure” akin to a flower. “Each of the various specialists remains too closely concentrated upon his single specialism… Each… seizes firmly upon one petal of a six-lobed flower and tears it apart from the whole.” He was convinced that town planning must be based on the principle that there were connections: between people, between people and the planet, between people and buildings, between culture and place.
It is not surprising that the Indian state was caught completely off-guard when an exodus began to the villages as thousands were thrown out of jobs with hotels, restaurants, manufacturing and trade shutting down completely.
Geddes is known for planning the Israeli capital, Tel Aviv. He has also been at the receiving end of accusations of his ‘imperialistic’ motives, mostly unjust charges. But if Indian town planners paid a little heed to his philosophy perhaps the pain and agony of the reverse migrations could have been avoided.