How to manage urbanization

Urban areas are generally perceived to be expanding at the cost of displacing villagers and destroying villages. Even if their houses can be retained, villagers still lose their farms, farming and related livelihoods, being left only with cash compensation for purchased/ acquired farmland. Even if they are not cheated, as is quite often the case, and manage to get adequate cash, one time availability of a big sum of money brings its own problems and may not lead to durable, satisfying alternative livelihoods.

Different patterns of expanding urbanization need to be explored, an important aim being to protect village life with its many virtues, including sustainable livelihoods, instead of disrupting and dislocating it. Expansion of urban areas should not be intrusive and alienating, but integrate rural areas in ways which benefit  both sides. A related aim is to find ecologically protective ways of expanding urbanization.

Aspects of an alternative path of urbanization are examined here in the context of conditions in India, which may be adjusted according to conditions in other parts of world, if the broad thinking of these alternatives is found useful elsewhere too.

At the risk of some oversimplification, we may say that one leading pattern of sucking rural into urban areas in India has been for either the government or private builders to acquire/purchase the farmland of a village. Let us assume that a village has 1000 households and 60 per cent of them own land while 40 per cent are more or less landless. At the average of 5 acres per household let us assume that this village has 3000 acres land plus common land, pasture land, wasteland etc. amounting to about half of this, hence about 4500 acres of land ( other than the land on which houses, school etc. already exist). The common pattern is to try to get almost all of this land for urban housing and related infrastructure as per prevailing norms of desirable urban life-style. Simultaneously urban authorities get the responsibility of linking the new urban extension with the wider sewer, sanitation, water, road transport and energy connections, for which the established patterns are economically and ecologically expensive . It is likely that since this is a new urban extension rather far from the city-centre and public  transport is not very satisfactory, over-dependence on privately owned cars will be rather high. Overall greenery will be reduced significantly with this urbanization. Dense, ancient trees may be cut and in their place we may see more ornamental trees with very limited ecological role. Animals and birds will be reduced substantially. Along with the planned houses, a slum settlement  may come up , housing some of the construction workers or others who may provide some services needed to the newly extended city. This has been a familiar pattern of urban development in India.

However we should explore different patterns in which the urban can co-exist with more of the rural. Out of the nearly 4500 acres of village land, about one half  can still remain with villagers although at different sites—as orchards, forest-groves, pastures  or even crop-land, all of which should be organic. All this is of course linked to ensuring sustainable livelihoods and also to providing fresh healthy food to the new urban as well as old rural residents right in their own backyard.  There can be room for a limited number of dairy or other animals, confined to a clean fenced place but having room within it for animals to roam around. Communities can plan well ahead to organize their own daily bus transport , based on a careful survey of daily transport needs.

All this can be part of well-planned but different urban landscaping, much more original, interesting, in keeping with our own conditions and needs, as well as the rising new challenges like climate change, water conservation, reducing air and water pollution.

The new settlement must strive to be self-reliant in meeting its sanitation and water needs, with waste-segregation at source and adequate space left for composting and treatment. Dependence on linking to centralized sewer systems should be avoided. The planning should provide adequately for water harvesting and ponds, perhaps a lake also, as well as for rooftop and other decentralized solar energy ( which can meet a part of energy needs to start with). All this should result in many creative, decent livelihoods, and the first preference should be given to the poorer landless households of the original village, with support available also for training.

Some housing units should be set aside for economically weaker sections, who can pay in smaller installments, with preference for those who can provide some of the essential services. Planning for   marketplaces should emphasize meeting all essential needs close to home, combining utility with some exciting surprises, particularly for children, who should get their adequate space for play and picnics as well. Community organizations which link urban, rural and all sections of people would be encouraged.

In this pattern of urbanization there can be opportunities for protecting and preserving village and rural way of life even as city expands and in addition the environment of new urban settlements can be better protected. Sustainable livelihoods of many farmers in organic farming and horticulture can continue to co-exist, although on lesser land, while even the landless can have better opportunities in dairying, poultry, gardening, urban forestry and other livelihoods, even as several new kinds of livelihood opportunities also open up. There are better chances of social harmony and improved community life, as well as mutual cooperation for common goals of improving sanitation, conserving water and increasing greenery.

Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Man Over Machine and Protecting Earth For Children.

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